Blog Credo

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

H.L. Mencken

Friday, November 20, 2015

How Racist Was Woodrow Wilson?

Dylan Matthews has a piece wherein he argues that not only was Woodrow Wilson unusually racist in terms of 2015, but he was unusually racist in terms of 1915. He notes that Wilson began re-segregating the federal workforce at the suggestion of his Postmaster General and Treasury Secretary.  So clearly, these men were also as racist or more racist than Wilson.  The head of the IRS in Georgia said the proper place for a "Negro was the cornfield."

Matthews points out that civil rights activists like WEB DuBois and Oswald Garrison Villard (a descendant of William Lloyd Garrison) were very critical of Wilson.  But that doesn't really put Wilson out of touch with his times.  If anything, DuBois and others were out of touch with the times.

The period from 1880-1930 were perhaps the worst for race relations in the country's history.  Contrary to popular opinion, Jim Crow laws didn't clamp down immediately after the Civil War.  It wasn't until the Populist movement sought to mobilize poor white and poor black farmers that the power structure of the South moved strongly to completely isolate black southerners.

This was the time period when county fairs held eugenics competitions to see which babies were most "Nordic."  They'd measure the head shape and the blueness of a child's eyes and award the happy couple for producing superior racial offspring.  Hitler actually borrowed from American eugenicists.

This was a time period when the Ku Klux Klan pretty much ran the state of Indiana, and Warren Harding - generally considered much better on race than Wilson - met Klan leaders in the Oval Office.  Wilson's adulation of Birth of a Nation shouldn't be considered without noting that it was popular among broad swaths of the American public.

Wilson's approval of the "Lost Cause" interpretation of Reconstruction was the dominant interpretation of the time.  William Dunning was at Columbia University - not Ole Miss - when he described Reconstruction as a crime upon the South.  Howard Beale wrote that Republicans only perpetrated Reconstruction so they could win votes from a naive and compliant black populace.  Reconstruction was seen as a crime committed upon the South as a way of balancing the scales against the Southern crime of secession.  "See, we are both wrong!  Now, let's all get along, and we'll forget the realities of race in America."

Matthews brings up Wilson's arbitrary defeat of a racial equality statement in the League covenant, but then notes that this was done to appease the British and their own racist policies.  He lauds Teddy Roosevelt in comparison, a man who called the entire Colombian legislature a "pack of dagos" and backed down from having Booker T. Washington to a formal White House dinner.  The same Roosevelt who caved to racist pressure over the Brownsville Affair.

You can make a strong case that the difference between Roosevelt and Wilson was that Roosevelt was forced to be more racist than he really was by political realities.  Wilson was a dyed in the wool white supremacist.  But you can't argue that political pressure was enough to make Roosevelt cave on his principles, and then argue that Wilson was somehow out of step with the times.

Wilson - like many educated Southerners - was a paternalist, believing strongly in black inferiority, but also in the responsibility of whites to take care of this "child-like" race.  So while his white supremacist views were ironclad and inflexible, he was probably towards the more enlightened edge of white Southerners - again, not saying much.

But was he notably out of step with an America that banned the Chinese from entering this country because of their race?  Or a country that risked going to war with Japan over racism in the San Francisco schools?  Or a country that stole and kept the Philippines because they assumed "brown people" couldn't grasp self-rule?

Wilson was a racist - unapologetic and vocal in his racism.  Students who are protesting at Princeton got that right.

But sadly, he was very much in tune with his times.

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