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Progressive Racism
Today’s progressives should consider the sobering history of Woodrow Wilson’s segregation policy.

Woodrow Wilson

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One hundred years ago today, Woodrow Wilson brought Jim Crow to the North. He had been inaugurated on March 4, 1913. At a cabinet meeting on April 11, his postmaster general, Albert S. Burleson, suggested that the new administration segregate the railway mail service; and treasury secretary William G. McAdoo, who would soon become Wilson’s son-in-law, chimed in to signal his support. Wilson followed their lead. He had made a bid for the African-American vote in 1912, and he had attracted the support of figures such as W. E. B. Du Bois, but, as he put it at the meeting, he had made “no promises in particular to Negroes, except to do them justice.” Burleson’s proposal he welcomed, but he wanted “the matter adjusted in a way to make the least friction.”

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Today, self-styled progressives are wont, with considerable abandon, to label as racists those who object to their attempts at social engineering. They would do well to rein in their rhetorical excesses and curb their enthusiasm for the administrative state — for the Progressives of yesteryear, on whom they model themselves, really were racists in the precise and proper sense of the term, and in formulating public policy they were true to their principles.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ordinary Americans may generally have been in the grips of ethnic prejudice of one sort or another. The Progressives of that time were not, however, ordinary men, and they knew it. Like their successors today, they dominated America’s universities. With some justification, they thought of themselves as an intellectual elite; and, with rare exceptions, they enthusiastically embraced eugenics and racial theory. That the inchoate racial prejudices of their contemporaries were grounded in fact they took to be a truth taught by science; and, being devotees of rational administration to the exclusion of all other concerns, they insisted that public policy conform to the dictates of the new racial science.

Wilson, our first professorial president, was a case in point. He was the very model of a modern Progressive, and he was recognized as such. He prided himself on having pioneered the new science of rational administration, and he shared the conviction, dominant among his brethren, that African-Americans were racially inferior to whites. With the dictates of Social Darwinism and the eugenics movement in mind, in 1907, he campaigned in Indiana for the compulsory sterilization of criminals and the mentally retarded; and in 1911, while governor of New Jersey, he proudly signed into law just such a bill.

Prior to the segregation of the civil service in 1913, appointments had been made solely on merit as indicated by the candidate’s performance on the civil-service examination. Thereafter, racial discrimination became the norm. Photographs came to be required at the time of application, and African-Americans knew they would not be hired. The existing work force was segregated. Many African-Americans were dismissed. In the postal service, others were transferred to the dead-letter office, where they had no contact with the general public. Those who continued to work in municipal post offices labored behind screens — out of sight and out of mind. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the National Independent Political League objected to the new policy, Wilson — a Presbyterian elder who was nothing if not high-minded — vigorously defended it, arguing that segregation was in the interest of African-Americans. For 35 years, segregation in the civil service would be public policy. It was only after Adolf Hitler gave eugenics and “scientific racism” a bad name that segregation came to seem objectionable.



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