The Corner

Culture

On Wilson’s Progressive Racism

I still haven’t decided what I think about the tumult at Princeton. I’m against caving into the mob. I’m also against airbrushing history. But I also really hate Woodrow Wilson. I’ll keep pondering. 

But in the meantime I think it’s worth pushing back on the idea that Wilson’s racism stemmed from the fact he was a Southerner. Yes, it’s absolutely true that emotionally he was very invested in the South and believed it was a shame that the North had won. But as an intellectual, his racism was not really a Southern thing, it was a progressive thing. From my book:

Wilson’s status as the most racist president of the twentieth century is usually attributed to the fact that he was a southerner, indeed the first southern president since Reconstruction. And it is true that he harbored many Dixiecrat attitudes. His resegregation of the federal government, his support for antimiscegenation laws, his antagonism toward black civil rights leaders as well as antilynching laws, and his notorious fondness for D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation all testify to that. But in fact Wilson’s heritage was incidental to his racism. After all, he was in no way a traditional defender of the South. He embraced Lincoln as a great leader—hardly a typical southern attitude. Moreover, as a believer in consolidating federal power, Wilson, in his opinion on states’ rights, ran counter to those who complained about the “War of Northern Aggression.” No, Wilson’s racism was “modern” and consistent both with the Darwinism of the age and with the Hegelianism of his decidedly Germanic education. In The State and elsewhere, Wilson can sound downright Hitlerian. He informs us, for example, that some races are simply more advanced than others. These “progressive races” deserve progressive systems of government, while backward races or “stagnant nationalities,” lacking the necessary progressive “spirit,” may need an authoritarian form of government (a resurgence of this vision can be found among newly minted “realists” in the wake of the Iraq war). This is what offended him so mightily about the post–Civil War Reconstruction. He would never forgive the attempt to install an “inferior race” in a position superior to southern “Aryans.”

Wilson was also a forthright defender of eugenics. As governor of New Jersey—a year before he was sworn in as President—he signed legislation that created, among other things, the Board of Examiners of Feebleminded, Epileptics, and Other Defectives. Under the law, the state could determine when “procreation is inadvisable” for criminals, prisoners, and children living in poorhouses. “Other Defectives” was a fairly open category.17 

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