Racial politics are convulsing university campuses across the United States. After Obama’s election in 2008, we heard much about the United States being a post-racial, rainbow society. In “post-Ferguson America”, this optimistic narrative has been undermined. The University of Missouri, which was certainly plagued by overt racist behaviour (think frat boys shouting the n-word), was the epicentre of the current wave of campus unrest. The turmoil, however, has reached impeccably liberal colleges such as Yale, where students have complained about such issues such as the lack of recognition of minority leaders in campus building names and public artwork, which is clearly a very different sort of issue. As a recent Bloggingheads dialogue between Glenn Loury and John McWhorter illustrates, reasonable people can disagree about whether the deletion of the names of racist historical figures from campuses is necessary for the creation of an inclusive learning environment.
At Yale, students and faculty have energetically debate whether to rename Calhoun College, which is named after a Yale alumnus who was an ardent defender of slavery in antebellum America. At Princeton, the main issue appears to relate to the memory of Woodrow Wilson, the Princeton President who went on to become the President of the United States and who was notoriously racist, even by the standards of his era. For the controversy at Princeton, see here. A statue of Wilson was recently removed from the campus of UT Austin out of deference to the feelings of the university’s Black community. It was removed at the same time a statue of Robert E. Lee was dismantled.
As someone who researches social memory (i.e., how ideas about the past are used by social actors in the present), it is fascinating to witness the struggles over Woodrow Wilson’s memory, particularly as people at both ends of the US political spectrum are attacking the man, albeit for very different reasons. Progressive revile Wilson because he was a segregationist who screened Birth of A Nation in the White House and ensured that racial equality would not become part of the Covenant of the League of Nations. People on the right attack Wilson because he introduced federal income tax and an advocate of US membership in the League, which was, of course, a precursor of the detested United Nations. Back in June, Professor Randy Barnett, a conservative constitutional scholar, published an op-ed in the Washington Post attacking Wilson for his racism (see here). Although Barnett’s WaPo piece focuses on Wilson’s racist ideas (attacking Wilson for his racism is a bit like shooting fish in the barrel), in other contexts Barnett has also written critically about Wilson’s legacy and has essentially condemned the Progressives for putting the US on the road to socialism through the introduction of income tax and support for campaign finance reform.
I’m not saying that Barnett’s criticisms of Wilson are entirely valid or that Barnett’s own worldview is coherent. After all Barnett is an “originalist” who venerates the creators of the US Constitution some of whom were actual slaveholders and thus worse than Wilson. However, it is interesting to note that Wilson’s memory is now being assaulted from two different directions. People from both Black Left and the Tea Party Right are using the ritual of a rhetorical attack on Wilson as a way of outlining their own ideological positions for the benefit of spectators.