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“Make them own it” was a call to hold the Democratic Party and the left fully accountable for its past and present misdeeds. Continuing to honor Woodrow Wilson, through the Woodrow Wilson Center and places named for him, has become incongruous with claims of justice and righting past wrongs. Indeed, controversy over Wilson’s name on a school in the District of Columbia raises an additional issue of past injustice and present claims for social justice.
Celebrated to this day as a founder of modern progressive government, Woodrow Wilson created the environment within which the Klu Klux Klan reemerged with a vengeance.
After seeing the film, an enthusiastic Wilson reportedly remarked: “It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” African-American audiences openly wept at the film’s malicious portrayal of blacks, while Northern white audiences cheered. The film swept the nation. Riots broke out in major cities (Boston and Philadelphia, among others), and it was denied release in many other places (Chicago, Ohio, Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Minneapolis). Gangs of whites roamed city streets attacking blacks. In Lafayette, Indiana, a white man killed a black teenager after seeing the movie. Thomas Dixon reveled in its triumph. “The real purpose of my film,” he confessed gleefully, “was to revolutionize Northern audiences that would transform every man into a Southern partisan for life.”
As the NAACP fought against the film and tried unsuccessfully to get it banned, the Ku Klux Klan successfully used it to launch a massive recruiting campaign that would bring in millions of members. Griffith later regretted the racial prejudice that his film promoted. He tried to make amends by making INTOLERANCE, a film attacking race prejudice. But INTOLERANCE never approached the success of THE BIRTH OF A NATION.
Yet, the Woodrow Wilson Center still proudly bears his name. It plays host to national and international leaders, who should be troubled by association with President Wilson’s legacy. Notably, on the 50th anniversary of the Woodrow Wilson Center, they conducted an afternoon forum entitled “Wilson’s Legacy Reconsidered.”
In that setting, they invited one African-American to speak in the entire program. He spoke on the domestic policy panel. Devin Fergus, a former Wilson Center Fellow and professor of history, got enough of the facts out to then bury them in lots of context. There was no expression righteous wrath against what is now a reliably leftist domestic and foreign policy forum at the center of national political power.
“When the [Wilson] administration goes about segregating federal employees, federal offices, they said one of the main reasons is, ‘We don’t want black supervisors over white clerks.’ So there is a great anxiety, particularly in this window of time when you have economic concentration and a sense of class precarity, you have to address that in many ways by rolling back the access of other populations… By targeting and addressing public employment of African Americans, you’re targeting and addressing their primary vehicle for upward mobility.”
“It’s not simply what happens during the Wilson administration, but what also happens at the state level, what also happens in subsequent administrations, whether it’s Harding, whether it’s Coolidge. Coolidge sees that you don’t have to address African Americans, so what does he do? He takes a silent role on the Dyer Bill [on] anti-lynching because he sees that you don’t have to appeal to or address this population.”
Towards the end of the audience question period, a man asked about Woodrow Wilson High School. It was beginning to become the center of conversation about both Wilson’s actions and about consequences of those actions and inactions in office. This public school has been a crown jewel of the city for decades. The neighborhood is apparently now made up of rich white liberals and leftists.
There are arguments for and against renaming the school, and Trygve Throntveit, a white liberal scholar who has made much of his career on Wilson, made them in 2015: “Erasing Woodrow Wilson, Evading History?” He was not asked to offer the same nuanced (while carefully avoiding the whole Birth of a Nation episode) discussion on the world order panel of the Wilson Center 50th Anniversary program. Then, a Washington Post story on 10 March 2019 inadvertently raised quite another issue in our current racial politics [emphasis added]:
[T}here’s talk of erasing the name of the nation’s 28th president from the school — talk forcing the wealthy, largely white neighborhood around the school to confront its own history.
Wilson, a Southern Democrat and two-term president who moved to the White House in 1913, was a staunch supporter of segregation, setting back African Americans in their quest for civil rights.
So far we are clearly dealing with just the symbolic act of renaming a school. But then the story takes another turn.
When Wilson took office, the District had a large black population and the federal government provided these residents well-paying jobs and careers. But Wilson impeded the progress of the District’s black population by further segregating the federal workforce and making it harder for black residents to land public-service jobs.
Wilson’s policies contributed to the decimation of vibrant African American neighborhoods in Northwest Washington, according to Alcione Amos, curator at Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum.
But starting in the 1920s, the federal government began using eminent domain to acquire much of this prime real estate from residents, Amos said. At the time, D.C. did not have local governance, so the federal government controlled real estate.
This process continued for decades until the black communities were gone. Wilson, which opened in 1935 as an all-white school, was built on land adjacent to these neighborhoods. Lafayette and Alice Deal, which feed into Wilson High, also opened as all-white schools.
“Woodrow Wilson created the ideal environment to destroy African American communities,” Amos said.
Think that through. Here we have a clearly defined, compact, geographic area in which federal policy was exercised to destroy, to ethnically cleanse, a black community. Surely it is only proper to now exercise that same federal power on this same defined area of the District of Columbia to make things right. Housing is incredibly expensive. Well-made, affordable housing is needed.
Black Lives Matter clearly demands reparations. Now serious contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are speaking out in favor of reparations:
Two leading Democratic presidential candidates — U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — have reportedly said they support reparations for black Americans affected by slavery, reflecting a shift in the importance of race and identity issues within the party.
Make. Them. Own. It.
My point is that the Wilson High situation lets us turn the left’s rhetoric on itself. Responding that you and I don’t owe X diverts the focus back where the left wants, so resist that urge and consider the greater effectiveness of making them own it. If the left believes its own talk, it is time to pay up, and here is the perfect case. Exercise eminent domain *again* and turn the parlor pink leftists’ fancy digs into affordable housing units.
Maybe we could even take a page from Mao—send the displaced apparatchiks and nomenklatura to offices in a farm state.Published in