Princeton has decided to keep Woodrow Wilson's name on its School of Public and International Affairs, despite student protests as to his racism, while acknowledging that Wilson had this character flaw. Yet that character flaw was his political strength, making possible his elections. Can anyone think of a scenario in which Wilson could have won the Democratic nomination in 1912 or 1916 if he had spoken out against racism and white supremacy?
I posted this question to the Alternate History group on Facebook and received some interesting responses. I pointed out that Wilson was the only Democratic president between 1896 and 1932. In no case during that period did the Dems win 50% of the vote. They desperately needed the Southern Redshirt racists in their coalition to win the presidency. In 1916, Wilson won re-election by an extremely close margin in the electoral college, just 3,000 votes in California and 58 votes in New Hampshire (popular vote margin was 600,000 or so). If he had "seen the light" and denounced racism as president, is there any conceivable chance he would have won re-election?
In 1912, in a four-candidate race -- William Howard Taft for the Republicans; Teddy Roosevelt on the Bull Moose ticket; Eugene Debs on the Socialist ticket -- Wilson managed to garner nearly 42% of the vote.
The only way the Southern Redshirt racists could have been denied power in coalition with Wilson was if the Republicans unified around a pro-civil rights candidate like Joseph B. Foraker, but Teddy Roosevelt had a falling out with him more intense than his falling out with Taft.
I argue that Wilson would not have been elected in 1912 or 1916 if he had disavowed segregation and white supremacy. He could have perhaps kept his morality if he stayed in the ivory tower, but as an aspiring man of the people, he had to embrace their bigotries in order to survive politically. And it looks like, in fact, he was indeed a "sincere" racist and bigot, in that he believed "scientific" theories of racial superiority and inferiority, the kind that led to Nazi concepts of an Aryan race. Like the vast majority of white Americans of that era, he was a white supremacist. Even Teddy Roosevelt, who entertained Booker T. Washington at the White House, was a racist by contemporary standards.
Others point out that Wilson was more than just the typical racist of his time. It went beyond a passive lack of leadership. Wilson refused to appoint blacks to token positions, as other presidents did, and he actively enforced segregation the District of Columbia and federal government offices. He also actively praised the Ku Klux Klan.
A thoughtful essay by Maxwell Anderson on Wilson and the legacy of racism at Princeton and in America in general is here. He writes:
What if I as a white man were living in a majority black society and majority black Princeton, where a hundred years ago a black president of the US and of Princeton led a majority black country and black university? What if that president talked openly about the inferiority of white people and argued people like me should always be segregated and kept at a safe distance from the black race?
If I go there, I have a lot more sympathy. If I think about it like that, Wilson’s name could feel like a Confederate flag feels to some — a painful symbol of a shameful part of our history.