Racial Divide After Protests at Princeton University

NJ Spotlight News | December 11, 2015 | Education, People

By Briana Vannozzi

“We’re here, we’ve been here, we ain’t leaving.” They weren’t expecting the national debate that would follow their 32-hour sit-in and now members of the Black Justice League are defending their protests, after many on Princeton University’s campus say it’s created more of a racial divide.

“I think that campus has always been divided and these particular sets of instances have just highlighted that and made people kind of confront the issues at hand instead of ignoring them or becoming apathetic towards them,” said Ozi Obi-Onuoha, a student and member of the Black Justice League.

The university took swift action. It’s now convening a special trustee committee to collect observations and opinions about Woodrow Wilson – a Princeton and U.S. President. And to “consider specifically whether or not changes should be made in how the University recognizes his legacy.”

Members of the Black Justice League demanded his name be removed from the School of Public Policy and for the university to acknowledge his segregationist views. Assani York said, “Which one will they think is more important? In the grand scheme of things the way that students feel about his racist sentiments or xenophobic sentiments or the fact that he created public policy?”

Barksdale Maynard, the Woodrow Wilson biographer and lecturer at Princeton University’s Department of Art & Archeology said “he was a southerner he was born in the south before the Civil War and he did adhere to segregationist views as unfortunately was extremely common among northerners both north and south, and he did undertake to segregate the federal workforce which we deplore today.”

He added there’s a major irony in targeting Wilson through the protest. “He was famous while being the President of Princeton for being a progressive, even a dangerous liberal because he was setting Princeton in a new direction that was really about intellectual attainment and not who your dad was, how rich your background was. Wilson had very modern, progressive ideas, in fact it got him thrown out of Princeton for being too liberal for the conservative board of trustees here.”

Race and economic status have long created a hushed battleground at Ivy League schools and students say this debate has drawn a clear line in the sand.

Sophomore Josh Freeman joined the group Princeton Open Campus Coalition. It formed shortly after the sit-in and after students say they were being called racists and white sympathizers for disagreeing with Wilson’s name removal. “This isn’t the way race discussions should be happening on campus, we should be trying to work together, not calling me a traitor because I disagree.”

Devon Naftzger, another member of Princeton Open Campus Coalition added, “People were afraid to speak their opinions, especially if they disagreed with the demands or tactics of the protestors because they feared vilification.”

Naftzger credits the Black Justice League for bringing up a topic rarely known or discussed. That’s confirmed by Princeton University alum and NJTV correspondent Michael Aron. “Absolutely not, no one knew that Woodrow Wilson harbored racist views while we all went to the Woodrow Wilson School.”

Students say there’s been some divisive rhetoric. Names being thrown like traitor, white sympathizer. Can you respond to that? Obi-Onuoha answered “I really can’t because i haven’t heard that, or heard about that language being used by the Black Justice League, if it has I assume its been used by other people.”

Members of that special trustee committee plan to hold in-person conversations on campus early next semester. A university spokesperson said they’re refraining from comment until more information is gathered but as one alum put it, if we hold all our historic public figures to the cultural standards of today we’re going to see a whole lot of buildings come down.

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