Black History Month: whom do we accommodate?

In 1935 Bruce M. Wright was accepted to Princeton and awarded a merit scholarship. When he arrived on campus the administration realized Wright was black, and they refused to enroll him.

Heermance-letter-previewThis isn’t all that interesting or unusual, because it was so normal. We have all heard these sorts of stories before. I’m telling tis one now because I think it is worth looking at what the white men of Princeton said about it at the time. You know, so that maybe we won’t be doomed to repeat it and all that.

In explaining the University’s change of mind, Radcliffe Heermance, the dean of admissions, shared with no intent at irony that, “Princeton University does not discriminate against any race, color, or creed. This is clearly set forth in the original charter of the college and the tradition has been maintained throughout the life of the University”

Heerman went on to explain that he in fact likes black people, “I speak as one who has always been particularly interested in the colored race, because I have had very pleasant relations with your race…”.

He went on to explain that he could not come to school there as he would be the only black person and hence would feel lonely. He also shared that there are quite a number of southern students at Princeton and they would not like sharing their school with a black person. They would make Wright to feel unwelcome.

So Wright was sent home against his will.

In other words, Heermance, with no intent of irony, told a black scholarship recipient that he could not attend Princeton, because white students didn’t want him there, but that this didn’t constitute racism. Because Princeton’s charter stated that they don’t discriminate. It was obvious is both Princeton’s actions and explanation how they ranked and valued humans. The racism of white students was acceptable, worth accommodating, but the presence of a black student was not.

America as a body, has decades and decades of practice doing racist things and explaining that it isn’t racism. Such is evident in the original Constitution, in the way our economy functions, and in so many official documents, judgements, and practices in so many places, locales, and institutions, that trying to separate out racism from these things is like trying to extract the salt from a baked loaf of bread.

I am not sure if this is possible with bread, but I have hope for America. But if it is to happen we cannot over simplify the task at hand or take explanations at face value. We have to step back and evaluate the consequences of our actions and the values they make evident.

And we have to change.

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