Academic Bigotry is Back, Thanks to Amy Wax - Higher Education
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Academic Bigotry is Back, Thanks to Amy Wax

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Dr.  Amy Laura Wax, who holds the Robert Mundheim chair at the University of Pennsylvania, recently gave a speech in Washington, D.C. She has made herself a celebrity among academic bigots.

Frank Wu

Using a term she coined “cultural distance nationalism,” she stated: “We are better off if our country is dominated numerically, demographically, politically, at least in fact if not formally, by people from the First World, from the West, than by people from countries that had failed to advance.”

She continued: “Let us be candid. Europe and the First World, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly White for now; and the Third World, although mixed, contains a lot of non-White people. Embracing cultural distance, cultural distance nationalism, means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more Whites and fewer non-Whites.”

The full transcript of her address is available. They hardly exonerate her.

She stated, for example, that “the fear of being accused of racism, White supremacy, xenophobia has cowed and paralyzed” politicians “across the spectrum.” They have been apparently rendered unwilling to protect what she calls “our legacy population” threatened by what she has dubbed “revenge or adversary multiculturalism.” Unlike them, she called for “push back against the ungrateful habit of blaming the West by pointing repeatedly to the self-inflicted wounds of the Third World.”

Her comments show the semblance of scholarship. She rejected the notion that people can become Americans by accepting its ideals, because “many, indeed most, inhabitants of the Third World, don’t necessarily share our ideas and beliefs; others pay lip service, but don’t really comprehend them.”

She also has begun a project of reviving the reputation of the late British politician Enoch Powell. In 1968, he gave what has come to be known as the “Rivers of Blood” speech, arguing the English were mad to allow immigration that would build their own funeral pyre. Like Powell and others, she foresees a clash of civilizations. In the coded language of conspiracy theorists, race suicide also occurs with intermarriage.

Wax is extending her 2017 op-ed, co-authored with San Diego Law professor Larry Alexander, in which they argued that African-Americans, Latinos and Native Americans — and “some working-class Whites” — were not on average achieving socioeconomic success because of their own “single-parent antisocial habits” that were not matched to “an advanced free-market economy.” They celebrated bourgeoise values they considered White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant (though available to others to adopt).

Wax also gave an interview in which she contended African-American students “rarely” did well in her class or overall, conceding she had no data because it “is a closely guarded secret, as you can imagine.”

The dean of Penn Law, Ted Ruger, issued a statement the week following Wax’s latest attack, disavowing her. He said, “The reported remarks espouse a bigoted theory of white cultural and ethnic supremacy; at worst, they are racist.”

Wax and her ilk serve a purpose. They show that bigotry continues to thrive, even among educated persons in intellectual settings, however distinguished the titles held by the individuals or prestigious the institutions that employ them.

The animus is explicit rather than implicit. Many of us are aware of the problem, but for others who would doubt its extent, this type of open prejudice should be beyond denial. When it is exposed, some observers might mutter that these demagogues are saying what others are thinking. They aspire to applause that is anything but polite; it is anger they intend to provoke.

These attitudes are not without cleverness. Wax has taken care to emphasize that she detests people who engage in certain behaviors, which she aggregates together as a community with a specific culture; she isn’t arguing that races are biologically superior or inferior, at least not in such terms.

Yet, critics who generalize in this manner apply double standards. Whites who exhibit the same conduct that is condemned among people of color are individuals, not examples of a type. Many interpret the actions of people with whom they identify more sympathetically than they do the same behavior among those whom they regard as others.

Georgetown professor Paul Butler, a former prosecutor who studies criminal justice, has pointed out that White families in general want to help someone in the family who has a drug addiction, sending them to rehab rather than locking up their own kin.

Wax has not yet attacked Asian immigrants with the same rhetoric she has reserved for Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans. Perhaps she has been persuaded by the model minority myth that treats Asian Americans as if they were honorary whites. That is why it is especially important for those whom are not direct targets, like progressive whites as well, to object. What is at stake is principle rather than self-interest.

The worst aspect of Wax’s incitement is that she makes herself out to be a victim. Attempting to pre-empt the charge of racism, she and her supporters suppose those who oppose a white nationalist agenda are merely “playing the race card.” To respond to a hateful ideology by denouncing it is not mere political correctness. Relieving a teacher who doubts her students’ abilities, based on their racial background, from the responsibility of educating them is appropriate. Again and again, however, those who would discriminate are attempting to justify their intolerance as another opinion deserving respect. They assert a freedom of speech they would deny their lessers in their racial ranking.

It is important to take seriously the arguments advanced by Wax. The claims are wrong factually. They are reprehensible morally. But she is not alone. Her policy proposals once were the law of the land and could influence decision-makers yet again. She is symbolic. She is being cheered on.

Whites like her who prefer not to be in the minority are demonstrating that the rhetoric of color-blindness is not reassuring. They wish to maintain majority status and the privileges associated with it.

There is a more positive vision of our democracy. It embraces our diversity.

Frank H. Wu is the William L. Prosser Distinguished Professor, University of California Hastings College of the Law.

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