Don’t Just Revile Amy Wax -- Rebut Her

Outrage does not and cannot refute what she said -- only facts can do that, argues Jonathan Zimmerman.

July 31, 2019
 
 
Amy Wax

Asian Americans represent 5 percent of American public high school students and 22.9 percent of Harvard University’s freshman class. Last year, ACT results showed that every racial group took a dip in their average scores, except one: Asian Americans. Unsurprisingly, they also have the highest rate of participation in test-prep courses.

But law professor Amy Wax reportedly thinks the United States should favor “first-world” immigrants who are mostly white over “third-world” immigrants who aren’t, because people in the first category are more likely to share our national values of individualism, hard work and the rule of law.

That’s what Wax told a conference in Washington earlier this month, triggering outrage at the University of Pennsylvania -- where Wax and I both teach -- and beyond. More than 1,000 people signed petitions calling on the university to relieve her of her teaching duties or to fire her altogether.

Meanwhile, the dean of Penn’s law school released a statement describing Wax’s comments as “repugnant” and at odds with the university’s core values. “At best, the reported remarks espouse a bigoted theory of white cultural and ethnic supremacy; at worst, they are racist,” Dean Ted Ruger wrote.

But simply calling Wax’s comments racist -- and leaving it at that -- actually forsakes our foremost institutional value, which is knowledge itself. I understand and share the public outrage at Wax’s remarks, but outrage does not and cannot refute what Wax said. Only facts can do that.

And the facts are not on her side. The idea that that people from the first world (which is mostly white) make better Americans than people from the third world (which is mostly nonwhite) isn’t just bigoted. It’s also false.

If you think otherwise, have a look at a 2012 report by the Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans.” Asian Americans are nearly twice as likely as the average American adult to have a college degree. They have higher median annual household incomes and wealth.

Asian Americans are also deeply committed to hard work as a route to success. Nearly 70 percent say people can get ahead if they work hard, while just 58 percent of all American adults agree. Almost 40 percent of Asian Americans actually said that parents from their countries of origin put too much pressure on their children to succeed, while 60 percent said that American parents don’t pressure their kids enough.

Finally, Asian Americans stand out for their dedication to family. Over half say a successful marriage is one of the most important things in life, as compared to just 34 percent of all American adults. Two-thirds of Asian Americans say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life, while only 50 percent of all U.S. adults agree.

Their choices and behaviors reflect these values, too. They’re more likely than other American adults to be married, their newborns are less likely to have an unmarried mother and their children are more likely to grow up in a household with two married parents.

Other nonwhite immigrants have also demonstrated remarkable success in recent years. Among Africans, one of the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the United States, 52 percent of men have a college degree; by comparison, just 30 percent of white native-born men have one. African women earn about one-third more in salary than native-born white women do.

Now that you have the facts, go back to what Amy Wax said. Or, better yet, look at the 2018 law review article where she cited the following views: “Immigration from non-Western countries should … be kept at a minimum so as not to compromise the dominance of groups that are closer to our cultural heritage and more effective at transmitting it. In other words, if we want to preserve our country’s culture and signal strengths, it follows that we should favor newcomers who are ‘more like us.’”

But many non-Western immigrants are already like “us,” in all the ways that Wax celebrates: they work hard, raise their families and follow the law. That’s exactly what Amy Wax’s immigrant ancestors did, of course, as did mine. We’re both descended from the great wave of Jews who came to the United States from Russia and Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924.

Then the United States changed its immigration laws to favor generally people from Northern and Western Europe who were considered -- yes -- more culturally similar to “real” Americans. The Waxes and the Zimmermans were not.

We weren’t even white! Until the 1940s, Jews were recorded as a distinct racial group by U.S. immigration authorities. Many non-Jewish whites believed that Jews shared traits with African Americans, including the same eye shape. Jews were also seen as prone to sexual indulgence and violence, allegedly coveting gentile flesh like African Americans supposedly lusted for whites.

With the defeat of Nazism, an explicitly anti-Semitic enemy, Jews became white people. But before that time, every negative characteristic that Amy Wax associates with “third-world” immigrants was also attributed to us. At the conference in D.C., she said that immigrants are loud and prone to littering. She could have been talking about my family, or hers. We were seen as loud and dark, dirty and unassimilable.

Gamely, Wax’s defenders have tried to argue that her comments weren’t racist because she wants the U.S. to favor certain “cultures” rather than races. It just so happens that more people in Europe are white, the argument goes, so if American immigration policy privileges the “first world,” we will end up taking in more white people.

But race is itself a cultural and historical category, not a biological one, which is why it changes over time. It wasn’t until America stopped thinking of Jews as a race that they began to gain real acceptance here. My strong guess is that Wax and her defenders are still thinking in racial terms, which is why they can’t accept nonwhites who are in every way as “American” as the rest of us.

Full disclosure: I’ve emailed a few times with Amy Wax, but I’ve only met her once. I’ve also written in her defense, because I believe she should have the right to speak her mind. I stand by that. If Wax isn’t free to say what she thinks, none of us will be.

But those of us who disagree with her need to speak up, too, and explain why we think she is wrong. And that demands the hard work of rebuttal, not just the easy reflex of calling her a bigot. Anything less will feed another narrative put forth by Wax and her allies: liberal elites have made Americans afraid to have an honest conversation about race, culture and immigration. “We are not allowed to have that crucial debate because people shout down others as racist before it even gets started,” Rod Dreher wrote in The American Conservative in the wake of the attacks on Wax.

I don't want to prove Dreher right, and I'm guessing you don't, either. So let’s refute Amy Wax, not just revile her. I am not afraid. Are you?

Bio

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press) and six other books.

 

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