Amy Wax’s Recent Inflammatory Statements on Cultural Nationalism and Immigration

July 26, 2019

For those interested in a framework for thinking about University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Amy Wax’s controversial remarks about immigration, culture, and race at the recent National Conservatism conference in Washington, DC, I’d recommend reading these two documents.

To its credit, The Federalist was quite proactive about getting the full extent of Wax’s remarks on the record, under the (almost certainly mistaken) assumption that the transcript would vindicate Wax from the “defamatory” attribution to her, in a virtually real-time *Vox* report on the conference, of “white supremacist” language. The transcript is fascinating, and largely supports Beauchamp’s claims of a racial animus underpinning Wax’s statements.

The real flaws in Wax’s statements about immigration are both logical and empirical, however. The Slate interview with Richard Alba is a good place to start, in particular his general conclusion that by nearly every measure, immigrants are “integrating” just fine into American society, particularly if one adopts a multi-generational framework for assessing integration. But there are a few obvious problems with Wax’s statements on immigration and assimilation that require reading no further than the transcript of her remarks. These problems lead her down a dark hole from which she cannot easily squirm free.

Amy Wax’s Cultural Nationalism Triple-Down

My own opinion is that Amy Wax was fully aware that she was issuing a fuck y’all, I’m gonna call a spade a spade triple-down on Donald Trump’s aversive, anti-immigrant rhetoric. And that she fully anticipated and welcomed the ensuing storm of invective from the progressive left. However, slips in her logic lead to the inevitable conclusion that a vast portion of her concerns about the “digestibility” of non-white immigrant populations includes (and perhaps primarily targets) African-Americans, who alongside European-Americans are decidedly part of the nation’s “legacy” populations she claims to want to protect.

Evidence for this gambit came very early in her talk, when Wax called on her fellow conference-goers not to minimize or elide Trump’s shithole country bombast, but instead to acknowledge the morally earnest and empirically valid foundations of its cultural nationalist premises. Which is that “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. There are exceptions of course, but most people are not exceptional.”

Wax dismissed as ludicrous the classic liberal democratic notion that immigrants might assimilate into American culture and acquire an American identity merely by declaring “fealty to abstract ideals, concepts, and principles such as human rights, property rights, the rule of law, honest government, capitalism, et cetera.” The value of a Trumpian “cultural-distance nationalism,” she argued, was “the insight and understanding that people’s background culture can affect their ability to fit into a modern advanced society.” Which requires “being honest about the homegrown conditions and failures that hold countries back: kleptocracy, corruption, lawlessness, weak institutions, and the inability or unwillingness of leaders to provide for their citizens’ basic needs.”

At the highest level of abstraction, Wax’s remarks on immigration punctuated a major theme of the conference – the argument for “thick culture” definitions of nationhood that set a high bar for inclusion. Without this bar, Wax sets odds that immigrants from shithole countries are far more likely to drag down the “demoralized, beleaguered, and disorganized legacy population” (i.e., European-Americans that embodies and transmits this thick culture) than be lifted up by this legacy population.

The African-American Subtext to Amy Wax’s Anti-Immigrant Statements

The problems with this Amy Wax perspective on the failings of “creedal nationalism” are of course rife. For one thing, as most of us are aware, acquiring citizenship itself requires a fairly rigorous set of stages that culminates in a (decidedly non-rigorous) citizenship “test” on American political history, institutions, and values that nearly two-thirds of Amerian citizens themselves would not pass. Which is one of many indications that our “legacy population” needs no assistance dragging itself down, a complicated and ongoing reality from which Wax cannot loosen herself by assigning blame to immigrants from non-Western nations.

Wax also sidesteps another deeply problematic pillar of her logic by conflating the challenges of “race” and “immigration” from non-Western parts of the world. In reality, Wax’s own prior efforts to self-immolate have largely been ignited by incendiary claims about the academic deficiencies of non-immigrant African-American law students at the University of Pennsylvania, along with her affirmative citation of race-reactionary conservative pundits such as Larry Derbyshire, whom The National Review fired after he published a column in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing that counseled his own children to “avoid African Americans, to closely scrutinise black politicians and to accept that white people are more intelligent.”

Obviously, the history of European-Americans and African-Americans has been deeply intertwined for the past 400 years. By sidestepping this tragic and violent history, and by simply making the unsustainable claim that the United States possessed a healthy “thick culture” that sustained our sense of nationhood prior to the changes in immigration law in the 1960s, Amy Wax indefensibly whitewashes in a manner that indeed lays bare the underlying racial biases of her analysis.

I am a free-speech advocate and do not agree with those who believe the University of Pennsylvania should fire Amy Wax or in some other manner discipline her in a misplaced effor to silence or cow her. To the contrary, the university should make Amy Wax affirmatively accountable by requiring her to defend her statements in a public forum in which the issues at stake can be respectfully debated across the lines of ideology and bias.