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Was Amy Wax’s Speech Racist?

The challenges of talking about culture and national identity -- and the dangers of not talking about it
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The controversial Penn law professor Amy Wax is under intense fire for her remarks at this week’s National Conservatism conference in Washington. She sat on a panel about immigration, the full transcript of which has not yet been released. Several media outlets reported that Wax’s words were racist. Zack Beauchamp at Vox, for example:

She explicitly advocated an immigration policy that would favor immigrants from Western countries over non-Western ones; “the position,” as she put it, “that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites.” (She claims this is not racist because her problem with nonwhite immigrants is cultural rather than biological.)

This is the problem with any attempt to build conservative nationalism in a nutshell. At a very abstract level, it’s possible to make non-racist arguments for a more restrictive immigration policy and a more broadly nationalist ethos. But when you get to the level of actual policy and politics, these ideas nearly inevitably end up devolving into attacks on minority groups.

It sounds explicitly racist. Conference organizer Yoram Hazony defended Wax. He said on Twitter that he doesn’t have a view on her immigration opinions, but that it is unjust to claim that she is racist, based on what she said. Beauchamp replied:



I can understand why, at first glance, people would think that this is straight up racism. That reaction, it seems to me, proves Wax’s point.

I may change my views once I see the entire transcript, but it seems to me that Wax’s main premise is a cultural one: that the United States is a Western country that reasonably should want to maintain a Western culture. To achieve that goal, it will have to limit immigration from non-Western nations. This makes people uncomfortable because the effect would be racially disproportionate, falling heavily on excluding darker-skinned people from Third World countries. Therefore respectable conservatives don’t talk about it. But, I hear Wax saying, they should talk about it, because there are compelling reasons to favor in immigration the kinds of people who share Western cultural values.

I don’t think it is inaccurate to say, as Beauchamp does, that “she is endorsing an immigration system that (in effect) prefers whites over non-whites.” It seems clear that she is doing exactly that. Beauchamp believes that alone is discrediting — which, if I’m reading this correctly, proves Wax’s point that it’s impossible to talk about the kind of immigration system that is culturally appropriate and wise for America to have, because of disproportionate racial impact. That is to say, the only fact that matters for critics is that such a system would disfavor non-whites, which, in their eyes, renders it wicked on its face.

I can see some problems with Wax’s proposal. What does it mean to be “Western”? Russia is a European country, and a Christian country, and a country of white people … but it’s not really Western. Should we limit Russian immigration? Ghana is an African nation that is vastly more Christian than, say, Sweden, but it’s certainly not Western, and it’s in the Third World. Would America be better off with a policy that favored atheist Swedes over Christian Ghanaians? Asians — South Asians and East Asians — are not Western, obviously, not Christian, and many of them do not live in what we consider the First World. Yet they tend to be “model migrants,” in that their children obey the laws, study hard, and achieve professional success disproportionately. Is an immigration system that puts them at a disadvantage over Europeans better for America?

It’s certainly debatable, but one of Wax’s points is that we can’t even talk about it, because it is widely assumed that any immigration system that results in disproportionate racial impact is racist and therefore bad. Because of this, the character of America stands to be changed substantially over time — and those who object will have been intimidated into silence by fear of being called racist.

Here are a few thought experiments.

First, imagine that you are the headmaster of a Christian school in a small city. A large number of Somali Muslim immigrants have suddenly moved to your city, with more on the way. The Somali parents, seeing that the local public school is deficient in many ways, approach you asking for their children to be admitted. They have the money to pay tuition. The parents say that they recognize yours is a Christian school, and they don’t want to contest that. They only ask that their children not be required to say Christian prayers, and be permitted to sit silently during Christian worship.

You like these parents, and want to help these kids. Who knows, maybe they will come to believe in Jesus Christ because of their experience at the school. You also know that there is a small but loud minority of parents of kids already in the school, moms and dads who are terrified of Muslims, and who, in your view, are simple-minded bigots. You don’t want to surrender to them, or to give the impression of having surrendered to them.

There is also a small but loud minority of parents of kids already, moms and dads who are terrified of being thought to be bigots, and who are demanding that the school open its doors to these black Muslim migrants, in a spirit of “Gospel hospitality” (welcoming the stranger, and all that). You recognize that these parents have their hearts in the right place, but they are not thinking about the long-term character of the school. They want to demonstrate their compassion now — and are telling you that if you refuse to open the doors to these kids, you will have shown yourself to be a bigot. You don’t want to surrender to this emotional blackmail.

Here’s the inescapable fact: the culture of your Christian school will be changed over time by the presence of these Muslim kids — who, by the way, are black. State officials have said that more Somali migrants are on their way to your small city. If you let a cohort of Somali Muslim kids into your Christian school now, how do you say no in the future? At what point does the culture of the school tip, and it ceases to be a Christian school, except nominally? This is one of the likely consequences of your decision.

What do you do?

The solution, I think, is to insist that all students and their parents must sign a Statement of Faith, affirming their belief in particular Christian doctrines. These doctrines, not race, are what binds the community together. African migrant children who are Christian would be welcome to join the community. To allow into the community people who do not believe these doctrines, even if you’re doing so with the best intentions, would compromise the identity of the community. Yes, this decision by the headmaster might give aid and comfort to the bigots within the community, and yes, it stands to disadvantage some morally upstanding African Muslim families. But protecting the community’s identity,  and that of its educational institution, is vital.

Why? Well, what is the community for? To worship and serve Jesus Christ, and to form future generations as worshipers and servants of Jesus Christ. The school is part of that mission. This is an emotionally and politically difficult decision, but ultimately not a hard one on the merits.

A second thought experiment, this one more difficult. You are the president of a historically black college. In recent years, Latino immigration to your region has been high, and your college has seen a sharp increase in the number of Latino applicants. You have welcomed this, in part because a slow decline in black applicants has put the long-term future of the school in doubt. However, the number of applications is about to reach a tipping point, such that your board of directors has told you that they’re worried the college is going to lose its identity as an HBCU. They’re not wrong about this. At the current rate, black students at your college will become a minority by 2040. A school founded to serve black students who were forbidden by segregation to attend other colleges will have ceased to be a majority-black institution.

If you, as president, are going to preserve the black identity of this school, then you are going to have to make decisions that limit or even deny admission to qualified Latino students. You can say, “We’re not trying to be racist; we are just trying to protect the historically black character and culture of this institution.” And you would be right! Those are your intentions. But you cannot get around the fact that this decision would disadvantage Latino kids, solely because of their race.

You reply, “That is regrettable. But if we don’t adopt a policy granting preferential status to black applicants, then our college will cease to be what it always has been, and what it was founded to be. We will lose that forever.”

Latino leaders in the community reply: “But that’s racist. Saying that you want to keep our kids out so you can keep this institution black is racist.”

What do you do? Strictly as a matter of logic, they’re right. You concede that, even though you also know that racism is not the effect you intend. Still, there it is. But you know that doing what is necessary to avoid the accusation of racism would likely cause the demise of your institution as an HBCU. Is that worth it?

If you go one way, an institution that was founded and preserved as a haven from racism for black college students would cease to be black. If you go another, an institution that was founded and preserved as a haven from racism for black college students would have only been able to preserve itself by embracing a form of … racism.

Not an easy choice, is it?

In both cases, the charge of “racism” or “bigotry” is meant not to illuminate the debate, but to obscure it, and to force a decision in favor of policies that would, over time, likely cause the community of the institution to cease being itself, and to become another thing. Put another way, the community is being asked — or to be more honest, told — to dissolve itself for moral reasons.

In this way, Amy Wax is correct: the important discussion over what kind of nation America is, and wishes to be, and how that should affect our immigration policy, is not allowed to happen. The fact that over 1,000 students are already calling for her dismissal over her “racist” words this week proves her point. 

To be clear, I don’t have a position on what she’s saying, and not just because I haven’t yet seen the whole of her remarks. If we were a European nation, I would have a strong position against allowing most migrants of any kind in, at least at this point. An Italy that had a large population of Americans just like me — Christians who love and respect Italy — still would not be Italy. I wouldn’t blame the Italians one bit for adopting a policy that keeps people like me out. I might regret it, but given how fragile their cultural and religious traditions are at the current moment, I would understand it.

But I don’t live in Europe. I live in the United States. Europeans are tribes with flags; America is not that, and never has been. Sure, a lot of the immigrationist rhetoric is sentimental and mush-headed, and fails to take hard considerations about national identity into account. “We have always been a nation of immigrants” is a truism — something that is factually accurate, but also says nothing new or interesting. The real question is, what kind of immigrants should we accept? Who we choose to be today is who we will be tomorrow. There’s no getting around that. Choices have consequences.

The late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington was a realist who hated sentimentality. In his 2004 book Who Are We? — about immigration and identity — Huntington argued that this issue, which came to the fore with the 1960s immigration law reforms, throwing open our doors to the entire world, is going to be central to our future politics:

Historically the substance of American identity has involved four key components: race, ethnicity, culture (most notably language and religion), and ideology. The racial and ethnic Americas are no more. Cultural America is under siege. And as the Soviet experience illustrates, ideology is a weak glue to hold together people otherwise lacking racial, ethnic, and cultural sources of community. Reasons could exist, as Robert Kaplan observed, why ‘America, more than any other nation, may have been born to die.’

To elaborate: Huntington says that we no longer think of American identity in terms of race and ethnicity. That leaves us with culture and ideology. The historical culture of the United States is Anglo-Protestant, he says — and really, this cannot be seriously doubted. Huntington said that Anglo-Protestantism gave America its historic identity as a land shaped by the Protestant religion, English common law, and a strong sense of individualism, a strong work ethic, and the belief that it is the responsibility of all Americans to labor to make the US a “shining city on a hill.”

These values are the ones that made America free and prosperous, and a beacon to immigrants the world over. Huntington contended that these values were under siege for various reasons. Religion — certainly not Anglo-Protestantism — no longer unites us, though things have gone much farther toward dissolution on the religion front since Huntington wrote. That leaves ideology, which, as you read above, Huntington believed would not be enough to hold America together, absent a shared dominant culture. Huntington does not believe the “diversity is our strength” claptrap.

In his book, Huntington forecasts several potential outcomes for the US. Because I can’t find my copy of Who Are We? on my disorganized home bookshelves, I’ve screenshotted a couple of key passages from his introduction, via Amazon:


It is hard for many Americans who have not traveled abroad to grasp how profoundly Anglo-Protestant culture has shaped America. In the past couple of years, I’ve traveled quite a bit among Catholic peoples of Europe. Getting to know them and their ways has made me aware — sorry, there’s no delicate way to say this — of how Protestant even American Catholics are, in the way they think. I’ll be going to Russia this autumn, and though I’ve been an Orthodox Christian for 13 years, I expect to have the disconcerting experience of standing in Moscow and St. Petersburg churches, realizing that as a cultural matter, if not a religious one, I have far more in common culturally with a Bible-church fundamentalist back in Baton Rouge than I do with fellow Russian Orthodox. Americans who fall in love with some romantic idea of their ancestral pasts back in Europe, Africa, or elsewhere, do not want to hear things like this. But it’s true. Just this week I have been writing about the odd but pleasing experience of coming back to the US from abroad, and re-discovering how deeply American I am, e.g., being able to talk at a certain level with a black Southern fast-food clerk, in ways that I could not talk with white Europeans with whom I share lots of ideas, but whose culture is not my own. Neither the black fast food clerk nor I are Anglo-Protestant, but we are both heirs to the culture made by Anglo-Protestantism.

Huntington’s point is that we are foolishly allowing the deeper sources of American identity dissipate, and that we are going to be very sorry for this, not because Anglo Protestants are superior people to non-Anglo, non-Protestants, but because there is nothing else to hold us together as a country. It’s a debatable proposition, to be sure. Amy Wax’s point, as I read her, is that we are not allowed to have that crucial debate because people shout down others as racist before it even gets started.

I remember when that book came out 15 years ago. People in the establishment freaked out, even more than they freaked out over Huntington’s prophetic book The Clash of Civilizations. Why? Because as in that earlier volume, Huntington, arguably the most respected political scientist of his day, challenged the left-right establishment consensus, which tried to deny the importance of identity, in favor of a globalist cosmopolitanism. Huntington was no nativist son; he was the ultimate establishment insider. And he was telling people what they didn’t want to hear. So they called him a nativist, and even a racist.

Here’s the thing: if rational, morally sound people are not allowed to debate these questions openly, the only people who talk about them will be raucous people who don’t give a damn about whether or not you think they’re a racist. Or, as David Frum has put it in another context, shouting down as “fascist” any talk about immigration restriction only serves to empower actual fascists.

Frankly, I don’t see any way through this. Our discourse, especially among elites, has gone so far to the left that the very serious and legitimate questions about who we are as Americans, and how that should affect our immigration policies, are seen as bigoted. Amy Wax was right about this. Whether Amy Wax is right that the US should favor people from nations who more or less share traditional American culture is a more difficult question to answer; I’ve listed some of the reasons above, but there are more.

One point I had not thought of when I started this post: the kind of people who have access to public microphones — academics and journalists, mostly — are the kind of people who are psychologically much more open to disparate cultures (except, of course, the culture of white people who go to Walmart and NASCAR races). I am one of these people, and I know it. I save my money and take my family to Europe on vacation, instead of going every summer to Disneyworld, like many Americans do. I find it just as easy, and maybe easier, to sit around a table at a pub in Slovakia talking with Catholic intellectuals I’ve just met than I would to go to a bar in working-class areas of my own city, and talk to white Trump voters who work at one of the chemical plants out by the river. I say that to make it clear that I try to recognize my own prejudices. People in my intellectual class love to think of ourselves as free of prejudice, but we have them, all right. It is much easier to find people like me who have sympathy for a Guatemalan immigrant than it is to find people like me whose sympathies like with a white house cleaner who lives in a trailer park in the part of town where we don’t go.

I say this because recently, I was talking with a (white) intellectual in my own city about immigration. He has strong progressive opinions about race and immigration. He said, “If you think about it, what is there worth saving in American culture as it stands today?” That was the last thing he said before we parted. I’m thinking about those words this morning, in light of a movie I saw last night: a Russian film called Loveless. It’s unspeakably powerful. It’s a story set in contemporary times, about a middle-class couple that’s going through an extremely bitter divorce. They are both intensely self-involved. Horrible people, but rather recognizable, I’m afraid. In the film’s beginning, their 12-year-old son overhears them arguing about which of them will have to take custody of the boy. Neither wants him. He’s too much of a burden to their individual pleasure, and the lives they want to build for themselves free of each other.

The boy runs away. Most of the movie is taken up with the search for him, and what that search reveals about the characters of his parents. I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but it wasn’t until the final scene that I realized I was watching an allegory about life in contemporary Russia (the director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, previously made Leviathan, praised as a devastating indictment of corruption in Putin’s Russia). One of the movie’s messages is that Russians today are so caught up in their desire to gain and maintain comfortable middle-class status, which includes individual freedom, that they are ignoring their responsibilities to others who depend on them. They are without love for their own children, and their own countrymen, who they see only as a burden, and an obstacle to living as they prefer to live.

Loveless is a movie about Russia, but it’s impossible not to see the root of some of our own American problems in the same thing. Nowhere in our immigration debate is there room for talking about what we owe to the people who are already here — white, black, and otherwise — in terms of being custodians of whatever exists of a common culture. Nobody consults them to ask them what kind of country America should be going forward. They are deplorables, after all. If they had a microphone at all, they would be shouted down as racist bigots. Look, Amy Wax is a tenured professor at an Ivy League law school, and she can’t even raise these questions without being denounced as a monster, and with a thousand people calling for her to be fired. What chance do people without her exalted status have to be heard? I mean, even if they’re wrong, shouldn’t they be taken seriously, out of respect for our fellow countrymen? Don’t we owe them at least the recognition that the questions of national and cultural identity raised by the immigration issue are a hell of a lot more complicated than cosmopolitan angels vs. nativist devils? Don’t we owe them consideration, because they are our fellow Americans?

When people say “____ hates America,” maybe it’s a vicious smear. It probably is a vicious smear. But watching the film Loveless compelled me to consider that it might just be a crude way of saying, “People like that don’t show to Americans like us the love they owe me as a fellow American; they think of us as nothing but bad people, and obstacles to living the kind of life they prefer to live.” The men, women, and children who are already here, no matter what their race, religion, and culture, have a greater claim on our love and loyalty than those who want to come here. They might be wrong, and they might even be nothing but crude bigots, but they deserve to be heard, and debated, because they are not just fellow consumers; they are our own people.

Good luck trying to get men and women of my intellectual class to understand that. For them, it’s racism! all the way down.

You know, I hope, that all of this is a big reason people vote for Donald Trump.

(If you comment on this post, please take into consideration the two thought experiments I posted above. Also, if all you want to do is throw a bomb, from either left or right, I’m not going to post your comment. Serious contributions to the discussion only, please. Also, I reserve the right to amend my remarks when the full transcript of Amy Wax’s presentation becomes available.)

UPDATE: I want to remind commenters that I honestly don’t know what I think about Wax’s position. Again, I want to see her entire speech before I make that call. I know that I personally feel that I have more in common, as a socially conservative religious believer, with many Muslims than I feel with people of my own ethnicity who are secular liberals. Whether or not that sense of moral solidarity I feel with these Muslims should determine my view on immigration policy is another question. A nation’s immigration policy shouldn’t be determined solely, or even mostly, on the basis of who particular individuals feel most comfortable with. Tonight I’ll be picking up curry from my favorite restaurant in town, which is run by a kind family of immigrants from southern India. I don’t know them, but I admire how hard they work in their restaurant, and how politely they treat customers. I would bet my bank account that they are by most measures an asset to our city.

Does that mean that it doesn’t matter from where immigrants come to America? I think surely it has to matter, or at least the question is a serious one that must be answered. But what is the answer? Understand that I’m trying to think through this myself, and trying to challenge my own prejudices. Don’t assume that you know what I think; I’m still trying to sort this out.

What I absolutely think is that getting your back up and calling Amy Wax a bigot does not make these questions go away.




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