Law Professors

Controversial Penn law prof is under fire for remarks about third-world immigration

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The eastern facade of the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 2006. Photo by Jeffrey M. Vinocur via Wikimedia Commons.

Updated: Controversial University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax is back in the news for recent remarks about the dangers of “cultural-distance” immigration.

Wax spoke about the dangers of cultural change when immigrants come from third-world countries with different cultural values, report Vox and the New Yorker. She was among speakers at the National Conservatism Conference who disavowed racism even as they said that immigrants from Western countries would better support American values.

Critics seized on Wax’s remarks about two schools of thought on immigration and assimilation. The New Yorker had detailed coverage and quotes.

One school of thought contends that immigrants from any background can assimilate into American culture, she said. The second, more sensible school of thought is called “cultural-distance nationalism,” Wax said.

According to Wax, this second school of thought holds that people’s backgrounds and culture can affect their ability to assimilate. This school of thought means “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,” she said.

“Many, indeed most, inhabitants of the third world don’t necessarily share our ideas and beliefs,” she said.

Wax said Europe remains mostly white, while the third world contains a lot of nonwhite people. “Embracing cultural-distance nationalism means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites. Well, that is the result, anyway. So, even if our immigration philosophy is grounded firmly in cultural concerns, it doesn’t rely on race at all. And, no matter how many times we repeat the mantra that correlation is not causation, these racial dimensions are enough to spook conservatives.”

Wax said President Donald Trump’s comment about immigrants from “shithole countries” has to be taken seriously.

A Penn spokesperson provided this statement to PhillyVoice: “As a member of the faculty, Professor Wax is free to express her opinions as provided in Penn’s policies protecting academic freedom and open expression. It is also the case that views of individual faculty members do not represent the views of the institution but rather their own personal beliefs.”

University of Pennsylvania law dean Ted Ruger condemned Wax’s reported comments in a statement posted on Tuesday.

“At best, the reported remarks espouse a bigoted theory of white cultural and ethnic supremacy; at worst, they are racist,” Ruger said. “Under any framing, such views are repugnant to the core values and institutional practices of both Penn Law and the University of Pennsylvania.”

Vox linked to a law review article in which Wax wrote that journalists and academics are ignoring issues raised by immigration from third-world countries.

In the article, Wax called for less political posturing and more pragmatic policies that consider “nationalistic concerns, both economic and cultural.”

According to Wax, well-educated cosmopolitan elites benefit when immigration provides a plentiful supply of cheap, low-skill labor. The losers are less educated, unskilled Americans who lose jobs to foreign workers, Wax said.

On the cultural side, Wax cites the idea that “a shared American identity is essential to maintaining a common sense of purpose, trust and community. A large influx of immigrants, especially from nations that do not share our cultural values and understandings, will undermine citizen morale, unity and solidarity as well as the integrity of our institutions.”

Some fear that immigrants “unschooled in Western and enlightenment attitudes and unaccustomed to our institutions may bring bad habits and corrosive beliefs with them to their new country,” Wax wrote.

Wax’s conference comments generated a lot of controversy on Twitter, report Fox News and PhillyVoice. Above the Law labeled Wax “a laughing stock who spends her days dragging Penn’s reputation through the mud for her own self-aggrandizement.”

Wax was at the center of controversy last year when she asserted that black law students rarely graduate in the top half of their class. The law school said the class rank statement wasn’t true, and Wax would be teaching only elective courses as a result of the remark.

She also bemoaned the “loss of bourgeois habits” in an August 2017 op-ed.

This was the most controversial passage: “The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.”

Updated July 23 at 4:35 p.m. to include Ted Ruger’s statement.

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