Freedom of Speech, Racism, and Higher Education

In the midst of participants at a recent Trump rally in North Carolina chanting “Send her back!” and the heightened racial tension that currently exists in America, a professor of a prominent law school recently was reported to have made a statement on immigration policy that advocated more whites and fewer non-whites.

amy waxProfessor Amy Wax from the University of Pennsylvania Law School gave a speech (or more accurately a statement during a panel discussion) last week at the Edmund Burke Foundation’s National Conservatism Conference in Washington D.C. The controversy surrounding her statement is her assertion that the immigration policy in the United States is “better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites,” according to Fox News, The Philly Voice, and The Daily Penn, among a few other sources, all of whom apparently obtained their information from the news and editorial website, Vox. No transcript or recording of the speech is available online at this time, so I am not able to verify exactly what she said.

Zack Beauchamp, a senior correspondent of Vox, posted the following on his Twitter account, a transcript of part of Wax’s statement to give audiences the bigger context of her statement that the U.S. needs more whites and less non-whites. He claims to have listened to a recording of Wax’s statement and to have spoken with others who attended the conference (key statements highlighted in the Beauchamp transcript).

twitterAnother reporter, Yoram Hazony, the author of The Virtue of Nationalism, responded on Twitter that Wax’s words were taken out of context and that she advocated an immigration policy that favors those who have a cultural affinity with the U.S. that “doesn’t rely on race at all.” He was a plenary speaker at the conference and likely heard Wax’s statement in context, which was apparently during a panel discussion on immigration. Whether his recollection is accurate or not can also be up for debate, especially since a transcript or recording is currently not available for review.

This, however, isn’t Wax’s first controversial public statement. Last year, according to CNN, among other news outlets, Wax had an online conversation with Brown University professor Glenn Loury (who happens to be black). In the conversation she stated: “Here is a very inconvenient fact Glenn, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class and rarely, rarely in the top half.” In the same video, she also stated that some black students should not go to college at all. In response, the dean of the law school, Ted Ruger, removed Wax from teaching first-year courses but allowed teaching electives in her areas of expertise, stating that her comments are not reflective of the statistics at the law school and that she violated the Penn Law restriction of public disclosure of grades or class rankings.

downloadAs far as Wax’s recent statement on immigration goes, a spokesperson for Penn gave this response: “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.”

Now I do have a few responses to Beauchamp’s report above, however accurate it may be in relation to Wax’s original statement. First is the mis-lumping of Europe with the First World, as there are probably a good number of European nations that fall into the Second or Third World categories. Second is regarding the labels of First and Third World countries themselves. These labels actually developed during the Cold War to label countries that were aligned with NATO (First) or Communism (Second) or neither (Third), and were primarily political labels, not economical. Since the early 2000s, these labels are not used anymore, especially Third World, and alternate terms such as developing countries or the Global South are used. Third is the obvious confusion between racial (white vs. non-white) and cultural categories. While race and culture sometimes overlap, in today’s transient world they often do not. Fourth is the fact that many immigrants from non-Western cultures (who also happen to be non-whites) have contributed to the societies of America for centuries. A final response is the false dichotomy between Western and non-Western countries and the preference (let’s say) of Western over non-Western cultures. Does she not realize that many of the products and much of the technology that is consumed in America are developed in non-Western countries? If this statement accurately reflects Wax’s, I’m not sure how a law professor at an Ivy-league school could be so uninformed about these things. Or are these misrepresentations better attributed to Beauchamp? Who knows?!

However (and this is a big however), I also commend Penn’s response to this situation by supporting freedom of speech within the university guidelines and also separating the individual from the institution. I think they are right to allow Wax to state her opinions on immigration policy, even if they are controversial, so that people like me have the opportunity to respond and critically evaluate her reasoning (however brief my response is at this point). The correct response to this and any controversial statement is not to cry “racist!” or “bigot!” or “fascist” or “Nazi!”—as seems to be fashionable today—but to respond logically, critically, and reasonably by first representing the other side accurately (which means seeing for oneself what was actually said and not taking a secondary “news” source at face value) and then identifying any relevant flaws, misrepresentations, or incorrect facts in the statement. This is the beauty of free speech and living in a free world. And I love the fact that we supposedly live in a society where we can respectfully but critically dialogue with one another and have discourse with those with whom we disagree—even if I dislike what they say and even if what they say goes against my core beliefs, as long as we don’t resort to name-calling, personal attacks, or misrepresenting the other person.

Perhaps in the next few days or weeks, we will have Wax’s transcript or recording available to review, or confirmation from her or the conference organizers that Beauchamp’s version is accurate, and then we can respond to what she actually said. But until such an opportunity, it is wise to suspend judgement against her personally. (And if anyone does have access to the official transcript or recording of her statement, please send it along!)

— David I. Yoon

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