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Amy Wax and the Trouble with “Nonwhite” Immigrants

July 22, 2019
Amy Wax and the Trouble with “Nonwhite” Immigrants

1. Amy Wax

At the big nationalism conference last week Penn laws professor Amy Wax had some interesting things to say about immigration. Here’s Vox reporting on a panel she was on:

In a panel on immigration, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax claimed that immigrants are too loud and responsible for an increase in “litter.” 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.)

We don’t have the full transcript yet but we have some surrounding context and this looks … not great?

There are a couple of things going on here that are worth unpacking, first with Wax’s remark and second with the conservative reactions to it.

So let’s get this out of the way right off the bat: When Wax says that “our country will be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites” it’s simply not true in any way.

First, what does she mean by “better”? Are we talking about economics? Increased family stability? Stronger community associations? “Better” is such an imprecise word that there’s no real way to pin it down. But let’s just pretend, for a moment, that we can all agree on some slippery, subjective sense of what “better” means and that it means something close to “more like a community in which I can raise my family with a mix of economic prosperity, safety, and liberal (in the Western sense) values.”

With that out of the way we can point out the obvious fact that immigrants from different sending countries have different outcomes in America. For instance, immigrants from Mexico start out with different socio-economic resources and cultural mores upon arriving in the U.S. than do immigrants from Korea or Ghana or Afghanistan or India. They all have radically different starting points in skills and education, different cultures, and different experiences in terms of assimilation.

By the same token, the number of “white” immigrants is so small that we wouldn’t even really notice whether or not they were causing “problems.” The largest “white” sending country is Canada and we have only 778,000 Canadian-born immigrants here in America, total. Would they cause problems if there were 25 million of them and we were forced to integrate hockey into American culture? Who knows.

If you want to talk about total levels of immigration, fine. That’s a very real and very important discussion. If you want to talk about the education and skill-level of immigrants from country X versus country Y, fine. Those education and skill rates have a lot to do with whether or not the immigrants succeed and also in their effects on the native-born labor market.

If you want to talk about cultural effects such as the importation of honor killings or female genital mutilation, fine. Europe’s experience with migration from North Africa and the Middle East is a cautionary tale we should all pay attention to.

But to reduce these questions about wildly disparate groups as a singular choice of “white” versus “nonwhite” is either lazy or stupid. Or, you know, racist.

Professor Wax wrote a paper about this stuff and throughout it she keeps waving her hands and complaining about how every time you try to talk about immigration from a nationalist perspective you get called a white supremacist or a racist:

  • “Proposals for enforcement, restriction, or reductions in levels of immigration are immediately labeled harsh, xenophobic, anti-immigrant, white supremacist, and a danger to human rights.”
  • “Nationalism is routinely associated in the media and on the left with an unruly stew of illiberalism, racism, white supremacy, xenophobia, totalitarianism, and a history of evil regimes.”
  • “In addition, many natives, including distinctly unprivileged people, are alienated and angered by any expressions of open hostility to the West, including talk of white privilege and white supremacy.”
  • “The need for assimilation is rarely discussed, and advocating for nationalism in any form is considered suspect at best, and xenophobic and racist at worst.”

I know, how could people jump to such conclusions? It’s so weird and unfair.

Imagine that you’re just a brave, truth-telling law professor from the Ivy League. You love you some Donald Trump. You want to have a totally neutral discussion about the sociological and economic impacts of immigration policy. You happen to divide all immigrants according to whether or not they are “white” or “nonwhite” and then you can’t understand why everyone thinks this is evidence of white supremacism.

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I mean, where do they get that sort of thing?

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It’s a mystery.

2. Discussion

Which brings us to the conservative reaction to Wax.

There are people trying to defend Wax on various grounds. Bo Winegard, for instance, implores people to just “debate the substance of her argument.” Rod Dreher puts himself through contortions in an attempt to find some way to read Wax as though her “main premise is a cultural one” and then see the criticisms of her remarks as confirmation that candid discussions about immigration are “not allowed to happen.” (Dreher’s main character defect is a surplus of charity. If only we could all suffer such an affliction.)

Fair enough. It’s no doubt true that conversations about immigration are more guarded and less candid than they could be, in part because they’re bound up in race and culture and religion and money. In a pluralistic society, you have to tread carefully in such areas. Human history has demonstrated, time and again, that pluralism is fraught with conflict and that navigating it requires prudence, patience, and charity.

If you want the space to have an honest discussion about the challenges of immigration, you do everything you can to assure the various stakeholders that what we’re talking about isn’t blood-and-soil racism, but about bolstering our liberal culture and economic system for everyone who lives here.

In other words, if you really want to have a substantive discussion, you push someone like Amy Wax as far away as possible.

3. Al Franken

This New Yorker piece on Al Franken makes a pretty convincing case that Franken got side-swiped by #MeToo.

It’s understandable that Tweeden objected to Franken’s having reenacted the gag for a photograph while she was asleep. But when she wrote, “How dare anyone grab my breasts like this and think it’s funny?,” she omitted the fact that she had performed the “breast exam” bit multiple times. Metadata from the camera suggests that, contrary to Tweeden’s statement, the image was taken not on Christmas Eve, 2006, as a final taunt, but on December 21st. Photographs of a stage performance the previous day show Franken advancing toward Tweeden with splayed hands as she fends him off with a script, smiling in a winter coat and a Santa Claus hat.

Consenting to an act onstage is not the same as consenting to an act while sleeping. Rebecca Solnit, the writer known, among other things, for identifying the phenomenon of mansplaining, told me, “One of the key things about consent is it’s not blanket consent. The actor playing Romeo doesn’t get to kiss Juliet offstage because it’s in the script that they did onstage.”

Yet Bonnie Turner, a writer who worked with Franken on “S.N.L.,” said of Tweeden, “It showed bad faith, and was really wrongheaded of her, not to say that the skit was something they’d rehearsed and done over and over, night after night.” Cabrera told me that, when he saw the photograph, he felt sure that Franken had just been “goofing around” at the time.

Read the whole thing.

Jonathan V. Last

Jonathan V. Last is editor of The Bulwark.