Smearing Amy Wax and The Fallacy of Cultural Racism

Under cover of the interview format, Isaac Chotiner’s The New Yorker piece, “A Penn Law Professor Wants to Make America White Again,” attempts to assassinate the reputation of Penn law professor Amy Wax by portraying her as a white nationalist. (His is not the only media attempt to wreck Wax’s career using the smear of racism. Google it.) Wax easily handles him, but I fear confusion and willful ignorance over what racism is and what it is not will make it difficult for an interested public to grasp her points.

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Amy Wax, law professor under fire for valuing western culture

The subject of the Chotiner’s piece is Wax’s recent National Conservatism Conference talk in which she discussed the idea of “cultural-distance nationalism,” which is, in Wax’s words, the belief that “we are better off if our country is dominated numerically, demographically, politically, at least in fact if not formally, by people from the first world, from the West, than by people from countries that had failed to advance.” She is unapologetically making an argument in favor of preserving western culture, which she believes is at least preferable to other cultures.

In her talk, she laments that the ubiquity of leftwing political correctness probably means that conservatives will not advocate restricting immigration from non-Western countries because whites are still the majority in the West and, therefore, advocacy of immigration restrictions will appear to favor white people, which would lead to accusations of racism. Wax’s disclaimer is uncharitably omitted in most media accounts. The dean of Penn Law School, Theodore Ruger, is likewise uncharitable, declaring Wax’s views “repugnant to the core values and institutional practices” of the institution.

Shorn of its disclaimer, Wax’s words do look bad. “Let us be candid,” she said in her talk, “Europe and the first world, to which the United States belongs, remain mostly white, for now; and the third world, although mixed, contains a lot of non-white people. Embracing cultural distance, cultural-distance nationalism, means, in effect, taking the position that our country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.” Those in attendance report that the audience did not hear her words in the way it is portrayed in the media. Why should that matter? Wretched from its context, the quote is useful for smearing as racist not just Wax, but all those who oppose mass immigration from nonwestern countries. 

There is nothing subtle about Chotiner’s approach. In the introduction to the interview, he describes Wax as “the academic who perhaps best represents the ideology of the Trump Administration’s immigration restrictionists.” Since Trump is widely assumed to be a racist for his immigration policy, Wax becomes the essence of Trump’s racist regime. Chotiner writes that Wax “promotes” the idea of cultural-distance nationalism. “Promotes.”

When given a chance to respond, Wax clarifies: “I think there is something to be said for it, and I think that we should at least be talking about it. And, if you read the rest of my talk, from start to finish, and you read it carefully, then you will see me saying that. I am saying this is a neglected dimension that gets no attention, no discussion.” Noting she was speaking with fellow conservatives, she makes the disclaimer explicit: “I was saying, ‘Well, if you do discuss it or you even advocate for it, people are going to say, “Oh, you are saying we are better off with more whites than non-whites.” That is the equivalent of the position you are taking, and that is going to spook conservatives.’” She suggests she should have been more careful since “the media and people on the left are going to interpret your neutral criterion as a racial one, or at least they will be upset that it has racial effects, and you will be tarred with that.” This is indeed the attitude of the culture industry and the progressive establishment. The smear of racism is applied liberally in order to reduce the immigration debate to a popular reflex for open borders. (I have written extensively on this subject here on Freedom and Reason. Browse the table of contents.)

The rest of The New Yorker Q&A returns again and again to racism, with Chotiner’s agenda explicit: he wants Wax to admit her argument is racist, or at least that it properly viewed as such, and to extract from her some form of apology which, if you are at all familiar with Amy Wax, is highly unlikely.

On the smear, Wax ties Chotiner into knots and provides substance for the dialogue. Here’s an example: “You have to understand that I come to this whole question of immigration with an unanswered question in my mind, something I got interested in years ago, and I have tried to get people to answer it: Why are successful, peaceful, orderly, prosperous, technologically advanced, democratically sound countries so rare and so few, and why do they clump up in one tiny corner of the globe, namely Europe, the Anglosphere?” She notes Japan and Taiwan as exceptions outside of the West and continues: —And why is the rest of the world essentially consisting of, in various degrees, failed states? Why do we have a post-Enlightenment portion of the world and a pre-Enlightenment portion of the world?” Never reluctant to state what she knows the audience is thinking, Wax puts the matter bluntly: “I guess, to be really crude about it, you would use Trump’s succinct phrase: Why are there so many shithole countries? Of course, the moment you say that, people just get outraged: Oh, my God, you are a racist for saying that. And that, of course, lets them off the hook; they don’t have to answer the question, which is convenient.”

She laments the reluctance to explore the question. “I have asked many sophisticated, knowledgeable people that question, and I have never gotten anything close to a plausible answer, because of course any answer has to be subject to the strictures of political correctness. I have had a couple of really smart people, people on the left, say, to me, Hey, you have a point: we don’t have an answer, and we are not allowed to think about it rigorously and realistically because there is a code of things you do say and things you don’t say.”

As a member of the academy, I can tell you from my own experience Wax hits the nail on the head here. We are taught in the social sciences to practice cultural relativism and avoid ethnocentrism—judging other cultures by western standards. Cultures are not bad or good, better or worse, superior or inferior, just different. Morality, since it is the product of a cultural worldview, is also relative. In the functionalist tradition, which lies at the core of anthropology and much of sociology, cultural traditions are theorized to have evolved to suit the “needs” of the people.

There is a double standard here. While social science students are encouraged to consider power in western culture, for example, in the patriarchal diminishment of women, they are discouraged from considering the problem of power in nonwestern cultures. That would be ethnocentric. Indeed, given the ethic of diversity, the nonwestern patriarchal diminishment of women is perversely celebrated in academic circles. For example, the hijab is touted as a progressive expression of cultural and political identity, a form of resistance to the assimilationist pressures of the Islamophobic West. Events are held on university campuses showing American college students how to wear the hijab.

Seeking racism, Chotiner asks Wax if she thinks culture is something innate or the result of history and experience. Chotiner wants self-reported confirmation for what he and his media colleagues have asserted. Wax responds, “I think the word ‘innate’ is terribly mischievous.” When asked why, she notes that “‘innate’ is a term that looks to heritable, or genetic factors.” She adds that she “not saying anything about biology.” She stresses that her question “is not a race-realist question or point of view.” Instead, she is asking: “What is it about cultures that hold people back?”

I have made the point that explaining cultural differences by reference to race is an element of racism. It has always struck me as a curious thing that left identitarians reflexively pair culture and race in their charge of “cultural appropriation,” such as a white man wearing dreadlocks, or a white woman wearing a kimono. From this standpoint, only blacks can wear dreadlocks and only Asian women can wear kimonos. That Chotiner wants Wax to admit to an innate or biological cause telegraphs the assumption that this is what racism is really about. Chotiner is not up to rehearsing the logic of cultural racism, which is the assumption lying behind this controversy. Perhaps he knows there will be no consensus here.

Chotiner tries to find a contrast by noting leftwing explanations about culture as a function of experience and history with colonialism. She argues that colonialism is a nonstarter, since it came late on the scene. This is a powerful and provocative observation. By the period of colonization, the West had already developed the foundational norms and values that made it a powerful cultural and historical agent. Indeed, to use Wax’s words, colonialism took “advantage of these discrepancies in sophistication and modernity, in advancement in technology, in science.” This is Max Weber’s observation. It was the unique character of the West that produced and caused capitalism to spread across the planet. And to suppose that what we call the Third World would look like the West without colonization is an odd suggestion. Wax hears this and wonders rhetorically, “if it weren’t for colonialism, Malaysia would be Denmark?” If anything, in light of the corruption of indigenous cultures around the world wrought by western colonialism, history should be a warning to those eager to open their countries to foreign cultural elements.

Wax also dismissed the role of geography in societal development, giving examples of nations with disadvantageous geography that have achieved high level of development because of their western cultural orientation. (Crediting western cultural orientation to one side, a leftwing social geographer once made the same point to me about the false assumption of geographical advantage in explaining more advanced societies.) It’s cultural. To be sure, it is other things. But it’s cultural. But, again, as with power, there is a double standard about who can appeal to cultural factors in their explanations. 

At one point, Chotiner attempts to hang Enoch Powell like an albatross around Wax’s neck. But if one takes the time to look at Powell’s position, despite his rather incautious use of the word “white” (one can make the same criticism of Douglas Murray and other cultural conservatives who use white as a description of the Anglosphere), whether he is racist or, to use the term questioners usually used in putting this question to him, “racialist,” depends on, to use Powell’s own words, whether one defines racialist as “being conscious of the differences between men and nations, and from that, races” or “a man who despises a human being because he belongs to another race, or a man who believes that one race is inherently superior to another.” If the term meant the latter, then Powell’s answer was always “emphatically no.”

When discussing these matters with colleagues and students, I note people are culture bearers. This is rarely remarked upon in the social sciences. By culture bearer I mean that an individual brings with him his socialization and his worldview. My children speak my language, share many of the same values, and perpetuate in action norms learned in childhood. Their mother is Swedish. Had my children grown up in Sweden, they would speak Swedish, know the national traditions, reflect the national attitude. But they grew up here in America. They bring their American culture with them when they travel to Sweden. Wax asks, “How do little Swiss people become big Swiss people? Because we do associate a certain profile, a certain type, a certain set of priorities and orientations and behaviors and beliefs to Swiss people. Swiss people are radically different from, let’s say, Somali people or Indonesian people.” Despite it not being discussed in the immigration debate, this is a basic anthropological and sociological point of immense importance. Only some cultural differences are trivial.

Wax asks, “I’m Jewish. Why are Jews so Jewy? How did that happen? Why do French women, at least until recently, look so French? I mean, what is going on? I have a friend who’s Dutch, a Dutch artist, and he’s very well off, and, every morning, he gets up and cleans the front window of his house. It sparkles. I said, ‘Why are you doing that?’ He said, ‘Because I’m Dutch.’ So people do differ, there are these differences, and we just take them for granted. We don’t really interrogate them and examine them, we don’t look closely at their origins, once again, because a lot of it isn’t big-think stuff; it’s the little stuff that goes on in the family or civil society. How is the persona of each nationality preserved? That’s the question that has fascinated me for a very long time.”

Swedes have a particular persona. When I visit Sweden, I am always struck by how different the Swedish persona is from the persona I acquired growing up in the American South (my persona is different from the persona of the Midwest where I now live and work). Swedes are likewise struck by the difference. The last time I was in Sweden (summer 2018), the recent and very large influx of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries made for a stark cultural contrast. Sweden is having a lot of problems because of this situation (homelessness, vagrancy, crime, violence). Cultural personas matter.

Why is it controversial to admit to the difficulty large influxes of immigrants from very different cultures present to a particular way of life? Assimilation (which is not racist) is a slow process. If immigration occurs in large numbers and too quickly, then cultures clash, ethnic enclaves emerge, split labor markets form, and these forces make assimilation almost impossible. That’s not good. Over time, the culture of the host country shifts, in part through accommodation, and the native born see their traditional way of life diminished. And if that way of life was better for individuals, better for securing liberty and for achieving self-actualization, then a great tragedy occurred, both for the native born and for the newcomers who could have otherwise benefitted from emancipation from the personally-limiting norms and values of the culture they brought with them. If immigration is needed because there are jobs for which the native population do not possess skills (and if this is a systemic problem then it indicates that the educational system needs investment and reform), then it is prudent for a government that represents its citizens to consider the culture immigrants bring with them. It is not racist to ask, “How compatible are their norms and values with our society?” Citizens are not xenophobic to worry about this.

Not only are such concerns not racist or xenophobic, but the suggestion that they are deserves to be met with suspicion. The smear indicates an agenda. The accusation is meant to shame into silence those who would ask voice such concerns. It is this agenda that is putting Amy Wax through the ringer. Wax’s situation is representative of a greater problem. Wax is a cultural conservative. Is cultural conservatism therefore racist? Many leftwing identitarians would say “Yes.” This is why so many Americans are alienated by today’s left; the progressive worldview is a Manichean one, a black and white world organized by racism and antiracism. You are either on board with mass immigration or your are a nativist, racist, or xenophobe. (The agenda helps explain mission creep over at the Southern Poverty Law Center.)

Wax is an intellectual. She knows where Chotiner is getting his agenda. She flips the conversation and puts Chotiner on the spot. “Whether or not something is ‘racist’—I put it in heavy quotes, because I think it is a protean term, it is a promiscuous term, it is a term that’s trotted out as a mindless bludgeon, whatever. The question is, is it true? And, in fact, it’s emblematic of sliding toward Third Worldism that we now have this dominant idea that to notice a reality that might be quote-unquote ‘racist’ is impermissible. It can’t be true.”

Third Worldism runs throughout the identitarian left. The argument is that the West is responsible for the social problems of the rest of the world (poverty, sickness, crime, even terrorism) and therefore open borders is reparations the West owes the rest of the world (see “Reparations and Open Borders”). Because colonialism. The argument codes the West as “white” and the nonwestern world as “brown.” “Whiteness” is the bane of world existence and must be dismantled (while other cultures are encouraged to defend their cultural integrity). The structure of the global economy, without access to the nations of the West, is portrayed as a system of global apartheid (see the work of Harsha Walia and her notion of “border imperialism”). The goal is to disempower the West and expropriate its wealth, said to come not from the ingenuity of its culture, but from its ruthlessness. Third Worldism is why it is so easy for progressives to portray border control efforts as “racist” and “xenophobic,” immigration detention and processing centers as “concentration camps,” and a government that enforces the law as “fascist” and the agents of enforcement as “brown shirts.”

Chotiner raises the specter of anti-Semitism by noting the claim that Jews control much of Hollywood. Maybe, because Wax is Jewish, she can relate. Or at least be made to look like a hypocrite. Wax responds that “there are a tremendous number of Jews, out of proportion to their numbers in the population within the universities, within the media, in the professions. We can ask all of these questions, and you know what? They admit of an answer. But essentially what the left is saying is: We can’t even answer the question. We can’t. Once we’ve labelled something racist, the conversation stops. It comes to a halt, and we are the arbiters of what can be discussed and what can’t be discussed. We are the arbiters of the words that can be used, of the things that can be said.” 

When Neil DeGrasse Tyson made the observation that there are only about fifteen million Jews in the world, yet they have received 25 percent of science Nobel prizes, while Islamic scientists have won just three of the 609 science Nobel prizes so far issued, even though they account for about 1.6 billion of the global population, he wasn’t criticized by Jews (that I know of). He did, however, face the wrath of Muslims and progressives. Was he saying that the difference is biological? Of course not. First, Jews and Muslims aren’t races. Second, race is not a biological reality. Clearly, their respective outlooks on science are the product of cultural differences. It is a relevant sociological question to ask: What is it about Jewish culture that produces individuals who excel in certain avenues of economic and social life?

Chotiner retreats: “I’m just trying to make a point about how something could be true but still racist or used in a racist manner.” This is so obvious it makes one wonder why Chotiner himself did not incorporate this understanding in the first place. It is his agenda. Relentless, Wax analogizes: there are differences between men and women. Is it “sexist” to say so? Chotiner asks, “What about saying, ‘I don’t like the way black people look, and so I don’t want this black person marrying my daughter?’ Is that racist?” Wax responds, “I guess it’s racist, but I think people are entitled to have preferences about who they marry. It’s on a basis of race, and it’s a broad generalization on the basis of race.”

Chotiner tries to get Wax to say Trump is racist because the president suggested Obama wasn’t born in the US and questioned whether a judge of Mexican heritage could make a fair judicial decision. Wax points out that Mexican is a national identity, not a race. Frustrated, Chotiner says, “We’re both smart people, Amy, or at least I’m somewhat smart. You know what he was saying. Come on.” To which she responds: “O.K., but you’re patronizing me because you’re trying to use the word ‘racist’ where race is not the operant category. You see, you’re saying, ‘Oh, you have to expect that, when you say something about a Mexican, it’s something about race.’”

Wax is brilliantly using the interview to show how the racism smear works in today’s political-ideological environment. The word is overapplied. She says, “I think we’re now having a discussion about the content of what he said, and we can’t have that discussion if you just go off on this ridiculous heresy hunt: ‘Is he a racist? Isn’t he a racist? Is that racist? Is this racist?’ That’s really, as far as I can tell, eighty-five per cent of what the discussion now is about on the progressive left. It is so pointless, and it’s so shallow. O.K.?” Chotiner attempts again to make her view appear as racist, suggesting that she sees culture as “hardwired.” He attempts this even though Wax earlier told him, in no uncertain terms, that she was not making a race-realist argument. Wax gets Chotiner to admit that “hardwired” is his word, not hers. And so the interview concludes, providing us with an excellent illustration of the problem with the contemporary discourse about immigration and race.

I noted earlier that what lies in back of the overapplication of the racism charge is construct of cultural racism. Cultural racism (the new racism or neo-racism) is a recent invention used to characterize judgments based on perceived or imagined differences in norms and values between nationalities, ethnicities, and races. For example, if one argues that western culture is superior to nonwestern cultures because the norms and values of the West uniquely emphasize critical thought and open inquiry, democracy, equality (for women, homosexuals, etc.), personal freedoms, such as freedom of association, opinion, and speech, scientific reasoning (rationalism, empiricism), and secularism (separation of church and state), and especially if one believes that native inhabitants of the West ought to be skeptical and wary of foreign norms and values that may threaten the integrity of their culture, one may be accused of cultural racism. Cultural racism is a weaponized version of the charge of ethnocentrism in a worldview where everything—ethnicity, nationalism, even religion—is reduced to race. It’s an example of terminological creep, the practice of repurposing a term to cover phenomena that exists beyond its parameters, phenomena that are qualitatively different from the phenomena initially covered by the meaning of the term. Cultural racism bears little resemblance to the term it seeks to qualify. (This is also true of symbolic racism, the other “new racism.”)

What is racism? I have defined the term many times on this blog (see, e.g., “Race, Ethnicity, Religion, and the Problem of Conceptual Conflation and Inflation” and “Prejudice and Discrimination: There are Many Sorts and We Mustn’t Confuse or Conflate them”). Racism is the belief that individuals can be differentiated into groups based on innate abilities and dispositions and that these groups can be rank ordered into superior and inferior types of humans. The term itself appears in the earlier twentieth century (interchangeable with the term “racialism” appearing around the same time). The ideology of racism emerges with the enlightenment, tangled with the development of science. Because of the latter’s self-correcting method, the core tenets of racism—chief among them that there actually is such a thing as biological race—have been debunked. But not before justifying some of the worst deeds in history, the ideology reaching its zenith in Nazi Germany, whose ideologues couched ethnicity and nationality in the language of natural history.

Heavily influenced by the postmodern turn in the social sciences in the 1980s and 1990s, the concept of cultural racism emerges in the aftermath of the collapse of scientific racism, the dismantling of de jure segregation in the United States, and the resumption of mass immigration to the West by nonwestern people. Thus, it was when the force of racism—law and policy, thought and practice, justified by widespread belief in innate racial differences—had been either eliminated or marginalized that the term was given a new lease on life by the political left for their own political purposes. Exploiting the differences and amplifying slight ambiguities in the concept of race between European cultures (which are, in his eyes, manufactured by state power), French philosopher Étienne Balibar argues that racism is always evolving and therefore is always “neo-racism.” This is a clever trick. In this way of thinking, racism becomes an eternally useful accusation by merely changing its meaning. And the left is doing this.

Étienne Balibar, advocate for the cultural racism concept

In “Racists and Anti-racists,” Balibar writes that “we have passed from biological racism to cultural racism.” That is not what has happened. What has happened is that we have marginalized the racists and produced a more just society in the West, an accomplishment that itself speaks to the power of the western cultural orientation. And, with the ethic of human rights, which is of western origin, people around the world have a chance to raise their moral standards and live better lives, to emancipate themselves from the oppression and poverty their culture generates and perpetuates. However, there are traditional powers that seek to prevent this (which is why there is such a thing as the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam) and it is not racist to identify those forces and condemn them.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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