In the age of Trumpist rhetoric, racist academics, politicians, commentators, and the like have abandoned scholastic discourse and, rather, in the manner of Trump himself, found comfort in spewing baseless, and undoubtedly racist, statements to bolster an increasingly visible white nationalist agenda. And so, it came as no surprise, when Penn Law Professor Amy Wax was found at a National Conservatism Conference this past week engaging in this behavior.
During a panel on immigration, Wax stated that “our county [would] be better off with more whites and fewer nonwhites,” and pointed out that her statements, just as President Trump’s call to send back Senator Ilhan Omar and the rest of “The Squad,” were simply “not racist.” Her defense? Her statements identified “cultural” rather than “biological” deficiencies. However, self-proclaimed pundits like Wax make such statements with startling disregard to the qualifications of what constitutes a racist argument, despite their ostensible academic expertise.
Wax first went wrong in her 2017 op-ed, where she asserted that “not all cultures are created equal,” deemed cultures affiliated with the white race as superior, and used assumptions about her students to bolster her argument. Wax has now twice publicly conflated arguments of culture with those of race. Her refusal to specify “race” in no way diminishes the racist content of her statements. If anything, her statements should be highlighted as especially racist. Trump has used similar tactics, framing “racism” as “nationalism” in efforts to pander to conservative minorities. However, we cannot deny one important fact: we cannot fully progress as a society without first reforming views like these in higher education systems.
Individuals who defend their prejudice as scholarly work, such as Penn’s most recent visitor, Heather Mac Donald, however, are often unable to refute their arguments without citing race. We witnessed her struggle to defend her arguments to an audience of college students with considerably less scholastic experience than her own. Why? Perhaps because her argument, tailored to appeal to her Statesmen hosts, was founded on false pretenses.
Racist sentiments in the context of academia are not new. Wax isn’t the first speaker to arrive at Penn’s doorstep masking prejudice in the context of scholarly work. From Albert Kligman’s experiments on Philadelphia prisoners, to the work of John J. Dilulio Jr., most infamously known for generating the term “superpredators,” which targeted black youth, Penn faculty have had a long history of engaging in controversial work. Individuals like these hardly ever admit their wrongdoing until it’s too late. Penn never denounced Kligman, and though Dilulio has since expressed regret, it wasn’t until after his rhetoric pushed policies that led to the excessive incarceration of black and brown children as adults.
Yet, individuals like Wax, Mac Donald, and Trump continue to graduate from prestigious institutions like Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Penn, while promoting baseless, racist ideologies. They continue to make arguments about white individuals, and in the case of Mac Donald, white men being the most apt in the college environment, and black students as unsuccessful in college environments, ignoring statistics which indicate that immigrants and people of color lie among the most educated and successful groups in America.
The inciteful rhetoric promoted by Wax and Penn alumnus Donald Trump, amongst others, is not only untenable, but potentially harmful, putting Penn’s own students at risk. Recall the GroupMe incident of 2016, where black Penn freshmen were added to a racist Groupme with scheduled lynchings, shortly preceding Trump’s 2016 election. Inflammatory statements, such as those touted by the likes of Trump and Wax, reinforce ideologies that diminish the contributions, experiences, and lives of students and individuals of color. We have already seen it happen on this campus once.
Now, Penn’s lack of immediate action against Wax’s recurrent bigotry, speaks volumes. As the place that we have called home through our undergraduate years, Penn’s decisions on what to and what not to address is of particular concern. When Penn discovered that former Trustee Steve Wynn was accused of sexual misconduct, it wasted no time removing all memory of him on campus. Yet, when presented with an individual actively instilling monoculturalism in the minds of its law students, those who could potentially make up the majority of our legislature, Penn would only demote her. Many attribute her longevity to her tenure and support from Penn trustees and donors. However, Wax continues to teach at Penn Law, despite her unethical actions justifying a revokal of tenure.
With its troubling past of gentrification and unethical research, Penn has been nearing, and has finally approached, another crossroads in its long history pertaining to race. Now Penn must decide where its value truly lies: in the safety and well-being of the minorities that it proudly touts, or the pockets of those supporting Wax’s problematic discourse. That’s a choice that needs to be made sooner rather than later.
The Black Student League of the University of Pennsylvania
Students Organizing for Unity and Liberation (SOUL)
United Minorities Council (UMC)
UPENN Black Unification Committee