Amy Wax and Free Speech at Penn
In August 2017, Amy Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Larry Alexander, a law professor at the University of San Diego, wrote an article arguing that we are paying the price for the loss of values that we had up to the mid-60s. They listed those values as:
“Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.”
They argued that these values are superior to what we have today such as “the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks and the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.”
One could hardly imagine a more innocuous article, yet the blowback has been escalating ever since and Black Lives Matter plans to sow chaos on Penn’s campus if Dr. Wax is not fired.
Note that while single parenthood is a bigger problem in the black community than in the white community, Amy Wax and Larry Alexander went out of their way to describe it as a characteristic of the white community, because they wanted to stress that people from all segments of our society have lost the values of the past. Wax emphasized that “Bourgeois values aren’t just for white people,” and that “bourgeois values can help minorities get ahead” in an interview about her article with the Daily Pennsylvanian.
The efforts of Wax and Alexander to be evenhanded didn’t protect them from false accusations of racism and white supremacism from organizations at Penn. It didn’t stop 33 Penn Law faculty members from publishing a letter in the Daily Pennsylvanian condemning Amy Wax.
Why such a negative reaction to the Wax’s accurate pinpointing of problems that need to be addressed in Western society?
The Penn professors condemned Wax for saying that “All Cultures are not equal” and for saying that Anglo-Protestant cultural norms are superior but did not explain why they found those statements so offensive. Neither did GET-UP, a graduate student organization that issued a statement that called her views hateful and regressive. Their statement also condemned the “presence of toxic racist, sexist, homophobic attitudes on campus.” Haley Pilgrim, the chair of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Leadership Council said Wax should no longer be allowed to teach a mandatory first-year course because it places students affected by the public comments in an unfair learning environment. Why it was an unfair to learn from someone who believes society used to have better values, Haley did not explain.
An answer to why the left reacted in this way can be found in a debate that Wax with Duke Professor Erwin Chemerinsky. Dr. Chemerinsky and others in the audience expressed the concern that Amy Wax was blaming blacks for their problems instead of white people, thus absolving white people of their obligation to pay more and more to help black people Wax’s response was
“if you look across the nation, you see that school districts like Washington DC and Philadelphia which are almost exclusively African-American have some of the highest per pupil spending in the country and have achieved some of the worst results and that is because education is not something that one does to people, it is something that people do for themselves.”
She pointed out that when blacks went to the same schools as whites, many performed worse. “They’ve got a mother who’s got a sort of revolving door of boyfriends, they have a chaotic home situation they have an unreliable parental familial setting” and “they’ve got violence-ridden communities.” She explained that “violence is not something that comes down from the sky, violence is something that people do, it involves choices that people make. Nothing that the white community does forces an individual to pick up a gun, aim that gun at another person, and shoot it. Nothing that some white person does will force a black person to abandon the mother of his child.” No government program is going to stop people from making these choices. Wax stressed that only the black community can choose better values; no one can do it for them and those values are essential for success.
From the left-wing perspective, Wax had committed two major heresies, in so doing threatening help for the oppressed. According to the left-wing narrative, evil white racists are responsible for the problems innocent oppressed blacks are having, and therefore owe reparations in the form of more money and more affirmative action. Wax challenged the narrative that all whites are racists, stating that white society used to have good values. She threatened the belief that whites should redistribute more and more of their money to blacks by suggesting that a dominant cause of the problems blacks have today has to do with choices they make and wouldn’t be fixed even if whites gave more money.
Opponents of Dr. Wax found ammunition to use against her in a video of an interview on the Glen Loury show in September 2017. Wax stated, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class,” and “rarely in the top half.” Wax made that statement while explaining to Loury that efforts to help blacks by placing them in highly competitive environments for which they were unready might hurt more than help. This argument has been made by others, including by Thomas Sowell in his book Preferential Policies.
Penn Law students and alumni signed a petition demanding that law school dean Ted Ruger take action against Wax's "false and deeply offensive claims." The petition called for Ruger to dismiss Wax's claims and to remove her from teaching first-year courses and from committees involving the direction of the law school. On March 13, Ruger attempted to appease the activists, announcing that Wax would no longer teach the first-year course. His excuse was that although she had the right to free speech, she had violated Penn policy by revealing student grades when saying that she didn’t know of blacks who had graduated in the top half of their class. He also yielded to the demand that he deny her claims and said that black law students “have graduated at the top of their class at Penn law.” With that statement, Ruger violated the same policy against revealing student grades.
Of course, appeasement never works. Four days later, Asa Khalif, the leader of Pennsylvania Black Lives Matter, told the Philadelphia Tribune that he wants Wax fired and that he is prepared to disrupt classes and other campus activities if she isn’t. BLM has probably done more to hurt blacks than any other organization, spreading a false narrative of police brutality which resulted in reduced policing and more black-on-black violence.
Did Wax tell the truth about black performance at Penn? We don’t have access to student grades, but we can get a clue from a study that showed that the elimination of race-based admissions policies would lead to a 63% decline in black matriculants at all law schools and a 90% decline at elite law schools. Heather MacDonald wrote in the Wall Street Journal that
“In the early 1990s, the Law School Admissions Council tracked 27,000 students at nearly 90% of all accredited law schools. Of the 2,000 students attending the most "elite" law schools, 52% of blacks were in the bottom tenth of their class, compared with 6% of whites. Only 8% of blacks were in the top half of their class. Bar failure rates were also skewed; the LSAC data showed that 19% of blacks graduating from these elite schools failed the bar, compared with 3.5% of whites.”
Putting black students in a position where they fail the bar after accruing enormous debt at an elite law school is not helping them.
Ironically, the loss of values leading to poor performance are in part a result of white efforts to help blacks. Sowell’s explanation of this is that white efforts to help black people with welfare have been very harmful to the black community.
By substituting the government for fathers as a breadwinner for children, government welfare has reduced the incentive for black women to get married with the result that many black children grow up in single families. Welfare also created an incentive for black women to have as many babies as possible since they get increased benefits for each. As a result, many black children lack a supportive environment that encourages educational achievement.
Amy Wax is right in claiming that the government can’t force blacks to make good choices, but our public schools can stop indoctrinating black children that they are helpless victims of racism. Instead, schools could teach them that if they work hard, they can succeed -- maybe even become president of the United States. More importantly, our schools, instead of indoctrinating blacks that they live in a racist society, could start addressing the problem of black racism and teach that all racist beliefs, whether black or white, are wrong.