Racism and Xenophobia on the Rise on College Campuses

In a historical moment punctuated by the resurgence of conservatism linked to nationalism and nativism, commentators, political pundits, and some academics are using this moment to normalize exclusionary, xenophobic, and racist thinking. Trying to stem the tide, students at the University of Pennsylvania are calling for the resignation and termination of a member of the law school faculty, Amy Wax, a law professor and noted conservative who has become a “poster child” of sorts for problematic thinking on race and opposition to diversity and inclusion. In a recent speech at the National Conservative Conference from July 14–16, Wax expounded on her ideas regarding cultural distance nationalism. This theory, in Wax’s own words, claims, “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 have failed to advance.” Wax continued: “Let us be candid.

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.”

Wax’s comments set off a firestorm and garnered a strong rebuke from UPenn’s law school dean Theodore Ruger, who condemned the comments in the strongest terms. He stated that Wax’s views are “repugnant to the core values and institutional practices” of both the law school and the university.

The strongest and most vocal condemnation of Wax’s comments came from UPenn law students. They initiated a petition to fire Wax, which garnered around 65,000 signatures with a goal of 75,000 signatures. The Latinx Law Students Association started a separate petition to oust Wax. The petition garnered over 2,000 signatures including about 250 members of the law school community at UPenn. The petitions call for both the denunciation of the remarks and for university administrators to hold Wax accountable.

The students declared, “We cannot use platitudes to once again sweep Professor Wax’s statements under the rug,” according to Newsweek.

Wax continued her line of argumentation in several post-conference interviews with journalists. In an interview with The New Yorker, Wax provided several problematic statements regarding the definition of racism and colonialism, among other things.

According to the interviewer, Wax took offense at the use of the term “racist” as a designation for offensive speech or as a representation of her own views. She seemed to rely on the idea that if something was true, then, it could not be racist. She stated:

“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."

Wax offered a similar discussion regarding the use of colonialism as an explanation of disparities between racial groups and geographic regions. She pointed instead to what she viewed as cultural deficiencies. Wax stated:

“One thing that’s quite striking is there is essentially no science being done in a place like Malaysia. No science, no technology coming out. I consider that very closely related to the lack of commitment to empiricism, the lack of a cultural practice of attention to evidence, rigor, analysis, facts. They all work together, so I think that when we say colonialism, do they mean that if it weren’t for colonialism, Malaysia would be Denmark? Does anybody really believe that, honestly and truly? I think it’s a nonstarter."

Both of Wax’s answers locate racial difference in biology and cultural inferiority--ideas long debunked by the social sciences. These pseudoscientific assumptions also seem to underlie some of her other assertions regarding racial and cultural achievement. In a 2017 op-ed, Wax rejected the idea of cultural relativism, arguing all cultures were not created equal. She also previously asserted that she had never seen a Black student graduate in the top quarter of the class. In response, Dean Ruger announced Wax would no longer teach mandatory first-year courses, according to Inside Higher Ed.

In the wake of recent controversies regarding Wax’s statements and beliefs, students at UPenn have intensified their efforts to remove Wax from the faculty. On Monday, students renewed calls on the administration to fire Wax and provide expanded opportunities for students of color. The latest student protests are timed to coincide with UPenn’s Parents and Partners Day, which allows families to attend classes with students to learn more about the school’s programs, according to Newsweek. JiLon Li, Co-President of UPenn’s Asian Pacific American Law Students Association stated that the purpose of the demonstration is “to hold the administration of the University of Pennsylvania Law School accountable for its complicity in retaining a professor who has demonstrated a history of racism, sexism, and homophobia.”

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America and is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.