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Amy Wax and the Trouble with “Nonwhite” Immigrants

July 22, 2019
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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.

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

It’s a mystery.

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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.”