Reading Amy Wax’s CV is a profoundly humbling experience. Wax graduated summa cum laude from Yale College with a degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Then she did a Marshall Scholarship at Oxford before earning a medical degree from Harvard. She also gained admission to Harvard Law School, and ultimately received her J.D. from Columbia, where she served as editor of the Columbia Law Review. Between 1988 and 1994, she worked in the U.S. solicitor general’s office. Today, she’s a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has been honored with the A. Leo Levin Award for Excellence in an Introductory Course and the Lindback Award for Distinguished Teaching.
And yet, despite those credentials, Professor Wax is now being condemned as a know-nothing racist and white supremacist. Her crime? Publishing an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that called for a revival of “bourgeois culture.” Apparently that’s now considered hate speech. Such is the madness of our current moment.
In her article, which she co-authored with University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander, Wax argued that the collapse of bourgeois norms among large segments of the U.S. population has fueled or exacerbated a host of problems—ranging from reduced labor-force participation among working-age men, to opioid abuse, inner-city violence, nonmarital childbearing, and educational failure.
Wax and Alexander acknowledged that these problems have “multiple and complex” causes, but they noted that a common factor is the breakdown of certain social mores that prevailed “from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s.” During that period, Americans widely followed what Wax and Alexander called “the bourgeois cultural script”:
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.
To be sure, the postwar years were also a time of “racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism,” as Wax and Alexander explicitly conceded in their op-ed. The question is whether discarding bigotry and correcting historical injustices required a simultaneous assault on bourgeois values; or, alternatively, whether bourgeois values were—and are—the key to upward mobility for all Americans. Wax and Alexander take the latter view. “The loss of bourgeois habits,” they wrote, “seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups.”
That shouldn’t be a controversial argument. But in the age of moral and cultural relativism, it is. After all, if bourgeois culture is uniquely conducive to social and economic progress, that means other cultures are less conducive to social and economic progress. Wax and Alexander made precisely this point:
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants.
Again, none of this should be particularly controversial. Wax and Alexander clearly observed that anti-bourgeois attitudes can be found among whites, blacks, and Hispanics alike. Millions of Americans share their belief that a revival of bourgeois values would be good for people of all races and ethnicities. Does that make them white supremacists?
Yes, according to the logic of Wax’s critics, who’ve been ferociously denouncing her ever since the op-ed appeared.
Those critics include the University of Pennsylvania graduate-student organization GET-UP, which blasted Wax’s “hateful and regressive views” as an “affront to both the values and the members of our community.”
In addition, a collection of Penn students and student groups published an open letter demanding that the school “take a public stand against rhetoric that harms, dehumanizes, and compromises the education of its vulnerable students.”
Not to be outdone, fifty-four Penn students and alumni called on university administrators and faculty “to push for an investigation into Wax’s advocacy for white supremacy.”
Meanwhile, a group of eighteen non-Penn law professors—from Temple, Drexel, Rutgers, and other schools—slammed the Wax-Alexander article as “racist and classist.”
And thirty-three Penn Law faculty members published their own open letter in order to “categorically reject Wax’s claims.”
Just to remind you, Penn is an Ivy League school—one of the most prestigious universities on the planet—where undergraduate tuition now exceeds $47,000 per year. (Total undergraduate attendance costs for the 2017–18 academic year—with room, board, and other fees included—are upwards of $68,000.) Yet it’s also a place, evidently, where a single professor can generate campus-wide “outrage” by making obvious, commonsense points about the cultural foundations of prosperity.
Professor Wax has not backed down—quite the opposite. In an interview with Penn’s student newspaper, she explained that, while bourgeois culture reflects Anglo-Protestant culture, it is not racially or ethnically exclusive. “Bourgeois values aren’t just for white people,” Wax said. “Bourgeois values can help minorities get ahead.”
People around the world seem to understand that. “Everyone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” bourgeois values, Wax told the Daily Pennsylvanian. “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”
That last statement was ill advised, because it distracted from her underlying argument. The question we should be asking is: Would America be better off if more people—of all racial and ethnic backgrounds—embraced bourgeois culture?
Before answering that question, consider the following:
- The labor-force-participation rate among men aged 25 to 54 is lower today than it was at any point in recorded history prior to the Obama years. “In 2015,” according to University of Chicago economist Erik Hurst, “22 percent of lower-skilled men aged 21–30 had not worked at all during the prior 12 months.”
- Between 1999 and 2015, America’s age-adjusted rate of drug-overdose deaths nearly tripled. Around 52,400 people died of a drug overdose in 2015, and a New York Times analysis concluded that the overdose death toll in 2016 “most likely exceeded 59,000, the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States.”
- While our nationwide murder rate remains quite low compared with the levels that prevailed from the 1970s through the 1990s, America’s overall violent-crime rate is still much higher today than it was during the 1960s. In addition, many large U.S. cities have seen murders increase dramatically since 2014.
- In 2015, more than 40 percent of all U.S. births occurred out of wedlock, compared with only 4 percent in 1950. Back in 2012, the New York Times reported, “More than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.”
All of these trends are at least partly a reflection of the long-term social and cultural shift that Wax and Alexander described in their op-ed. Pointing that out is not hate speech. It’s a basic—and much-needed—recognition of reality.