Amy Wax thinks America is “better off with more whites and fewer non-whites,” and she’s not shy about saying it.
Wax — the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School — has collected outrage and fans since 2017, when she began speaking in interviews and on primetime television about what she dubs “cultural-distance nationalism.” This breed of nationalism, as Wax explained at the inaugural National Conservatism Conference, asserts that “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 had failed to advance.”
Put plainly, Wax favors non-white people being kept out of leadership positions and, ideally, the country. That’s in America’s best interest, she argues, because “countries ruled by white Europeans” simply have values that are “superior.”
“The third world, although mixed, contains a lot of non-white people,” she warns.
Tracking Wax’s declarations of white supremacy is genuinely dizzying. This month’s iteration is a viral clip of her on Tucker Carlson Today, in which Wax described her Indian colleagues at Penn as coming from a “shithole.” She then complains that “non-Western people,” particularly “American Blacks,” feel a “tremendous amount of resentment and shame” towards “Western peoples” because of their “outsized achievements and contributions.” Wax scrunches her face. “I mean it's this unholy brew of sentiments.”
Wax’s April interview with Carlson, who hosts America’s most-watched cable news show, has led to a resurgence in calls for her firing — a cause that last surged this January when Wax said the U.S. was “better off with fewer Asians.”
Yet whether Wax is fired from her Ivy is, of course, complicated by tenure — an academic appointment that insulates her, like a tortoiseshell, from such action.
In an emailed statement, Wax curtly declined an interview request: “I do not speak to student reporters, so I suggest you don’t contact me again.”
This is the part of my column where I come out as Black (to all those who don’t know me personally — surprise!). I remember, hazily, being four years old and introduced to the idea. On the playground, my sister’s friend announced that he wasn’t allowed to play with Black people. My sister, confused, ran to me, and we soon tattled. One angry phone call and parent-teacher conference later, our school sent the offender (a first grader) home with an MLK picture book.
I wouldn’t say I’m filled with tremendous shame over the West’s “outsized achievements.” I find Wax’s comments genuinely upsetting, but know (hope?) they’re fringe.
Wax was barred from teaching required classes in 2018 after implying, falsely, that Black Penn Law students never graduated in the top quarter of their class. This January, Penn Law Dean Tedd Ruger initiated the University’s process for formally sanctioning tenured faculty “to address Professor Wax’s escalating conduct.” Ruger declined to comment for this article to “preserve the integrity of this process.” He wrote, however, that “[t]he Law School has previously made clear on multiple occasions that Professor Wax’s views do not reflect our values or practices.”
This sanctions inquiry instantly met backlash. A coalition of professors known as the Academic Freedom Alliance, which counts many Harvard professors as members and in its leadership, came to Wax’s defense days after its announcement. In a public statement on behalf of the organization, AFA founder and Princeton professor Keith Whittington expressed the “firm view that Professor Wax should suffer no formal consequences.”
Jeannie Suk Gersen, a Harvard Law professor and founding member of the AFA, could not be reached for comment.
Whittington, who authored the public letter defending Wax, founded the Academic Freedom Alliance in 2021 after growing increasingly concerned about free speech issues in American society. To him, that encompasses efforts to roll back tenure protections to bans on Critical Race Theory, though his organization has yet to release a public statement explicitly addressing the latter.
After reading Wax’s remarks to Whittington, I asked if he’d call them racist — as major media outlets, normally averse to the term, have done outright. “I’ll leave it to others to sort that out and characterize them in that regard,” he told me.
The AFA’s opposition to sanctioning Wax hinges on the belief that her podcast and talk show appearances constitute “extramural speech” — a protected form of speech that occurs outside of the classroom which they argue is off-limits for University scrutiny.
“Using her platform in the classroom to do similar things as what she's doing in podcasts and on the Tucker Carlson show — then that’d be troubling,” Whittington told me. “The University would properly want to look into that.” Yet Whittington maintains that “extramural speech protections, by most university policies, are pretty close to absolute.”
Penn Law seems to be looking into two strains of complaints against Wax, according to a January statement by Ruger — one which Whittington would deem appropriate grounds for sanctions, and another which he would not.
First: “That her conduct is having an adverse and discernable impact on her teaching and classroom activities.”
Second: That Wax’s “pervasive and recurring vitriol and promotion of white supremacy” made it “impossible for students to take classes from her without a reasonable belief that they are being treated with discriminatory animus.”
Penn’s proceedings will try to discern whether Wax’s belief in the superiority of “white culture” has led, as complainants allege, to discriminatory conduct in her classroom. This, Whittington admits, requires a high evidentiary burden — since Wax is infamous at Penn, how many non-white students, or even those who disagree with her views, take her classes? — but could chart a less controversial path towards revoking Wax’s tenure.
The second bucket of complaints evokes questions that are, bureaucratically, hairier. Should you be allowed to teach if you assert repeatedly, as Professor Wax has, that your non-white students are culturally inferior to your white ones, and bemoan their very presence in the U.S.?
In his statement, Ruger writes that Wax has publicly demeaned “a majority of those who study, teach, and work here.” (Penn’s graduate schools are about 40 percent white).
Though tenured faculty’s “extramural speech” protections are, rightfully, strong, Wax’s case is an extreme test of the vague rules which govern tenure termination. There must be room within the tenure system to dismiss professors who so clearly impair their ability to teach, as Whittington concedes Wax “may well have.” because of inarguable racism. If a student knows their professor views them as inherently inferior, how can learning proceed?
I attended a majority Black high school but, during senior year, was the only Black student in my physics and math class. In them, I learned to shrink myself: never speaking unless cold-called or daring to ask questions, even when I desperately needed to. In those classes, Black students not on our school’s “advanced” track (teachers and students called them “the general kids”) only existed as the butt of cruel jokes — mocking, relentlessly, how they dressed. Spoke. Existed. So I chose to never say a word, terrified that if I did, I might slip up and confirm the worst I knew some assumed of me. My learning — which, ideally, should’ve allowed for fearless inquiry — undeniably suffered.
If Penn’s process rules that Wax’s public comments are un-sanctionable, it will be a depressing day. Such a decision would signal to all of academia that clean-cut advocacy for white supremacy is employable conduct if you have tenure — something unfathomable in nearly any other profession. Under such a system, it’s students that lose.
Hana M. Kiros ’22, a former Crimson Editorial Chair, is an Integrative Biology Concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column, “Harvard Everywhere,” runs on alternating Mondays.