Law Professors Condemned as Racist After Praising America's 1950s 'Bourgeois Culture'

UPenn students, alumni slam professors for 'promoting hate and bigotry'

UPenn quad
UPenn quad / Wikimedia Comons
August 27, 2017

Two law professors have been condemned by University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) students, alumni, and faculty as bigots engaging in "racist and white supremacist discourse," after they wrote a nostalgic op-ed praising America's 1950s "bourgeois culture."

UPenn Professor Amy Wax and University of San Diego's Lawrence Alexander were slammed by a group of 54 UPenn doctoral students and alumni as "promoting hate and bigotry under the guise of 'intellectual debate'" in their piece titled, "Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture," published earlier this month by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

In it, they argued the "[1950s] culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: 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 conceded that there was "racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism," but insisted that the modern "loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups."

"All cultures are not equal," wrote Wax and Alexander. "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."

The UPenn coalition printed a letter on Monday in the school paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, claiming the professors were "complicit in" and guilty of "normalizing" white supremacy through this op-ed.

The culture Wax and Alexander described, "if understood within their sociocultural context, stem from the very same malignant logic of hetero-patriarchal, class-based, white supremacy that plagues our country today," wrote the coalition. "These cultural values and logics are steeped in anti-blackness and white hetero-patriarchal respectability, i.e. two-hetero-parent homes, divorce is a vice, and the denouncement of all groups perceived as not acting white enough i.e. black Americans, Latino communities, and immigrants in particular."

The coalition called for the UPenn administration to investigate "Wax's advocacy for white supremacy."

The signees, many from the anthropology department, "each committed to combating white supremacy in our pedagogy," and called on others to focus on discussing racism in the first weeks of the semester.

The day before this letter was published, five UPenn law professors wrote a column for the student paper arguing, "The 'racial discrimination' and 'limited sex roles' that the authors identify as imperfections in midcentury American life were in fact core features of it. Exclusion and discrimination against people of color was the norm…"

Last week, the IDEAL Council of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at UPenn published a list of demands to the university in response to the "hate speech" in the op-ed. These included, "A policy in place to ensure that tenured faculty with a record of discrimination do not sit on hiring, tenure, or student admissions committees."

Neither Wax nor Alexander have wavered on their views despite the blowback.

"What the objections boil down to is that the bourgeois virtues are somehow racist, or somehow cause racism—contentions that I and my co-author expressly contest, of course," Wax wrote in an email. "But if, indeed, bourgeois values are so racist, the progressive critics should be out there in the street demonstrating against them, stripping them from their own lives, and forbidding their children to practice them. They should be chanting, 'No more work, more crime, more out of wedlock babies, forget thrift, let's get high!' … Of course, there's little chance we're going to see anything like that, which shows the hollowness, indeed the silliness, of the critiques."

Alexander said he "would change nothing" about the piece.

"The charges of racism, white supremacy, etc. are, sadly, the predictable responses of those who can't refute the claims we made," Alexander said. "And those charges are laughable, given that I was a civil rights marcher and have a multi-racial family. But, of course, when you don't have the facts on your side, you resort to calling names. Pathetic!"

Alexander said he has not received any backlash from his own campus community.