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August 24, 2017

Law professors argue colleagues' 'bourgeois' ideal is racist and classist

Our nation is divided. Racial, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim, and other hate crimes are on the rise, and economic inequality is growing. As legal academics, we understand the role law plays in ensuring the freedom and equality guaranteed by the Constitution. We believe that law professors have a role in helping our nation move past its divisions and become safer, wealthier, fairer, or more efficient, depending upon our individual areas of concentration. We can speak with expertise about the issues our country faces as we train new generations of lawyers who will confront these issues in practice.

We also respect academic freedom, which affords professors latitude to express ideas that we ourselves might find difficult, or that challenge our belief systems. Our profession prides itself on civil discourse even when we disagree. There are rare occasions, however, in which the opinions expressed by another law professor display both a moral toxicity and an intellectual bankruptcy that require us to put collegiality aside, and to call out such opinions for what they are.

Such is the case with the opinions expressed recently on Philly.com by University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax and University of San Diego law professor Larry Alexander. In that piece, the authors lament the breakdown of the hegemony of what they call “bourgeois cultural norms,” a list of lifestyle imperatives that, according to the authors, were undermined by the liberalization of culture in the 1960s. That list of imperatives, according to Wax and Alexander, included:

“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.”

The opinions expressed by Professors Wax and Alexander ... do not deserve our respect. They are dehumanizing, inherently racist, and ultimately irrational. 

The piece contrasts this so-called “bourgeois” culture and what the authors appear to see as the destructive cultures of the less-well adjusted. According to the authors, “[a]ll 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.”

Now, it’s not a tremendous leap to conclude that, in the context in which the piece was written, “bourgeois” is actually code for “upper-middle class white.” These two law professors argue, without a shred of support, empirical or otherwise, that the culture of upper-middle class whites is superior to other cultures. First of all, this argument is of dubious accuracy – the “bourgeois” cultural values the authors list were hardly universal, even among wealthy white people before the 60s. Second, in touting the superiority of that “bourgeois” culture, the authors conveniently forget its dark underbelly – African-Americans who educated themselves and worked hard to assimilate, only to find themselves rejected by that “superior” culture. Women who stayed in violent marriages. Working class whites who devoted their lives to a company, only to be betrayed by plant closings, while executives walked away with all the money.

A GLARING OMISSION

But more importantly, the argument is racist and classist. For example, in contrasting their ideal, purportedly “bourgeois,” rules of “work hard” “avoid idleness” and “[g]o the extra mile for your employer” with the specter of “single-parent families” “the welfare state” and “rap culture of inner city blacks,” the authors seemingly invoke the stereotypes of lazy Black people, or shiftless welfare recipients. Lest one wonder if we read too much into the piece, author Wax later stated, in an interview with the Daily Pennsylvanian, that she doesn’t “shrink from the word, ‘superior.’” According to Amy Wax, “[e]veryone wants to come to the countries that exemplify” the values she and her co-author list. “Everyone,” she asserts, “wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”

The silence of respectable people has enabled bigotry and injustice of all varieties to flourish in this country for far too long. Silence is no longer an option.

The sheer intellectual dishonesty of that assertion is breathtaking. By what metric is “superiority” judged? Who is “everyone”? Do they really all want to go to countries ruled by white Europeans? If so, is it possible that those fleeing to white European nations are doing so because of the consequences of colonialism and the fallout from foreign policy blunders made by those same nations? We would have expected arguments of more depth, support and thoughtfulness, especially from two people who purport to be experts in logic and use of authority.

Not all opinions are equally defensible. The co-signers of this letter have heard many ideas we disagree with, in classes we have taught as well as discussions with faculty colleagues, and respected the speakers’ positions without flinching. That is the nature of law school and of social inquiry. There are assertions, however, which are divorced from intellectual rigor and serve no purpose beyond coddling the existing prejudices of their speakers and listeners who wish to justify similar prejudices. The opinions expressed by Professors Wax and Alexander fall squarely within the latter category and do not deserve our respect. They are dehumanizing, inherently racist, and ultimately irrational. It bears emphasizing that the professors’ opinions are offered without evidentiary support, which is – to say the least – a glaring omission from two trained lawyers and frankly shocking coming from two professors charged with educating students about law and logic.

Nor, in these times, do these opinions deserve our silence. Silence is an especially pernicious response to overt expressions of racism. The silence of respectable people has enabled bigotry and injustice of all varieties to flourish in this country for far too long. Silence is no longer an option.

We hope that the students at Penn and USD Schools of Law understand that this is not the best that the law has to offer. We specifically hope that minority law students at those and other American institutions do not believe that their faculties consider them inferior. After all, what unites us as an American nation is not our race, ethnicity, or language, but our dedication, to paraphrase President Lincoln, to the proposition that all people are created equal. As legal academics, we owe it to our nation to do all we can to uphold that most basic American value, and to do so with fairness, intellectual rigor, and decency. Our nation should expect no less of us, and we should expect no less of one another.


Mary Bowman, Director of the Legal Writing Program and Associate Professor of Law, Seattle University School of Law, bowmanm1@seattleu.edu

Leonore F. Carpenter, Associate Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, lee.carpenter@temple.edu

David S. Cohen, Professor of Law, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, dsc39@drexel.edu

Susan DeJarnatt, Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, susan.dejarnatt@temple.edu

Katie Eyer, Associate Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School – Camden, katie.eyer@rutgers.edu

Sarah Katz, Associate Clinical Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, sarah.katz@temple.edu

Mary Levy, Practice Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, marylevy@temple.edu

Rachel Lopez, Associate Professor of Law, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, rel62@drexel.edu

Ellie Margolis, Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, ellie.margolis@temple.edu

Kristen E. Murray, Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, kristen.murray@temple.edu

Kim Mutcherson Vice Dean and Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School - Camden kim.mutcherson@rutgers.edu

Anthony Niedwiecki, Dean, Golden Gate University School of Law, aniedwiecki@ggu.edu

Sarah Ricks, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School – Camden, sricks@camden.rutgers.edu

Ruth Anne Robbins, Distinguished Clinical Professor of Law, Rutgers Law School –Camden, ruth.anne.robbins@rutgers.edu  

Kathryn M. Stanchi, Jack E. Feinberg ’57 Professor of Litigation and Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, kathryn.stanchi@temple.edu

Donald F. Tibbs, Professor of Law, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, dft26@drexel.edu

Bonny L. Tavares, Assistant Professor of Law, Temple University Beasley School of Law, bonny.tavares@temple.edu

Lisa A. Tucker, Associate Professor of Law, Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law, ltm35@drexel.edu