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An Open Letter to the University of Pennsylvania Regarding Hate Speech in Our Community
This week, Amy Wax, a Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania, published an op-ed in which she argued that the “demise of bourgeois culture” was responsible for a decline of “respectability, civility, and adult values” in American culture. Her argument pivoted on the denigration of a number of racial and socioeconomic groups. Some of its content is quoted directly below:
"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. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all."
These statements will not be surprising to many students of color, especially those in the law school who have had to take a course with Wax. Her racist and homophobic statements are well-documented both on and off campus. She asserted during a talk at Middlebury university that black adults “co-habit in a kind of merry-go round fashion.” Her recent article in the Harvard Law Review, “Educating the Disadvantaged: Two Models,” muses that low-income, students of color may cause “reverse contagion” — infecting more “capable and sophisticated” students with their “delinquency and rule-breaking.”
More important than a single professor’s views, however, is the university’s persistent silence on such views, which creates and maintains a hostile environment for marginalized students on campus. Amy Wax has been a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law since 2001, where she has been extensively celebrated in Penn publications and web media.
Prior to teaching at Penn, Wax was a professor at the University of Virginia Law School. On August 12th, White supremacists marched through the University of Virginia carrying torches, chanting “You will not replace us,” and yelling racial and anti-semitic slurs. White Nationalist Richard Spencer initiated the march with the statement “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced.” Spencer’s incitement of moral panic can find its intellectual home in the kind of falsely “objective’’ rhetoric in Amy Wax’s statement, which positions (white) bourgeois culture as not only objectively superior, but also under incursion from lesser cultures and races. Our own alumnus Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad (Condemnation of Blackness), and Penn Law Professor Dorothy E. Roberts (Killing the Black Body, Fatal Invention) have empirically connected this direct academic cover for white supremacy to eugenicist ideas and practice in the United States.
The University of Pennsylvania is at yet another crossroads. Like Amy Wax, the University of Pennsylvania and its administrators and agents have the right to free speech. There is ample space within the construct of free speech for a forceful condemnation of racist, classist, and queerphobic rhetoric. The failure to use this power to condemn hate speech constitutes a position of its own — a position of indifference and complicity. Following the fall 2016 incident where several Black freshman students were terrorized with images of lynching on social media by a student who had attended Penn Visiting Weekend, the IDEAL Committee met several times with University administration to develop a firm policy for addressing hate speech that affects Penn students. We still hopefully await substantive change and increased transparency. With white supremacist rallies proliferating rapidly across the country, Penn’s lack of transparent and concrete policies regarding discrimination enables the intimidation of its students of color, including by their own professors. We do not wish to prolong this process until the metastasizing KKK chapters of Pennsylvania march boldly across our campus.
Our President Amy Gutmann states on the University of Pennsylvania Diversity website states that “Penn’s commitment to achieving eminence through diversity is ultimately a commitment to creating a more vibrant university so that our graduates will be both stimulated and empowered to shape a better world.”However, the IDEAL Council contends that Penn does not empower all students. Instead, by failing to take a public stand against rhetoric that harms, dehumanizes, and compromises the education of its vulnerable students, Penn merely reinscribes existing social hierarchies and inequalities. We hold that Penn can do better.We are not satisfied that we should wait until one of these incidents occurs again. We are not satisfied that all reasonable preventative action has been taken to protect the free speech, wellbeing, and physical safety of students at Penn who are not White.
1. A statement from the university specifically designating racist, homophobic, sexist, transphobic speech as hate speech.2. The convening of a committee with student representatives to develop a formal policy for censuring hate speech and a schedule of community-based consequences for discriminatory acts against marginalized groups. [Edit: The original draft contained a typo where ‘censuring’ was autocorrected to ‘censoring.’ This mistake has been corrected as of Saturday, August 19th]3. A public, step-by-step outline of the current grievance procedure provided for the university, if any, as well as formal workshops on utilizing the grievance procedure for all Penn community members.4. An addition to the student honor policy that condemns, in writing, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.5. A digital grievance submission form specifically for racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, which would protect the anonymity of student submissions.6. A policy in place to ensure that tenured faculty with a record of discrimination do not sit on hiring, tenure, or student admissions committees.7. A formal, centralized Diversity & Inclusion office with staff that are charged directly with improving the overall culture of inclusion at Penn and providing resources for students experiencing marginalized or discrimination at Penn.8. Additionally, the IDEAL Council declares its intention to henceforth provide public minutes to our membership of all meetings concerning said issues with the student body.
The IDEAL Council of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly at Penn
Co-signed In Solidarity By:
1. The Executive Board of the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GAPSA)2. Penn Law Council of Student Representatives3. PennDesign Student Council4. The PennVet Student Chapter of the American Veterinary Medical Association5. The Black Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (BGAPSA)6. The Black Graduate Women’s Association (BGWA)7. The Ernest E. Just Biomedical Society (E.E. Just)8. Lambda Grads9. The Fontaine Society10. The Pan-Asian American Graduate Student Assembly (PAAGSA)11. Rangoli12. Penn Graduate Women in Science and Engineering (PGWISE)13. Students Confronting Racism and White Privilege (SCRWP)14. The Latin American Graduate and Professional Student Assembly ( LAGAPSA)15. Lirui Bui, President of PennDental Student Government16. Akshay Walia, President of SASGov17. Hari Ramachandran, President of Graduate Engineering Student Government18. Matthew Lee, Treasurer School of Nursing Doctoral Student Organization
Inquiries can be directed to gapsa.ideal at gmail.com