A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Mackenzie Fierceton, a former student at the University of Pennsylvania, who was accused by the school of misrepresenting herself as a first-generation college student. Penn seemed not to believe her claims of abuse despite the fact that she had been placed in foster care (the reason she considered herself first-generation). Like other elite institutions, Penn seemed to be using what I called a “trauma algorithm” to determine which hardships counted and which ones should be investigated. That newsletter, which was based on an article the journalist Rachel Aviv wrote in The New Yorker,generated a great deal of response from you, the readers, so I want to return to the subject.
Another controversy at the same school shows the limitations of how these institutions can shape how we think about trauma and inequality.
Two weeks ago, Amy Wax, the embattled University of Pennsylvania law professor who famously said in 2017 that she could not remember a single Black student who graduated in the top quarter of the law school’s class, went on “Tucker Carlson Today” and touched off yet another controversy. This one was mostly about East and South Asian immigrants. Like much of what Wax, who is white, says publicly, her comments on Carlson’s show were incoherent, racist and filled with tropes of a conquering “Western civilization.” She used an expletive referring to India, mocked South Asian students who showed interest in social justice concerns and said that one of the problems with America was that Black people, Asians and immigrants, in general, were seething with resentment toward the accomplishments of “Western” people.
Since Wax’s statement on the performance of her Black students, there have been several calls for her firing, more recently in late February. She has been barred from teaching her introductory class, but is still teaching two courses this semester. She also has tenure, which makes it nearly impossible for the law school to get rid of her.
I have no strong opinion on whether the university should fire Wax or not. Sequestering her away from contact with most first-year students while still honoring the terms of her tenure seems like a fair compromise, but I also don’t think this is a case where someone has made an honest mistake or has been unfairly canceled or whatever. If the university and its students simply do not want to be affiliated with Wax any longer, that also seems like a reasonable choice. I think Amy Wax is a provocateur who spews racist ideas, but I also can’t bring myself to care too much about the employment policies of the University of Pennsylvania’s law school.
What interests me far more is Wax’s claim that the children of wealthy, well-educated East and South Asian immigrants — she seems particularly focused on people whom she seems to assume are “Brahmins” who, back in India, would have occupied the top of the caste system — have all gone “woke” in destructive and disingenuous ways. In her interview with Carlson, Wax said that Asian and South Asian doctors at Penn Med are “on the ramparts for the anti-racism initiative for dump on America, America is an evil, racist place. These are immigrants!”
In an earlier interview with the Brown economist Glenn Loury, Wax made a similar claim, defending the use of stereotypes of Asian students as being robotic and meek, and asked if the “spirit of liberty” beat in the chests of elite Asian immigrants. She thinks not, which is why she supports curtailing Asian immigration. It is ludicrous to question the patriotism of anyone who is not “Western” (read: white). This idea also promotes the white nationalist ethos that this country is for them and everyone else should be glad they were even invited.
There is an underlying question here that Wax doesn’t ask, but one that might present a different side of the Fierceton case. Do the children of upwardly mobile immigrants, especially those who have reaped all the benefits of the purported American meritocracy and found themselves in coveted professional positions, sometimes define themselves as victims of violent and systemic oppression when they don’t deserve to? Or, more broadly, do the concerns of upper-middle-class minority members — the same people who have a good chance of ascending into positions of influence and power — co-opt the more dire needs of the poor?
Let me show you how this works. Take, say, an upwardly mobile and educated Korean American banker whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1975 as graduate students and another Korean American who has entered the country illegally, works as a delivery person and makes $9 an hour. If you reduce their stories to the atrocities of Japanese imperialism in early-20th-century Korea and the Korean War, as well as the day-to-day microaggressions experienced by all Asian men in America, the banker and the delivery driver become more or less indistinguishable from each other.
Everything that matters much more — the delivery driver’s poverty and his undocumented status — gets obscured by a broad telling of history and a few handpicked complaints about how white people ask, “Where are you from?” These instances of identity slippage remind me of a style of sleight-of-hand where the magician provides you tiny, seemingly identifying glimpses that trick you into thinking the card in his hand is actually the card he has secured in his pocket.
This way of thinking is quite common in the academy, the corporate world and the media. Once you notice it for the first time, you start seeing it everywhere, and efforts that seem to be in the name of social justice start to feel a bit hollow. You might, for example, be skeptical about the way corporations almost immediately funneled money into their “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” initiatives during the George Floyd protests. You could also conclude from Mackenzie Fierceton’s story that there is no actual empathy within elite institutions unless you perfectly fit into the trauma hierarchy they have created, which preferences the types of overcoming-adversity stories they can place in a brochure. You might conclude there is no virtue in these elite spaces outside of a purely gestural and ultimately transactional kind.
I would mostly agree with you. These formulations of identity have been on my mind for my entire career as a journalist. I have tried to be critical of them when I see them. But while I believe there needs to be a broad reset on how we talk about oppression and the less fortunate, I’ve also worried these critiques may be taken up by people like Wax as a way to justify the silencing of all talk about race, gender and sexual identity.
If, for example, you have concluded that every critique of the criminal justice system comes from a “woke” lawyer who went to Harvard, you have committed to the same sort of cloistered, dismissive thinking as Wax. You are, in effect, practicing a toxic form of identity politics where you reduce the content of a person’s claim down to the name of the institution on their degree and the amount of money your parents make.
Perhaps the lesson to draw from all of this is that the campus, the newsroom and the corporate marketing boardroom are not the world. If the only conclusion you can draw from the Floyd protests was that some craven corporations and individuals draped themselves in the mantle of social justice and profited, then you missed out on the millions of people who took to the streets because they felt genuinely outraged by his murder and wanted to express their desire for change. They are far more important and there are so many more of them.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”