Wax Lecture Stirs Controversy

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UPenn Law Professor Amy Wax, left, packed Hillcrest and provoked spurts of anger from students and faculty members. Wax called the signs “lazy.” (Campus/Rachel Frank)

Hillcrest 103 was packed beyond standing room, with over 100 in attendance, on Thursday, Nov. 21 when University of Pennsylvania Law Professor Amy Wax gave a lecture, titled “Diverging Family Structure by Class and Race: Economic Hardship, Moral Deregulation or Something Else?”  Amid signs proclaiming “racist,” Wax gave a 40-minute presentation followed by a heated question and answer session.

Wax presented aggregate data on diverging family values focusing on differences in birth rates of children born out of wedlock and overall marriage rates between whites and non-whites that she argues is caused by “differences in decision making style by class and race” and post 1960s “moral deregulation.”

Wax argued that low socio-economic groups are more likely to make decisions based in the short term and to “think locally” while high-economic groups tend to think in the long term or “think globally.” She referenced what she calls a moral deregulation in the post-1960 U.S. as the point of divergence, arguing that pre-1960s Americans abided by a uniform code of behavior that acted as an “equalizer” and once Americans began to self-regulate, different family patterns and patterns of behavior began to emerge.

“We got this fragmentation and distinct race and class based cultures and lifestyle diversity, widening social and economic inequality,” Wax said.

Many students prepared for the lecture’s sensitive material and Wax’s interpretation by carrying signs labeled “Racist.”  After seeing the signs, Wax proclaimed that, “It is easy to call people names, and it’s lazy, but what’s hard is to show why they are wrong. I don’t think at an institution of this caliber that’s how people ought to be responding, just with name-calling. Shutting down discussion is not the answer.”

A. Barton Hepburn Professor of Sociology Margaret Nelson noted that though she herself would not bring in signs labeled “racist,” the student sentiment at the moment was significant.

“I think students of color were being attacked and felt attacked,” Nelson said. “I think she was making statements about people’s morality — saying most African Americans act in immoral ways in this society.”

Wax opened her lecture with background data, stating that over the past 60 years a “dramatic dispersion” in the U.S. population by socioeconomic status and race in family structure surrounding rates of marriage, divorce, single parent families and multiple partners.

“What I mean by this dispersion is that upper middle class people, despite the anecdotes that you may have heard, are living fairly traditional, nuclear family lives,” Wax said. “Upper middle class families may talk the sixties, but they live the fifties. Lower middle class, defined educationally as people with a high-school degree or less, and now some college or less, their lives and families are increasingly disorganized.”

Wax went on to present a series of aggregate data that outlined declining marriage rates among minorities, which indicated that family construction among blacks is on average characterized by higher divorce rates, higher rates of extra-marital fatherhood and multiple partner fertility.

“They co-habit, but they co-habit in a kind of merry-go-round fashion,” Wax concluded. “[Having children out of wedlock] is a dominant norm in some communities.”

According to Wax, in 1962, out-of-wedlock birth rates and single parent family rates were much closer together by education level and class. In the 1980s divorce rates among whites started to decline and is now 15 percent among white college graduates. Wax argues that marriages are becoming more stable among the white demographic group. While the rate of out of wedlock births among blacks is now over 72 percent.

Wax noted that most demographers agree that economic factors alone do not explain the decline in marriage with blacks, becase while their economic status of blacks has improved in the last period, yet marriage rates have continued to decline.

“Black men marry less than white men, Hispanic men and Asian men today controlling for employment, income, for everything economic,”
Wax said.

Throughout the lecture, Wax begged the question of what contributes to that discrepancy, asserting that the economically insecure were not having children with multiple partners in the past like they are today, a fact through which Wax argued that economic factors cannot be the cause of this change in behavior.

“There is growing evidence of a kind of behavioral, cultural problem among working class men that is leading to educational failure, job failure and also the inability to maintain a family.”

“We are so committed to tolerance and non-judgementalism that we tolerate things that maybe we shouldn’t tolerate,” Wax continued. “Not by making them illegal or throwing people in jail, but by just even saying ‘you shouldn’t do that’ or ‘that isn’t good.’”

When asked by a student in the audience what some of these things were, Wax offered having a child out of wedlock.

In addition to the signs, her hypothesis was met with much opposition from both students and faculty members.

“Wax’s data displayed information that we already knew in terms of the construction of marriage in America and disparities between different racial groups,” Amari Simpson ’16 said. “But, I found it problematic that she attempted to demonize certain racial groups without factoring into her research the social and structural determinants to those peoples’ life decisions.”

“There is not evidence [for her theory],” Nelson added. “There is data that shows there are different family forms by race/ethnicity and class and there are a multitude of interpretations for those differences. But those alternate explanations were not given serious attention.”

Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Murray Dry, who sponsored Wax’s visit to the College,  said this lecture was a learning opportunity for this community.

“I’m not trying to convert anybody. I want to bring people up here that have something thoughtful to say on a relevant subject,” Dry said. “The lesson for us at Middlebury to take is that it is okay to disagree. Don’t assume that because someone disagrees with you on a subject on which you have strong views that there must be something morally bad about that person. That gets in the way of one’s education.”

Dry went on to mention that despite the different hypotheses on why we see the racial trends in family structure, what is important is not what causes these trends but what we can do about them.

“So maybe we don’t know exactly what the cause is but can’t we agree that it would be good if we could do something about it,” Dry said. “These results are alarming.”

Most seemed to agree that the problem wasn’t with Wax’s aggregate data, but with the assumptions she made from that data.

“The nature of the offense was not the data,” Nelson said. “It was the interpretation imposed on the data without any evidence that was the appropriate interpretation.”

Simpson went a step further.

“I felt that the implication of her research will do nothing to help these people besides negatively distort academia’s perspective on this subject,” Simpson said.