Letter from Whig-Clio student leaders regarding the visit of Amy Wax| October 13, 2019
The Daily Princetonian’s recent articles have called upon Whig-Clio’s student leaders to disinvite Amy Wax. We have tried, and been stopped, repeatedly. In 2018, Amy Wax was invited to campus by a former member of the Governing Council. Later, other officers rescinded Wax’s invitation, citing logistical concerns, reluctant to promote a racist at Whig-Clio (again). In response, Whig-Clio’s Trustee Board chastised those student leaders, claiming that disinvitation is never acceptable, under any circumstances. They then pressured the Society’s next student leaders to re-extend an invitation to Wax. This summer, after more racist comments from Wax, we delivered the below letter to and spoke with our Trustee chair, urging him to allow us to disinvite her. Our request was denied.
The claim that student leaders “insist[ed] that Wax return” is patently false. Decisions regarding the re-invitation of Wax are and have always been out of our hands. We condemn the idea that we owe professional courtesy to a white supremacist. However, given both the Trustees’ absolute control over Whig-Clio’s budget decisions and the ephemerality of student leadership relative to the Trustees’ long-lasting tenures, a disinvitation from us would be futile. We have instead focused our efforts as student leaders upon improving the discourse surrounding race on campus by co-sponsoring a panel discussion called “Organizing from the Margins.” The event, planned by Princeton student activists KiKi Gilbert ’21, Nathan Poland ’20, Aisha Tahir ’21, and many others, featured Lydia Thornton, Antonne Henshaw, Anthony Diaz, and Alexis Miller, four activists who work for the advancement of marginalized communities in New Jersey. It was held in the Senate Chamber on Saturday at 2 p.m., concurrently with the event featuring Wax.
Whig-Clio’s Governing Council has also taken action to ensure that this situation never arises again. Our new Speakers Protocol requires multiple Governing Council members to thoroughly vet all proposed speakers, and Whig-Clio’s new Suggestion Box system provides a way for members to submit speaker suggestions as well as event feedback, so that the Society invites only those speakers who contribute to productive discourse. Furthermore, we want to rearticulate our commitment to building meaningful community. This weekend’s “Organizing from the Margins” panel is just one example of our work towards that goal. As the leaders of Princeton’s political hub, we promise to continue to learn from past mistakes and to make Whig-Clio a space for discourse that is engaging and safe for all.
Grace Collins ’21, President, The American Whig-Cliosophic Society
Chase Lovgren ’21, Vice President, The American Whig-Cliosophic Society
This statement represents the private views of the above individuals and is not an official statement on behalf of the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.
The following letter was written to the Representative for the Board of Trustees of the Whig-Cliosophic Society by its president and vice president prior to Amy Wax’s October talk.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a black student graduate in the top quarter of the class, and rarely, rarely in the top half.” — Professor Amy Wax, March 2018
“I don’t shrink from the word ‘superior’ ... Everyone wants to come to the countries ruled by white Europeans.” — Professor Amy Wax, August 2017
“All cultures are not equal ... the anti- ‘acting white’ rap culture of inner-city blacks… [is] incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require.” — Professor Amy Wax, August 2017
“Embracing cultural distance, cultural-distance nationalism, means, in effect, taking the position that country will be better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.” — Professor Amy Wax, July 2019
Dear [Representative for the Board of Trustees],
Last spring, when our predecessors cancelled an event with Penn Law professor Amy Wax the night before it was scheduled to occur, they did so with moral outrage at just a few of the sentiments expressed above. Afterwards, they were chastised for acting rashly and behaving unprofessionally, and they were forced to reinvite the professor to speak at an event which their successor student leaders would have to organize. Perhaps the criticism about professionalism was qualified — it is indeed impolite to rescind an invitation just before an event. However, in light of recent racist remarks made by Professor Amy Wax, Whig-Clio can no longer afford for politeness and professionalism to be our highest concerns.
We are obligated to act in accordance with our values as a society that upholds the principle of racial equality. Professor Wax’s most recent comments, perhaps her most blatantly racist to date, prove that the inflammatory remarks whose discovery prompted the cancellation of her first event did not represent an insensitive mistake on her part. Instead they represent merely one installment in a series of behaviors that would reflect her hatred for people of color and their cultures. Her comments this week that America would be “better off” with “more whites and fewer non-whites” very clearly display the white supremacy that seeps through her personal philosophy and poisons her worldview with venomous bigotry. Now, we have a moral obligation as one of campus’ largest and most influential student groups to prevent the rise of such racism. Given that we are two-and-a-half months in advance and that Professor Wax made these telling comments just a few days ago, it is not too late to fulfill that obligation we have to the Princeton community. As the President and Vice President of The American Whig-Cliosophic Society, we ask urgently that you allow us to cancel Professor Wax’s October event as soon as possible.
It is important to cancel this event now because putting this kind of person on a platform would cause several harms. First, it would destroy Whig-Clio’s reputation. It should come as no surprise to you that the vast majority of Princeton students are anti-racist and do not wish to align themselves with any organization that has anything to do with outspoken white supremacists. With one of Whig-Clio’s biggest goals this semester being to create unity and forge a membership body, ruining our reputation in the eyes of students by hosting a speaker whose very moral system clashes with the universal principle of racial equality would be disastrous for the organization. Second, Professor Wax’s presence on our campus has the potential to put the majority of Princeton students at risk. Fifty-five percent of our undergraduates are non-white. Since hosting Professor Wax in any capacity would show them that Whig-Clio legitimizes her ideas, this event would not only send the message that Whig-Clio stands against Princeton students of color, but it would also embolden hateful forces in our community that frequently manifest in abuse and violence (discussed in detail below). Third, the invitation of Professor Wax was a mistake in the first place, and it feels wrong that the students of this administration, who are firmly anti-racist, must now be the ones to cause these harms and bear the consequences that will come if we are to host this woman on our campus.
It is also important to cancel this event for a reason that is unexpected but important: protecting freedom of expression. Professor Wax’s event is actually supposed to be about “free speech,” a term which she often uses to delegitimize those who call out her racism and claim that conservative speech faces some form of censorship. As is obvious to anyone seeking to do anything less than disparage Whig-Clio, we take issue not with Professor Wax’s conservatism, but with her white supremacy. We ask, how can “free speech” ever exist in an environment where students of color feel unsafe or unrespected? How can speech be free if only white students — indeed, the minority at Princeton — may participate legitimately? If Professor Wax, who clearly believes that only students fitting a certain “culture” (again, a clear analog for race) are equal to herself and “superior” to others, is to lead a discussion or a question-and-answer session with students, how in the world is it possible to make that fair and open? It seems that Professor Wax’s vision of free speech asserts that one should be able to blow as many racist dog-whistles she wishes and face no consequences — or, even, that this makes her entitled to a platform, and that anyone who disagrees is attempting to censor conservatives. This is a highly distorted vision of “free speech” that seeks to protect bigots by bastardizing the name of “conservatism” to fit its ill purposes. This is not the free speech Whig-Clio should practice. Rather, we should seek to protect the marginalized and uphold the principles of equality and racial justice.
Those who would condemn Wax’s disinvitation as a violation of her freedom of speech often rely on arguments that characterize words and ideas as uniquely distinct from the actions they enable. This could be no further from the truth: Language like that used by Professor Wax is dangerous and hateful exactly because it empowers white supremacists to take terroristic actions against marginalized groups. Just earlier this year in Christchurch, New Zealand, two mosques were attacked by a terrorist shooter who, in his manifesto, used the language of white nationalism and white supremacy — just as Professor Wax does in her comments on the “superior” nature of whites — to justify his actions. In February, a U.S. Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested after being suspected of plotting a mass killing of prominent U.S. politicians. In email drafts discovered on his computer, he too drew upon the language of white supremacy — “We need a white homeland as Europe seems lost.” This language also echoes Wax’s message of America being better off with more whites and fewer non-whites. It is crucial to recognize the role of our organization in inviting speakers who hold these ideas. Hosting Professor Wax sends a clear and direct message that such speech ought to be not only tolerated, but elevated on a platform to be heard and digested by both future leaders and, terrifyingly, those just waiting for fuel for the fires of racist hatred inside of them.
Even when racism does not lead to such extreme action, it still poses real harms to our campus community. Putting a person widely known for espousing white supremacist rhetoric onto our platform — even if we expressly disendorse her views — signifies to our non-American students and students of color that we do not respect them. Even if we were to expressly disavow her views, which we have never done or had to do with speakers in the past, simply elevating a racist onto our platform and allowing her to send messages to the community with our backing would create an organizational environment (certainly at her event, specifically) where black and brown voices are viewed as innately inferior to white voices. This is morally reprehensible and violates the very purpose of The American Whig-Cliosophic Society: to create fair spaces for productive discussion and open debate, where all perspectives — political and cultural — are welcome. Professor Wax’s view that “all cultures are not equal” opposes the fundamental values of all types of human equality that stand behind this mission, and we cannot welcome her to this campus if we are to serve our purpose as Whig-Clio.
In any case, the free speech argument — namely, that withdrawing Professor Wax’s invitation due to the white supremacist ideology behind many of her comments and publications is a violation of her right to speak freely — is an incoherent one. There is no reason why Professor Wax is entitled to a platform at Princeton University, besides that someone invited her by accident. If we were to Google Professor Wax today, student leaders would not have invited her in the first place, because she makes racist comments. They would instead invite some other conservative American law professor and move about their days — but the principle behind not inviting her in the first place, that we want to avoid racism on our campus, is the same principle that we must uphold by withdrawing her initial invitation. If one of these actions is a free speech violation, the other must be as well. “Free speech” can never be a black-and-white issue for this reason, and “violations” of it are not so easily defined, because we have to ask ourselves questions about the purpose and effects of giving people a platform on our campus. Does the principle of “free speech” mean that any and all people are equally entitled to the Whig-Clio platform? Or do we have a moral obligation to the students of color on our campus to show them the same level of respect that we show to white voices, in order to fulfill the organization’s purpose of sparking productive and equitable debate? Additionally, since it would be ridiculous to ask us to ignore hateful and bigoted stances when choosing our speakers, we must recognize that the protection offered to students of color on campus far outweighs any potential “free speech” violation created by disinviting someone who has clearly shown that they are incapable of respecting the speech of individuals of color anyway. (When we say “speech,” what we really mean is expression — of views, of values, of self, and so on. Culture is one such expression. Professor Wax’s recent comments indicate that she cannot respect free expression for anyone but well-off, white Americans. When Professor Wax talks about the “culture” of groups that just happen to be racial groups, she is hiding her racism behind a dog-whistle. Furthermore, given that culture is central to a person’s identity and belief system, and so a person cannot be separated from their culture, she disparages the speech and very existence of urban black Americans, Latinx immigrants, and even poor white Americans, preventing them from ever speaking “freely” before they even open their mouths). Because of these things, it is absolutely instrumental that we do not allow Professor Wax and her white supremacy to be elevated in our name.
South African anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” We agree with these words, and because of this, we cannot sit idly by and allow the decisions of others and the precedent of “politeness” to bring the evil force of white supremacy onto our campus in our name. The reputation of Whig-Clio, its student leaders, and its Trustees will be permanently soiled if we put this woman on a platform. As the President and Vice President of this organization, we want Whig-Clio to be an open space where all types of speech are respected and heard. Because we want to fulfill our organization’s purpose to the best of our ability, and because we recognize the societal reality that the voices of hateful white supremacists and the voices of people of color can never coexist, we strongly urge you to allow us to rescind our invitation to Professor Amy Wax and to cancel her event on Oct. 12 immediately.
Grace A. Collins
Chase M. Lovgren