Will Asian Immigration Change American Culture?
with Amy Wax
Right now in the United States, we are in the midst of a major influx of talent from South and East Asia. Look at our most competitive high schools, colleges, medical schools, and tech companies, and you’re going to see a lot of people whose families arrived from India and South Korea and China within the last 25 years or so. By any measurable standard, these people—not all of them, but a huge number of them—are succeeding in American society.
As far as I see it, this is all to the good. The U.S. has enjoyed virtually unchallenged economic supremacy in the world for decades, but I doubt that will be the case for too much longer. China has emerged as a major global competitor. If we are going to maintain the standard of living to which we’ve become accustomed, we’re going to need all the talent and innovation we can get. So I say, if an immigrant has got the drive and ability to get here and succeed, let ‘em in.
But I admit that economic considerations are only one part of the immigration question. Culture matters. By and large, I think that South and East Asian immigrants have integrated themselves into American culture quite well. But others, like my guest Amy Wax, have their doubts. Amy doesn’t deny these immigrants are doing well at the elite levels of society, but she questions whether they’re committed to American values like liberty and individuality. She sees them as perhaps inherently susceptible to the excesses of the woke politics that we both abhor.
I have to say, I don’t exactly agree with Amy about that. Nevertheless, her willingness (even eagerness!) to state her position as forthrightly as possible makes her a great guest. She doesn’t tiptoe around anything.
I think you’ll find this one provocative—let me know where you come down on this issue in the comments!
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AMY WAX: The year before—before Covid—I'd given a talk on immigration in which I had said that I thought our policy should be geared much more to cultural compatibility. But we have to face up to the fact that there's a Western world and then there's a non-Western world or a third world in which many of our values are not shared. In fact, people are barely familiar with them. They're certainly not inculcated. And that it's just harder to assimilate those people or to have confidence that our way of life will continue if we bring a lot of people in who aren’t familiar with it, who don't have fealty to it or allegiance to it or whatever.
And these are not original ideas on the right, but unfortunately, I said, this might result in a shift in the racial profile of people who come in. We'll obviously have fewer people from Africa. We'll have fewer people from some parts of Asia. It'll be more white. Not that that many white people want to come to the United States. And this is what made the headlines: “Amy Wax advocates for excluding people of color from immigration.” Which of course isn't what I said at all. I said, this might be the result, and therefore conservatives might be nervous about it. I was talking about what conservatives are willing to advocate. Conservatives are very skittish about racial effects.
In fact, that's something in the essays that I sent to you that I've written about. That one of the reasons fighting wokeness is so difficult, I think, and there's been so little success—there have been pockets of success, we can talk about the school wars—is because conservatives are so confused and ambivalent about the whole “disparate impact, equal results” phenomenon. And that, I think, is a problem on the right. People need to get their head on straight, that under current conditions, if they're going to go back to colorblindness, if they're going to go back to impartiality and the classic meritocracy, we are not going to see proportional outcomes.
GLENN LOURY: Now hold on, Amy. I actually agree with that, and I want to talk about that. But I want to just ask you a question about this point about immigration, because I'm noticing that a large number of the immigrants who are coming from some parts of the non-Western world are doing quite well.
I mean, I'm noticing that South Asians, for example, are all over the tech industries. I'm noticing that East Asian first- and second-generation immigrants from Korea, from China are doing very well. And if you were to rank different ethnic groups by income or occupational status or whatever, you'd find a number of non-Western immigrant populations doing quite well, in terms of wealth and PhDs and so forth and so on.
So non-Western is a pretty broad category. And the cultural characteristics of some of these immigrants. So that's one point, that some immigrants are doing quite well who are not from the West. The other point, though, is that it's very selective who decides to come. And even if I come from what Donald Trump called a “shithole country,” even if I come from a place that's not at all doing well, I might be an individual who, by virtue of electing to get the heck out of it, has characteristics that would redound to my benefit once I get here. So you paint with such a broad brush. How do you answer that concern?
It is a broad brush, I agree. It's a mass generalization. I think it does need to be refined to reflect a couple of facts that you pointed out. The first is that we are seeing signal success of East Asians and South Asians who come here. But of course, as you recognize, they're a highly selected part of the population. They're a tiny, tiny elite. These places are so populous, they have so many people that if you bring in this tiny, tiny upper-crust, you'll get a critical mass of very capable people. I mean, there's no question about that whatsoever.
So we have to distinguish mass immigration, which we're getting from the Hispanics south of the border, which I think poses different questions and challenges from the Asian elites that we're getting. Now, that doesn't mean that this influx of Asian elites is non-problematic. I actually think it's problematic. I don't think it's problematic because of dysfunction or underclass behavior, because we're not seeing that. Although if we had mass migration from those countries, I think that would be a different matter.
I think it's because there is this let's call it danger of the dominance of an Asian elite in this country. And what does that mean? What is that going to mean, to change the culture? And that's not a popular idea to say that. Like, “Why would you ever say anything like that?”
Well, what's the danger? What would be wrong with having a lot of Chinese or of Indian and or Korean engineers, physicians, computer scientists, and whatnot running around here, creating value, enlivening the society? I mean, I don't see how we lose from that. How do we lose from that?
Does the spirit of liberty beat in their breast, Glenn? Now, whenever I say that, here's what people say: “Well, I mean, if you look at the white legacy population, certainly the elites, does the spirit of liberty beat in their breast?”
Well, that's a point. That's a good point.
They've become so woke that I consider that a very negative and dangerous development.
What do you mean by “the spirit of liberty”? You're saying they're not democrats, or somehow they're—I mean small-D democrats.
People who are whiggish, who are mistrustful of centralized concentrations of authority, who have a kind of “don't tread on me” attitude, who are focused on the Bill of Rights, on our freedoms, on our liberties, on small-scale personal responsibility, who are non-conformist in good ways. And, you know, I think it's been written about, Asians tend to be more conformist to whatever the dominant ethos is.
So the wokeness. I'll give you an example of what concerns me, of the sort of thing that's happening. And it's very caught up with the fashionable multiculturalist, anti-American sentiments that wokeness represents. Because wokeness is now the luxury belief of the upper class. And that's what Asians think they have to ape if they're going to be upper-class. They look at upper-class white people and see what they believe, and they say, “Well, we have to believe what they believe because we want to be upper-class, too.”
So if you go into medical schools, you'll see that Indians, South Asians are now rising stars in medicine. They're sort of the new Jews, I guess you could say. But these diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, which are poisoning the scientific establishment and the medical establishment now—and I really think they are—who are the people in the front lines? South Asian women doctors. They are there at the barricades saying, “Oh, America is a racist society. It's an awful, terrible society.” Of course, they chose to come here from India. Nobody ever asked them, like, why are you here? “It's a terrible, awful racist, irredeemable, evil society. And we need to revolutionize and reform it.” Why are South Asian women saying that? Why are they on the forefront of accusing us and of mimicking anti-American sentiment?
What has their South-Asianness got to do with it? I mean, you just mentioned Jews yourself. You and I are both academics. There are a lot of Jews in the academy. The academy is rotten with the very wokeness that you're condemning. Am I going to blame the Jews for that?
Well, yes. I'm Jewish. I blame the Jews for that.
She said it, everybody. She said it, I didn't, okay? [laughs]
Jews have abused their power, they have abused their prominence, abused their power, and abused their dominance in the academy, in my mind.
But I don't attribute it to their Jewishness. I would attributed it to the logic of the institutional dynamic in which they are embedded. The academy, which has its flaws, of which the susceptibility to this kind of postmodern relativism and this obsession about identity is one. And so those who happen to be in the academy, I find, disproportionately are adherents of this ideology, which I abhor. But not because they're Jews. Likewise, not because they're from India.
See, I disagree with you. Let's go back to the South Asians, who just love to bash America and be part of the whole DEI push. What is it about them that they are kind of scrambling all over each other to be at the forefront of this? You know, I think there is a certain conformity and instrumentalism to the way they see rising in a society, which is, you know, forget the principles, forget about whether it's true or not, forget about whether America is a good place, a bad place, or a middling place. We see that this is the trend, and we want to get on the bandwagon and be important and powerful and prominent, so we're going be a part of this.
And it's mindless. I mean, why should someone who emigrated from India—no, let me finish—and has taken advantage of everything our society has to offer, who is leading the good life, who is part of the elite—why shouldn't that person be abjectly grateful and recognize overtly all the wonderful things about our country? Why should they be at the ramparts bashing our country? To me it makes no sense.
Let me speak for them for a moment. They're merely conforming to the ethos that they have inherited when they entered into these institutions. They didn't bring wokeness with them. They didn't invent wokeness. They're just trying to get by. And by the way, many of them are deeply ambivalent about it.
I think your characterization, your broad brush of South Asian adherence to this wokeness, is not accurate. For example, I just read Matt Taibbi's recent post about Loudoun County, Virginia. And he says, what was the race story in Loudoun County? This is a short version of his, I think, very fine reporting. He says it wasn't about critical race theory and how do you talk about race and slavery.
It was about South Asian first- or second-generation immigrant families who want to get their kids into the top technical school in the area and who want Gifted and Talented and who are pissed off at the implicit racism against their success that the equity mongers who say there are not enough blacks in the Gifted and Talented, and therefore we have to get rid of it. Or the Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology, which is not in Loudoun County, but which Loudoun County sends many of its students to under a special program that was called into question because there are not enough blacks in the— And he says, that's the real story that got Terry McAuliffe defeated in Virginia. Brown people, not white people, objecting to wokeness.