Amy Wax, Rod Dreher, and the Magic Dirt Theory

Abe Gaustad
4 min readAug 24, 2019

In July of this year, University of Pennsylvania law professor Amy Wax gave a speech on immigration at the National Conservatism Conference in Washington. The substance of Wax’s speech caused controversy, with liberals and some conservatives claiming that her argument for a European preference for future immigrants was racist. What has been missed in the discussion of Wax’s remarks is that portions of her rhetoric actually do have origins with white nationalists and virulent racists.

Before getting to the racist ideas behind Wax’s speech, it might be helpful to take a look at a conservative response. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative concluded, at least on first consideration, that Wax’s comments were not racist. The essence of Dreher’s argument is that there may be valid reasons to restrict immigration from “non-Western” countries, and those restrictions would have an effect on the number of non-white immigrants that entered the country. Because of this effect of the policies, he contends, they are considered racist and even discussing whether they have merit or not is disallowed or at the very least extremely difficult.

Dreher claims that Wax’s argument is debatable, “but one of Wax’s points is that we can’t even talk about it, because it is widely assumed that any immigration system that results in disproportionate racial impact is racist and therefore bad.” This seems false on it’s face. Not only are immigration restrictions that would limit the number of non-white immigrants freely discussed, they are being actively implemented by the Trump administration. To be sure, these policies are called racist, but this has so far not imperiled discussion or even enactment.

What Dreher and other defenders of Wax’s speech miss is that the only means by which racists and white nationalists can achieve their goal is by the indirect method of designing policies that result in a “disproportionate racial impact.” Any proposal that results in such an impact is immediately suspect, as it should be. If we can agree that racism is bad — and I think that Dreher agrees with that premise — then applying strict scrutiny to these ideas is worthwhile.

So how do Wax’s ideas fair when we apply this level of scrutiny? Not well at all.

An excerpt of Wax’s speech with highlighted passages has been posted and reposted to Twitter in order to illustrate Wax’s racism, but my attention was caught by a phrase which wasn’t highlighted. She claims that the fear of being called racist “leads conservatives to avoid talking about cultural distance, or questioning the happy fantasy of ‘magic dirt’…” It is this last phrase, “magic dirt,” that raises concerns.

An excerpt from Wax’s speech.

The phrase “magic dirt theory” ridicules the idea that a nonwhite immigrant can move to America, become a citizen and contribute productively to American society. Those who use this phrase argue that ethnicity and culture are the things that define a nation, and that nonwhites are biologically unable to adopt American culture. Perhaps for conservatives like Dreher the racism inherent in this belief is not readily apparent.

The term’s origin may offer some insight here. As far as I can determine, the first use of the phrase “magic dirt theory” was made in October, 2015 by writer and publisher Vox Day. Day, whose real name is Theodore Beale, is a self-described member of the Alt-Right who has often made inflammatory statements. In a post defining the Alt Right, Day made sure to add the so-called “14-words,” a common white nationalist slogan coined by convicted terrorist David Lane. Day has also referred to Anders Breivik, Norwegian mass murderer and white nationalist, as a “Saint” while praising Breivik’s crimes as a “highly effective blow” against the political machine that he believes is destroying the west. Both Day and Breivik adhere to the “white genocide” conspiracy theory that also inspired mass murders at a synagogue in Pittsburgh and a mosque in Christchurch.

Vox Day, apparent originator of the “magic dirt” argument, on the effectiveness of white nationalist mass murders.

Day’s “magic dirt” phrasing was soon adopted and spread by John Derbyshire, a columnist for the white nationalist website VDARE. Derbyshire was famously fired from his position at The National Review for his controversial views on race. In an article covering the Wax controversy, Zach Beauchamp notes Derbyshire as a vector for the spread of the “magic dirt” phrase. He also notes that Wax praised Derbyshire by name.

I would argue that Wax’s connections with open racists and her adoption of what amounts to a white nationalist talking point, demonstrate conclusively that her concerns about immigration stem from a racism that she is either wholly ignorant that she possesses, or one that she is sloppily trying to conceal. Conservatives like Dreher should realize that rarely do the policy goals of white nationalists and conservative pundits align by mere chance alone. The right wing is, unfortunately, awash in rhetoric that is distinguishable from that found in venues like Stormfront only by its ability to present an argument slur-free. Dreher should know about these not-so-hidden bigots of the conservative movement. After all, Ron Unz, a former editor of the magazine that Dreher edits recently published open Holocaust denial and antisemitism. It might be worthwhile for the good conservatives — and I hope Dreher is one — to pay closer attention. All of us could benefit from such vigilance.