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'Triple Package,' Ethnicity and Success

February 4, 2014

Many people first learned about Amy Chua, a law professor at Yale University, from her 2011 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, which ran with the headline "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior."

In the piece, she argued that Chinese parents were doing their children a favor by demanding straight As and unquestioning respect for elders. If that means calling children "garbage," as she was called by her father and as she called a daughter who was misbehaving, so be it. The offspring of these families are succeeding while lenient, self-esteem obsessed Western parents are letting their children fall behind, she wrote. Chua's op-ed drew attention and prompted numerous kitchen table and pundit debates about her book -- Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Penguin) -- from which the Journal's article was excerpted.

The Tiger Mother professor is back -- this time with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, also a Yale law professor -- with a new book, The Triple Package (Penguin Press) that combines discussion of race, ethnicity, success and education in ways that have ignited debate even before its official release today. The "package" refers to "three unlikely traits" that Chua and Rubenfeld argue "explain the rise and fall of cultural groups in America."

Academic success features prominently in the book, but the authors reject the idea that the success of some groups, such as Asian Americans and Jews, can be explained by an "education culture" embraced over the generations. They note that Mormons -- one of the groups they identify as having success -- "remained relatively closed to intellectual and scientific authority" for much of the 20th century. And while Jews have achieved considerable academic and other success in the United States, many of the Jewish immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island a century ago "were barely schooled, having lived most of their lives in shtetls or ghettos in extreme poverty."

It's not that groups that succeed in the United States haven't come to value education, the authors say. It's that there are underlying traits that lead them to do so -- and to find success. Those three traits, the authors say, are a feeling of superiority, a simultaneous feeling of insecurity, and impulse control. The groups that Chua and Rubenfeld identify as having these traits include the predictable (Asian Americans and Jews) but also Mormons and subsets of black and Latino Americans (black immigrants from Africa, and the early Cuban immigrants and their children), among others.

The book is mix of statistics about the success of various groups and of analysis of the way those groups are associated with the traits the authors see as crucial. The statistics include figures that cause discomfort in many educational circles. For example, the authors look at a recent class of admits to Stuyvesant High School, a New York City public high school for which admissions are based solely on test scores.

Admitted in 2013: 9 black students, 24 Latino students, 177 white students and 620 Asian American students. (Asian-American students make up about 16 percent of the New York City public school system, which has a large majority of black and Latino students.) The authors are quick to acknowledge that there are plenty of Asian-American families in the United States today that have achieved the kind of economic success that provides an edge on test scores. But they use zip code analysis to show that large numbers of the Asian Americans winning entry to Stuyvesant aren't from wealthy families.

"The Chinese parents in Sunset Park sending their children to Stuyvesant don't tend to have Ph.D.s; they're more likely to be restaurant or factory workers," they write.

Chua and Rubenfeld also note repeatedly the relative success of black immigrants as compared to African Americans whose families have been in the United States for generations. They note the 2004 analysis by two Harvard University professors that found that a majority and perhaps two-thirds of the black students at Harvard were either immigrants from Africa or the West Indies, or their children, or the children of biracial parents. Chua and Rubenfeld note that Nigerian Americans make up 0.7 percent of the black population in the U.S., but ten times that percentage of those in elite undergraduate or professional schools. For example, they cite a study that 20 to 25 percent of the black students at Harvard University's business school -- entry to which is a ticket to financial success -- are Nigerian Americans.

At Yale law, the authors look at the membership of the Black Law Students Association, which has 18 members in the first-year class out of a total class of 205. Only 2 of the 18 are African-American students. The others include 12 with at least one foreign-born parent: 3 Nigerian students, 2 Ethiopian, 1 Liberian, 1 Haitian, 1 half-Ethiopian and half-Jewish, 1 half-Haitian and half-Korean, 1 half-Jamaican and half-Puerto Rican, 1 half-Panamanian and half-African American, and 1 half-Swedish and half-African American.

If such lists of ethnic success make you uncomfortable, you may have difficulty with the book, which is full of such statistics (although many are about economic success, not just academic success). The book goes on to link the success to various traits, and especially the combination of superiority (think "chosen people" for Jews, or the extent to which many immigrant groups are told they must succeed for the good of their entire people) with inferiority (realizing other groups may look down on them, and being told by parents that 98 on a test is a failure if someone else earned 100). It is the combination of these qualities that spurs success, the authors write. Traditional American Protestant elites may have felt superior, but never insecure (as a group), they suggest.

One piece of evidence: A study of freshmen at 28 elite American colleges and universities in which Asian-American students earned the highest grades and entered with the highest SAT scores, but had the lowest self-esteem scores of all ethnic and racial groups. These students are being pushed to succeed, but aren't being told that they are perfect. It's the opposite of the "trophy for everyone" approach to much of American child-rearing.

And as for impulse control -- the other trait -- the authors here in essence encourage Tiger Parenting, in which children are taught to study and study some more, are closely supervised, and are told to avoid wasting time on anything not promoting learning.

Perhaps responding to some of the criticism of the Tiger Mother book, the authors freely admit that there is an "underside" to being raised as a "triple package" child. They note the guilt and neuroticism that can be created by such an upbringing, quoting the Jewish joke that "5 percent of Jews are mildly depressed. [pause] The rest are basket cases."

Chua and Rubenfeld also note that the package may be better for some careers and lives than others. "Triple Package cultures tend to channel people into conventional, materialistic careers," they write. "This is a direct result of the insecurity that drives them. The 'chip on the shoulder,' the need to show the world or prove yourself -- these typical Triple Package anxieties tend to make people crave obvious tokens of success such as top grades, merit badges, high salaries, luxury cars and 'respectable' careers."

In terms of how the American people (and not just subgroups) can benefit from the Triple Package, the authors suggest a focus on parts of the American experience that are consistent -- such as the sense of "American exceptionalism" that tracks well with the superiority part of their thesis.

While everyone can't find a place in a combination superiority/inferiority complex, Americans can restore a commitment to impulse control, Chua and Rubenfeld write. They note that an emphasis on hard work and overcoming long odds -- of impulse control -- "isn't members-only. It's not the exclusive property of Triple Package groups. The way in -- not that it's remotely easy -- is through grit."

As an example, they cite the recent autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which she describes overcoming adversity, and achieving the highest levels of academic and professional success. "The point of this example is not, 'See , it's easy to climb out of poverty in America -- Sotomayor did it.' On the contrary, Sotomayor's story illustrates just how extraordinary a person has to be to overcome the odds and institutions she had stacked against her," Chua and Rubenfeld write. "The difference between Triple Package individuals, like Sotomayor, and Triple Package groups is that members of the latter are pushed by family and culture to work hard and strive, whereas a Triple Package individual may have no resources to draw on other than his or her own.... Sometimes Triple Package individuals may even be disparaged by members of their own group."

Attention and Criticism

The book is already getting plenty of attention -- with a New York Times essay giving the authors the chance to share their thesis. Publishers Weekly said: "This comprehensive, lucid sociological study balances its findings with a probing look at the downsides of the triple package -- the burden of carrying a family’s expectations, and deep insecurities that come at a psychological price."

Many other reviews have been harsh, with some questioning some of the authors' choices (not including Russian-Americans as a successful group, for example) and the ease with which the book discusses traits held by some but not all members of particular groups.

The headline in Salon sums up its thoughts on the book: "Tiger Mom is back with despicable new theory about racial superiority."

Or consider the subhead of The Nation's review: "A new book raises the question: Are Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld racists — or just equal opportunity trolls?"

A review on The Root, a website focused on African-American issues, termed the book "obnoxious, but not racist." The review distinguishes Triple Package from The Bell Curve in that the new book focuses on traits that can change and that are not simply inherited. And the review says that some common practices among African Americans are unhealthy and should change.

At the same time, the review takes the book to task. "There is something extremely condescending about two people of privilege writing a book about how they 'earned' their privilege, in part, by being privileged enough to grow up in the right kinds of communities, with, presumably, the right kinds of people," it says.

"There is, as I see it, a fundamental flaw in Chua’s argument. It seems that she and her husband define success in very limited ways. For instance, of the eight 'superior' groups mentioned in the book, how many have produced U.S. presidents? Senators? How many of them have produced artists and musicians who have forever changed the face of American culture? This isn’t to say that no one in these groups has done so, but rock and roll and hip-hop — billion-dollar industries — were not primarily the brainchildren of the groups she touts. And from my vantage point, cultural and political power are also pretty key to group 'superiority.' But what do I know?"

While Triple Package suggests many Asian-American families have traditions that are helping their children, not all Asian-American educators are happy with this portrayal.

Rosalind Chou, assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, said via email that she was troubled by way the arguments "lump Asian Americans altogether as one group" when so many different groups are of Asian Americans are in the United States. "I feel like Chua is making sweeping claims across a diversified group. In many ways, she's reinforcing model minority stereotyping of Asian Americans and perpetuating stereotypes about poor whites and other people of color," Chou said.

At the same time, Chou predicted that the book would attract a wide audience, and that this would be problematic. "It concerns me that Chua's work will be yet another best-seller, and individuals absorbing her claims will not have a full picture and context of race in the United States," she said. "Claims of culture cannot be taken out of context of colonialism and other systems of oppression in the U.S. and beyond our borders. Explaining group traits in this manner is dangerous, unscientific, and unethical and I fear that work like this keeps us from racial progression. This type of work was used against those of Jewish and Asian descent in the not-so-distant past."

 

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