In a buzzed-about New York Times column, Amy Chua (who first came to widespread fame -- or infamy -- with her "Tiger Mom" manifesto in 2011) and her husband Jed Rubenfeld opine on "What Drives Success." The authors promote eight cultures in America (an ethnic, religious, and racial grab bag of immigrant Chinese, Indians, Persians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Cubans, as well as Jews and Mormons) as being superior. These groups are better, say Chua and Rubenfeld, because they possess the "Triple Package" of having a "superiority complex," feelings of "inferiority," and have mastered "impulse control."
An elevated arch of the eyebrows in response to this "theory" is justified. The Triple Package is the latest example of pop sociology which can drive lively conversation at cocktail parties or dinner tables, but eschew rigorous documentation and verifiable fact in favor of sweeping generalizations and dubious conclusions drawn from personal anecdotes. It may be that these ideas are better fleshed out in the authors' upcoming book on this topic (several critical reviews I have read indicate they are not), but thus far what is presented has gaping holes or is often contradictory. Some examples that particularly galled me from the piece:
- The essay opens by citing the fact that Indian-Americans earn double the national median household income, despite -- as noted a couple paragraphs later -- "almost half" of Indian immigrants not arriving in the U.S. via employment-based channels. Of course, flipping that on its head, over half of Indian immigrants to the U.S. arrive for sponsored work, and they (owing both to U.S. policy and self-selection of ambitious people who have the means to move to another country) are most frequently educated professionals in the fields of IT, engineering, business, and medicine. Meanwhile, by definition the national average includes unskilled laborers, high school and college dropouts, and other groups likely to be earning far less. So it is not particularly remarkable that Indian-Americans are relative high-earners. (And one would expect that intrinsic cultural values, if they were so important, would make a bigger dent in India's extreme poverty levels.)
- Ignoring the self-selecting nature of immigration from India, China, etc. is a tremendous flaw in the Triple Package narrative. It causes the authors to celebrate the success of Cuban-Americans, who make up just 3.5% of American Hispanics, but count three U.S. Senators and scores of business leaders among their ranks. The article doesn't explain what cultural factors would differentiate Cuban immigrants from Mexican immigrants, many of the latter who face greater instability and hostility (factors Chua and Rubenfeld cite in favor of Cubans). Two important facts are ignored.
- Cuban-American success has not been widespread -- research reveals a definite "bimodal distribution" of wealth accumulation by Cubans in the U.S. That is to say, there are equally significant groups of successful and not-very-successful segments of the Cuban-American population. In a lengthy and brilliant takedown of Chua and Rubenfeld by Time's Suketu Mehta, which I came across late in the process of writing this post, Mehta explains that the successful group was well-educated and professionally successful (and largely white) on their home island, while the unsuccessful group came from the Cuban prison population (largely darker-skinned) that arrived in a later wave.
- Meanwhile, a significant proportion of Mexican-Americans were poor and poorly educated in their home country, and remain so here. The large number of undocumented Mexican migrants who arrived here crossing a land border are likely to remain poor in the U.S. since they have limited access to education and good jobs. Mehta quotes CUNY's Philip Kasinitz' rejoinder to those who draw the wrong conclusion about Mexican culture based on their immigrants' relative lack of success: "If Mexicans threw out the top 10% of their population into America, you'd be singing a different tune about Mexicans."
- I am also hard-pressed to define a group (in this case, Asian-Americans) as "successful" when, as the authors note, they "reported the lowest self-esteem of any racial group." Chua and Rubenfeld may define success as being rich and earning an M.D. or an M.B.A., but even if you dismiss as touchy-feely the pursuit of happiness (along with creative pursuits, empathy, etc.), there is no economic advantage to creating a generation of miserable, self-loathing, and insecure people who became doctors and lawyers not because they wanted to and have a talent and passion for helping people, but because they were forced to. In the long-run that leads to a lower quality of care or service provided, and the children of these immigrants wind up rejecting those cultural values anyway. The authors do note that "that third-generation Asian-American students [perform] no better academically than white students." A culture that can't propagate itself is not successful.
Many of the Times' Indian, Chinese, Jewish, or Other Favored Group readers doubtlessly felt satisfaction in seeing their values celebrated and held up as an example in the Chua-Rubenfeld essay. Yet this sort of self-congratulation makes it easier to denigrate other groups for having poor values, rather than realizing that there are significant structural barriers that have prevented other groups from experiencing the same kind of success. Not to discount anyone's hard work and sacrifice, but those in the highlighted groups--my family included--have had the good fortune to not be held back by the same structural barriers that have unfortunately impeded and continue to impede others.