Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cultural Back-Patting

The authors of a controversial new treatise on the superiority of certain cultures promote a dubious narrative about "model minorities." They wrongly give credence to blaming cultural values as the reason other groups are not succeeding.

from SayWhyDoi.com

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.


nj said...

I don't like the idea of model minorities...but I DO like the idea of minority models.

Neha said...

Really good post. What irked me the most about this article was the fact that it actually got published (in the WSJ no less) when it was based purely on anecdote, as you mentioned. Very similar to another Yale law prof's recent rant in the Huffington Post about Indian standards of beauty. These are fodder for xanga, not print media, and giving them such credence sets a dangerous societal standard for reason.

Andrew T said...

Like Neha said, I'm annoyed this was published at all, and I'm not sure it was worth your time to debunk (though a solid debunking it was).

I do think you should discourage your readers from following the link to the column, because the high numbers of page views brought in by this kind of cultural trolling, driven in part by links in perfectly well-reasoned response columns like your own, are what causes this kind of crap to get published in the first place.

Todd B. said...

[JN: This comment was originally posted to my Facebook and imported by me here to add to the discussion.]

I am a big Amy Chua fan. I read her book and loved it, and I generally agree with what she's saying here. It bothers me how easy and safe it is to point and call her bigot, because I think she's defending a logical view.

Basically she is saying: certain groups are achieving wildly different levels of success. That means they are doing different shit. The collective sphincter-tightening that this stupidly basic observation causes is beyond me.

The "refutation" is that there are many complex systemic factors that shape and advantage different groups differently, and blah blah blah snore. But her piece basically begs to admit this, pointing out over and over that you see far more variation at higher granularity, that the differences are really more between particular groups in a particular environments at a particular time than they are broadly between cultures, etc, etc etc.

And finally, her triple package resonates strongly with what I've experienced in my life. I am hardly any huge god of achievement, but where I have achieved moderate success in a few places, the traits she advocates have been there, especially insecurity. Basically, even if you are world class in a certain field, still in the vast scope of human potential, You Suck. I have found this mindset to be critical to success, and noticed it again and again in mega-successful people (not me). This has nothing to do with being "miserable" or "self-loathing." It is basic awareness.

also yesterday, more Chua: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/02/magazine/confessions-of-a-tiger-couple.html

Kai R. said...

[JN: This comment was originally posted to my Facebook and imported by me here to add to the discussion.]

i can't speak to whether she is personally a bigot, but her rhetoric is identical to rhetoric used by bigots to explain the economic situation of "unmodel minorities" as a failing of character rather than a product of economic repression. even in the late 1960s, politicians were explaining the economic success of indian american immigrants (who were mostly highly qualified technical professionals who had come in under the hart-celler act) as being the result of inherent character traits such as hard work and conscientiousness, while simultaneously pointing to the relative underachievement of newly integrated african americans as evidence that they lacked these same character traits.

Jay said...

[JN: This comment was originally posted to my Facebook and imported by me here to add to the discussion.]

Todd, thanks for a thoughtful and well-reasoned response. My problem with Chua's viewpoint though is not that she doesn't view the world through United Colors of Benetton glasses, it's that I don't buy her explanation of cultural differences as keying the success of certain groups versus others. I don't think that "triple package" is a culturally unique value, it is a trait common to many successful people. Assigning it to culture ignores the difference in types of immigrants who come to the U.S.

Is Cuban culture so different than Mexican culture, that the former has vastly more developed senses of superiority, inferiority, and the nebulous "impulse control"? Or is it that Cubans who have achieved success here were largely educated and middle to upper class in their country, whereas a significant percent of Mexican immigrants are agricultural or low-skill workers. Is Nigerian culture vastly different than Ethiopian or Eritrean culture, or is it again that the former are largely college educated and the latter are largely refugees fleeing a civil war?

Given that, I don't think she's hit upon any special formula for success (beyond obvious tropes), and her misinterpretation of the results is what's worthy of correcting.