What You Learn When You Take Amy Chua Seriously

Reading between the lines.
Feb. 12 2014 1:58 PM

The Flaw at the Heart of The Triple Package

Why Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s argument about success and ethnic groups doesn’t hold water.

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What about the later-coming waves, who came with far less wealth? If the magical Triple Package of traits is the explanation, then the later waves should look very much like the first waves at the same stage of development. But if the story is really about wealth and history, then we should see different trajectories for the later waves. Which of course is precisely what we see. Again, a few stories illustrate the point:

  • The third wave of Cubans, the Marielitos who were disproportionately poor and black, assimilated into Cuban communities but remained on the fringes, earning far less, in part because white Cubans excluded them.
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  • The most recent (newly converted) Mormons hail from Africa and Latin America, and many of them have migrated to the U.S. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has also begun outreach to U.S.-born blacks (African-Americans have only been allowed in the Mormon church priesthood since 1978). Black Mormon trajectories look nothing like the white Mormons at the center of The Triple Package’s argument.
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Acknowledging these differences, Chua and Rubenfeld still hold fast to culture but are forced now to slice and dice the argument, to claim that “cultural subdivisions within categories … can have dramatic effects on group success.” The argument starts to unravel, becoming less an argument about group culture and more a claim about cherry-picked sub-subgroups (a restricted range of south Asians; Cubans, but not the black ones; Mormons, but not the black or brown ones) or even individuals at the right time period with the right traits.

 Plus there’s that pesky issue of race.

What about Mexicans and U.S.-born black descendants of slaves? Which story better explains their trajectory? Compare the wealth of native black and Mexican first waves to that of, say, the elite first-wave Cubans and the preselected subgroup of Nigerians. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Mexicans had no real first wave; they were here before the Anglos, and their land was stolen by the U.S. None of the Mexican waves has been elite or prosperous, nor for that matter, benefited from a government resettlement package. And the early waves of African-Americans came not on student diversity visas but as slaves, chattel property earning nothing.

What might the U.S.-born African-American metrics have looked like if former slaves had actually been given their 40 acres and a mule? Census Bureau economist Kirk White estimates that a very large fraction of current wealth differences between blacks and whites can be traced to differences between blacks and whites at emancipation.

Serious sociologists like Harvard’s William Julius Wilson and Yale’s Elijah Anderson believe that culture plays a role in economic success, but that history, economic forces, and first-wave wealth explain far more than culture. Put differently, history and structure drive the bus, and culture might be a passenger along for the ride. But the cultural arguments in the book aren’t serious, more entertaining anecdote and “status anxiety as social theory” than well-supported science.

Of course The Triple Package isn’t really serious scholarship, notwithstanding the authors’ impressive credentials. As yet another intentionally provocative story for a trade press playing to the crowd, the Triple Package narrative works well. But as a rigorous substantive claim about persistent inequality among racial, ethnic, and religious groups, The Triple Package’s argument doesn’t begin to make the grade.

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Daria Roithmayr is the George T. and Harriet E. Pfleger Professor of Law at USC, and the author of Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock In White Advantage.

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