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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Authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

Courtesy of Fadil Berisha, Gianluca Battista

Have you ever wondered why finance firms are full of Jews or why the campuses of selective colleges are dominated by Asians? You might not feel free to speculate aloud in polite company, but Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s book The Triple Package will do it for you, and quite loudly.

Chua is the author of The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a memoir in which she extolled the virtues of harsh disciplinary “Chinese” parenting. Chua has now become something of a brand, a polarizing figure loved or hated because of her views on the link between culture and success. Rubenfeld (Chua’s husband and Yale colleague) is a provocateur in his own right, having authored a controversial article on rape. But this book’s most distinctive feature is Chua’s stock-in-trade: the claim that group cultures explain why those groups are winners.

The academic community has uniformly dismissed Chua’s recent work with much eye rolling, even as Chua and Rubenfeld are laughing all the way to the bank. To be fair, Triple Package is a trade book for a trade press, written in a lively style accessible to Chua’s earlier readers. Still, the authors push their academic bona fides on the talk-show circuit, and conservatives are touting the book as scholarly proof that culture explains persistent racial gaps in achievement. For those reasons, it’s important to give the book’s argument the scrutiny that Chua and Rubenfeld have invited.

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Here is the book’s thesis: Some groups (Cubans, Nigerians, Mormons, Jews, some Asian groups, south Asian Indians, and Iranians) have experienced upward mobility in the U.S. at higher rates because they possess three cultural qualities: impulse control, feelings of superiority, and feelings of inferiority. By impulse control, they mean the ability to resist temptation (to quit, for example); superiority and inferiority appear to be a simultaneous belief in your group’s specialness (e.g., God’s chosen people) and deep-seated anxiety about inadequacy, the kind that a Chinese mother might instill in her daughter by calling her garbage.

These cultural traits are the ticket to success. Being Latino is no impediment, Chua and Rubenfeld argue, since Cubans can make it. Nor is being black, if Nigerians can do well (though the authors disclaim these comparisons on talk shows). The Triple Package is available to everyone.

The problem with the thesis is that in setting out their claim, the authors ignore the more obvious explanation for differences in group success: history. To be specific, in their quest to make it all about culture, the authors either ignore or strongly discount the particular circumstances of a group’s first arrival, and the advantages enjoyed by that first wave.

It turns out that a group’s immigration history explains differences in achievement much better than does the Triple Package theory. For many groups, like Cubans and Mormons, the early wave was a select group endowed with some significant material or nonmaterial resources—wealth, education, or maybe a government resettlement package. For other groups, like Nigerians and south Asian Indians, student and employment-based visas have helped to select a rarefied cross section of people with English skills and educations, making it difficult to now conclude much about the larger groups’ cultural traits. The degree of selectiveness that immigration law imposes has varied highly from group to group.

The Triple Package’s minimizing of history is a bit curious, given that many of the authors’ own sources favor this explanation. Here are some of the early-wave stories that the authors could have told but didn’t:

  • It’s not just that Mormons have developed a “pioneer spirit” or that they believe that they can receive divine revelations, as Triple Package would have us believe. It’s more that the first Mormons started with enough money to buy a great deal of land in Missouri and Illinois. They then migrated to Utah, where Brigham Young and his followers essentially stole land from the Shoshone and Ute tribes, refusing to pay what the tribes demanded, and petitioning for the government to remove them. Beyond thousands of acres of free land, early political control over Utah was helpful.
  • The very first wave of Cubans—exclusively white and wealthy or upper middle-class—came in anticipation of Castro’s revolution. This pre-revolutionary wave didn’t suffer “the humiliating sting of becoming menial workers,” as Chua and Rubenfeld suggest; they came bringing their art collections, financial investments, and elite connections with them. For later first-wavers, a $957 million dollar U.S. government refugee program (loans for small businesses, for example) didn’t hurt, though the authors fail to mention this.
  • Why do south Asian Indians earn higher wages? As Triple Package acknowledges, immigration law has done a great deal of prescreening for a very select cross section of south Asian Indians. A majority of them come on employment-based visas, with higher educations and English skills, to work in high-tech jobs in California, New York, and Chicago. The Indian median incomes come from this group and not the poorer subsequent waves that the Triple Package profiles.
  • Likewise, it’s not that Nigerians “feel they are capable of anything.” More to the point, the vast majority of Nigerians in the U.S. do well in higher education because they are non-immigrants who have come on foreign student visas expressly to enroll in U.S. schools. Nigerians get advanced degrees in no small part because they need to stay in school to retain their visa.

First-wave advantage is significant. As I have argued elsewhere, wealth and education for early waves generate significant advantage for group members and their children. Social networks among the elite and well educated help to distribute social assistance, job referrals, financial opportunities, information, and other kinds of goodies not available to people outside the group.

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