Like many folks who read Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s lengthy piece in the NYTimes today, I’m aghast. The piece purports to be a probing and innovative exploration of “success” in America, following the differing fortunes of persons of various ethnic heritages. But it seems to me to be one of the most concerted and insidious defenses of ethnic and racial stereotypes we have been offered since the Bell Curve.
In the essay the authors summarize their new book, and if you have ever reflected for even a moment on the self-reproducing logics of ethnic and racial discrimination in America, the book’s title alone will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.” Traits? Rise and fall? Cultural Groups??? Each of those terms demarcates an entity, standard of attainment, or category that is utterly arbitrary and which conveniently, seamlessly, reproduces their argument.
I have to ask: How do these people have ANY credibility IN A DEMOCRACY?
Chua (aka, Tiger Mom) and Rubenfeld posit a cocktail of personal attributes that carry individual citizens out of penury and into affluence. The three “traits” are a “superiority complex” that lends one a sense of one’s own exceptional merit or valor, a sense of innate “inferiority” that drives one forward to achieve, and (la plus ca change!), sufficient “impulse control.” Certain people, whom they identify by what they believe to be meaningful group affiliations (for example, as Jewish, Cuban-American, or Nigerian), “succeed” by dint of these attributes and affiliations.
So we are back to Horatio Alger. We are back to the neoliberal belief that individual fortitude is and should be central to individual economic security. We are also back uncritically to delineating group memberships (Jewish, Asian, Black, Mormon…) and attaching functionalist labels (students of Ivy League caliber, people who are insecure…) that confirm our own logic. This last is an idea of “cultural groups” and their experiences that even the NY POST understands is retro!
I could write a book (oh wait, I already did) on the self-referential nature of American definitions of intellectual attainment and how those definitions systematically deny structural racism. But let me stress here the way that each of the three traits points to individual volition…potentially cultivated, say Chua and Rubenfeld, through family and community influences, but to no avail without the final ingredient: the magic of personal grit.
Yep, that’s right: Grit. Heck, why not “Gumption?” Or how about, “Moxie”? Because frankly, this argument would have been cutting edge in 1943. In that year, a noted expert on African-American education in the U.S. Office of Education, Dr. Ambrose Caliver, described the importance of increased self-discipline for black Americans who aspired to be doctors or scientists. More precisely, he fretted that blacks lacked a “zest for discovery” and were easily distracted by “entertainments.” A shortfall in self-control was diagnosed asthe problem. During his career Caliver tirelessly fought immense obstacles to black educational opportunity, but he operated with ideas that were nonetheless highly essentialist. This kind of characterization appears to find evidence (lack of fortitude) in a field of data (people who are black) while in actuality, selecting both what counts as evidence and what belongs in the field in order to fit a pre-conceived pattern (a preponderance of blacks who lack fortitude).
I shudder to think of such false empiricism gaining new credence through the imprimatur of Yale Law School (Chua and Rubenfeld’s employer) and the New York Times. But I’m not surprised. Circular arguments, narrowed ideas of human welfare, deep distrust of collective aims that might transcend self- or other-identity…these are reliably the instruments of privilege in a profoundly hierarchical society. The concerned tone of Chua and Rubenfeld’s piece is disingenuous and their brief nod to “discrimination, prejudice and shrinking opportunity” disguises a systematic denial of structural inequities in American education and economic institutions. Packaged, indeed.