Is the ‘cultural edge’ just a paper tiger?

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld discuss ‘tiger parenting’ and if certain ethnic groups have an advantage

Stephanie Noritz

Stephanie Noritz

Yale law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have written seven wide-ranging books between them, including the bestselling parenting memoir The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Chua, and the bestselling mystery novel The Interpretation of Murder by Rubenfeld. Their latest book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, has touched off controversy with its premise that some ethnic and religious groups succeed more than others thanks to what the authors call a “cultural edge.”

Q: In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve known both of you for more than a decade, going back to when you were my professors. Now, Amy, you’re “Tiger Mom,” you’ve been named one of the most influential people in the world and you’ve had death threats. This new book is causing a firestorm. What has happened to your lives?

AC: I can honestly say that it never occurred to us in a million years that the last three years would be like this. We were just mild-mannered professors, remember? I like writing about culture and I know that it’s a sensitive topic. My first book generated a lot of discussion, but there were no death threats. I guess when you talk about it in the United States, it’s different.

Q: Amy, your interest in successful minority groups came out of your private experience with a Chinese aunt who was murdered by her chauffeur in the Philippines, and working on a deal involving the world’s richest man, Carlos Slim, in Mexico.

AC: My parents belonged to the Chinese minority in the Philippines—a very small minority, about one per cent of the population, but extremely economically successful, controlling maybe 60 per cent of the economy. My first book, World on Fire, was about these market-dominant ethnic minorities—like Indians in East Africa and the Lebanese in West Africa and in parts of Latin America—like Carlos Slim, who is Christian Lebanese. I wrote about how their presence introduced a tension between markets and democracy.

Q: Your new book argues that eight groups in America—Jews, Mormons, Cubans, Chinese, Indians, Iranians, Lebanese and Nigerians—are disproportionately successful because of specific cultural traits. Are you suggesting that other groups are less successful because of their culture?

JR: First, it’s important to emphasize that there are literally dozens of groups outperforming the national average. We picked the groups that were most strikingly successful and whose success was easiest to quantify. We tried to see if there were any common qualities that would explain their success—and three kept coming to the surface. First, the sense of exceptionality: a message that these groups communicate to their members and their children. Second, a sense of personal insecurity—an idea that what you are and what you’ve done isn’t good enough yet. These two qualities seem to create a kind of drive in people—a chip on the shoulder, a hunger to achieve or excel. And the final quality is impulse control or habits of self-restraint. So we are most definitely saying that these qualities help these groups disproportionately succeed. Is our theory supposed to be an explanation of poverty in groups that are persistently low-income? Absolutely not. The causes of poverty in America’s persistently low-income groups are very well known. So much has to do with history. In the case of African Americans, slavery, centuries of discrimination and denial of opportunity, structural problems, and macro-economic changes that have nothing to do with culture.

AC: And these groups change. If you look back 20 years, it was different groups. It’ll be different 20 years from now.

JR: Asian-American kids score 140 points higher on average on their SAT [standardized test] than the rest of the country. But third-generation Asian-American kids perform no differently academically than other kids. It proves that what is driving Asian-American success today is not innate, it’s not biological, it has nothing to do with race. It’s something in the experience of the first- and second-generation kids. The kids who are from these groups, they know this.

Q: Do you see this in your classrooms at Yale?

AC: That’s how we got interested in this project. About five years ago, we were looking around Yale law school and we noticed, “Wow, it’s amazing how many Mormons we have.” Jed, didn’t you have three Mormons in your class?

JR: Yeah, suddenly we looked around and said, “What’s up with all the Mormon students?” Then we started to realize, “Do we have more Cuban-American students than we would have expected? And African immigrant students?”

Q: But I wonder if your equation misses a powerful explanatory variable: social and educational capital. The groups you identify—such as Cuban exiles, or Indian and Iranian immigrants—often come from the elites of their societies. The parents may not speak English and work low-paying jobs, but if they were educated in their home country, isn’t that a powerful advantage?

AC: That’s definitely part of the picture—a status collapse. The Cubans had a tremendous sense of exceptionality—many of them were well-educated—and suddenly they are facing “No dogs, No Cubans” signs. It’s that combination of a sense of exceptionality with suddenly being looked down upon that creates that “we’re going to show everybody” drive. While the educational background of the parent is part of the picture, it’s a lot less than people think. It turns out that more than half of the Chinese who enter this country and just under half of the Indians don’t come over with strong education or skills.

JR: There are studies that actually show that children of grade-school educated immigrants of certain communities, like Chinese or Korean, are systematically outperforming their better-educated white peers—and the success of the second-generation immigrant kids is the same regardless of the parents’ socio-economic background.

Q: Some of the keenest interest in your book comes from parents who worry that their own kids don’t have the same drive as immigrant kids.

JR: A primary factor is that [the immigrant] parents impose higher expectations on their kids. [They] simultaneously communicate to kids: “You are special, you can actually perform as well as or better than the people around you.” And then: “But you haven’t done it yet, you still have to prove yourself.”

AC: This is not a parenting book, but we are critics of the trophies-for-everyone self-esteem thing. That impulse to want our kids to feel good right now is in deep tension with instilling drive in them. If you say, “You are amazing just as you are,” that’s a different message than, “You have it in you, you can be great—but you’re not there yet.”

Q: What are the implications for white, native-born Americans? Are they permitted to have a “superiority complex”? Or is that just a door to “white supremacy”?

JR: We think these qualities are open to anyone. We are not calling for a resuscitation of white supremacy ideology. There are many ways to communicate to kids they are exceptional—not all of them have to be based on some ideology of intolerance or exclusivity. “I am exceptional because I am able to persevere. I am better because I am able to get up after I’ve been knocked down.” That is a form that is not group-exclusive.

AC: The superiority complex is more comfortable and easy to deal with in a minority group. In the cases we look at, it’s a shield against majority discrimination. You’re a Nigerian American and you’re facing American discrimination, and it’s bad, and it erodes your confidence. So [it helps] to have a parent or grandparent say, “Look, you descend from a line of kings.” That’s how I experienced it. I remember this guy making fun of slanty eyes, and my mother said, “Why would you care about someone behaving that stupidly. We come from these ancient people and you are much better than that.”

Q: You write, “Superiority is the one narrative that America has relentlessly denied to or ground out of its black population.”

JR: America’s centuries-long effort to impose an ideology of racial inferiority on its black and other racial minority groups is a tragedy and one of the biggest stains on America’s history. It’s slavery we’re talking about when we talk about how much America has done to try to impose this narrative. It’s a narrative that African Americans have fought against and refuted again and again but one that the dominant culture has tried to impose on them. The costs of that have been extraordinary.

AC: I think Jed and I are deeply uncomfortable with the superiority complex. We think it’s a good thing for the country that, by the second generation, a lot of immigrant kids, Iranian Americans or Chinese Americans, their parents are filling them with ethnic pride, and the kids say, “What are you talking about? We’re Americans.” They just want to assimilate. We think that’s good. It’s part of a creative destruction process.

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