Tiger Mother Amy Chua is at it again, unfortunately.
The Yale Law professor first gained widespread notoriety with her 2012 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Among other things, Chua was criticized for her extremely harsh parenting techniques, such as calling her seven year old daughter “garbage”, in order to motivate her, and forcing her young children to endure marathon six-hour practice sessions on the piano and violin.
If you’ve been on social media in the last couple of days, you’ve probably seen Maureen Callahan’s New York Post article “Tiger Mom: Some cultural groups are superior” which previews Chua’s and her husband Jed Rubenfeld’s upcoming book The Triple Package: Why Groups Rise and Fall in America. In what’s sure to be another bestseller, the pair make the highly controversial claim that certain communities are simply better at achieving success than others, and that this success has to do with certain inherent characteristics belonging to these cultural groups. The book is sure to garner just as much (if not more) controversy as her first book did.
The Triple Package doesn’t come out until next month, so it’s too early to pass serious judgment on its contents. Given that the source for this news is the New York Post, and given the incendiary title and tone of the article, it’s probably safe to assume that the reporter, Callahan, was aiming more for page views than for accuracy. However, there is ample cause for alarm in the few details that Callahan lets slip about the book. Chua and Rubenfeld single out eight cultural groups that they claim are “exceptional” (leading us to wonder what is so wrong with other groups in America), including Jews, Chinese, Indians, Mormons, and Nigerians. These and other cultural groups, they claim, have been able to do so well in America not because of the unique social and economic conditions they have existed in, but because of qualities that other groups simply do not have. These virtues are; 1) the presence of a superiority complex, 2) the simultaneous existence of an inferiority complex, and 3) a marked capacity for impulse control.
You don’t have to read the book to see the problems with this kind of argument. First of all, this kind of analysis smacks of cultural essentialism. Chua and Rubenfeld show little inclination to recognize the incredible diversity that composes various cultural groups in America, and they show little indication that they understand that culture is not a monolith. Their conclusions seem to be based on stale and empty stereotypes about ethnic groups, and I am left wondering how they will manage to empirically back up their claims about the traits they claim are universally present in their chosen eight groups. (According to Callahan’s analysis of the text, the data used to back up their conclusions is “specious” and “anecdotal.” I am inclined to believe her.)
More damningly, the argument that Chua and Rubenfeld are making is not new, nor are the authors brave for posing it. They are simply reaffirming the mainstream opinion about certain minority groups. Their thesis is a manifestation of what is known as the model minority myth: the belief that certain ethnic and cultural minority communities in America have managed to lift themselves out of poverty and misery solely by the virtue of their own hard work. According to this misguided belief, these minorities didn’t request handouts from the government, or civil rights reforms from society — they instead invested their energy into making better lives for themselves.
There are two major problems with such an argument. The first is that this myth is often used as a weapon against racial and ethnic minorities that haven’t “made it” yet, despite having been in the country longer than the more successful newer arrivals. African Americans bear the brunt of this type of criticism, and the model minority myth is responsible for much of the tension that exists between Black and Asian American communities. The second major problem with this argument is that the myth is simply not true; it is not true that every community has managed to lift itself out of poverty so easily. The myth obscures the reality of Asian American poverty and the struggles of immigrant life –it renders racial discrimination against these groups invisible, and contributes to stereotypes.
However, the biggest problem with Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is that they seem to be ignoring the real reason why most of these groups are so successful in America: they are immigrant communities. There’s nothing special about Nigerians that Irish Americans (for example) don’t have — the difference is, Nigerians are recent immigrants, and the Irish are not. Intergenerational mobility is often quite stark for immigrants, as the second generation tends to benefit from the hard work done by the first. The argument also obscures the fact that immigrant populations are often self-selected, and come to this country with certain advantages that native populations might not have. The vast majority of the Indian-American population, for example, came to this country with high rates of educational attainment, which meant that they had cultural and economic advantages that other Americans did not have. Ignoring these other factors, which are not unknown to researchers who study immigration in America, is tantamount to intellectual dishonesty.
Perhaps Chua and Rubenfeld will address these concerns in their book; perhaps they’ll provide a more persuasive argument than Callahan and I believe to be possible. It is entirely possible that the Post article has completely misconstrued what they have been trying to say. This certainly isn’t the first time Amy Chua has been given media exposure that she felt painted her in an unfair light. Chua argued that the Wall Street Journal excerpt of her first book had been taken out of context, and that they had made her sound like she was writing a parenting manual, instead of a memoir. After reading Tiger Mother, I have to conclude that Chua was right to be frustrated. In the book, we learn that Chua eventually learned from her experience with authoritarian parenting, and learned how to moderate her approach — a fact that was never mentioned by the media in its coverage of the book.
However, despite the lessons she claims to have learned by the end of the book, the overwhelming impression I received after reading Tiger Mother was that Amy Chua is a singularly joyless, narrow-minded individual. She displays little to no intellectual curiosity, she sees no merit in teaching her children emotional intelligence (David Brooks went so far as to call Chua a “wimp” for not letting her kids hold sleepovers), and not once in her book does she address the potential mental health consequences for survivors of “Chinese parenting.”
I fear that given her limitations, Chua is vastly out of her league in trying to tackle a question as laden with complexity as why certain groups do better than other groups in America. It is yet to be seen whether Chua and Rubenfeld will succeed in their analysis, but given what we know of their project so far, I doubt that they will.
Jaya Sundaresh lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. Follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation and read her thoughts on her personal blog.