Tiger Mom is many things—but she’s no racist

The difference between race and culture, as explained by the “30 Rock” character played by Tracy Morgan: “I’m gonna have so much money, my grandkids are gonna play lacrosse. Lacrosse, Liz Lemon.”
The difference between race and culture, as explained by the “30 Rock” character played by Tracy Morgan: “I’m gonna have so much money, my grandkids are gonna play lacrosse. Lacrosse, Liz Lemon.”
Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
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It’s a classic error in American discourse: the conflation of race with culture. The latest highly explosive and highly vexing example of this is the pile-on accusing Amy Chua of Tiger Mom fame and her husband Jed Rubenfeld of touting racial superiority in their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.

The Yale Law superstar couple posit that America’s most successful minority groups have three traits in common: a superiority complex; feelings of inadequacy (the superiority complex’s dark underbelly); and impulse control. (An example from the book: Appalachians do crystal meth. They are not successful). These traits, say the authors, are both a boon and a yoke for their bearers, which include Chinese-Americans, Cubans, Indians, Iranians, Jews, Lebanese, Nigerians, and Mormons. I can certainly see why, at first blush, The Triple Package thesis might seem worrisome. Intentionally provocative. Gadfly-esque.

But it’s not racist.

Here’s why, based entirely on some of the accusations made against the book.

“Well, isn’t that convenient”

Because the authors themselves represent two of the successful minority groups (Chua and Rubenfeld are Chinese-American and Jewish, respectively), many critics have called the book a self-serving advancement of the authors’ own ethnicities. If you are making this accusation, you are implying that the book would be more credible if it were written by people who represented none of these groups. For example, if it had been written by, say, Pat Buchanan.

“Some groups will always be ahead of others”

If you bother to read the book through to the end, it states clearly and at length that the traits that augur success start to dissipate as the younger generations become assimilated into mainstream American culture. “The Triple Package,” the book argues, “is worth aspiring to precisely to break out of it.” Like, for example, a set of braces or the Committee to Re-elect the President, the Triple Package’s potency lies in its ability to obsolesce when it is no longer needed.

If the authors are saying that these traits disappear via assimilation, then obviously they talking about cultural traits, not about racial traits.

Can Chua and Rubenfeld reasonably be accused of racism? No. Cultural exceptionalism? Definitely. The former arises from things like pigmentation or (in the case of the Nazis) phrenology—traits that are hereditary. The latter, by contrast, has to do with rearing.

“Chua-Rubenfeld are anti-American”

Let’s address the aspect of the book that is really upsetting people, the less-discussed, underlying anxiety that has given rise to all this foment: The book is really criticizing mainstream American culture.

Well yes, that is kind of how Chua made a name for herself with Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

The authors knew they were courting controversy when they singled out subgroups within minority groups: for example, they point out that Cuban immigrants are more successful than Latinos as whole, and that Nigerian immigrants are more successful than American blacks as a whole.

But what this boils down to is that the longer a group has been in the US, the less ambitious they are, and the worse they perform in measurable areas like income and test scores.

Did everyone not already know that? Both empirically and anecdotally? When I was a child in Chicago, I was a (not very successful) competitive pianist. My teacher was Korean. A few weeks before each competition, she would be sent a list of the other entrants’ names. She would go over the list with me, circling all the names that sounded Asian or Jewish, and say, “These are the ones you’re competing against.” She would underline Hispanic-sounding names, arguing, “These people could be Filipino. We don’t know yet.”

It was not a secret, then or now, that there is something vaguely un-American about forcing your child to be really good at classical music performance. Where does that drive, that quite unnatural drive, come from? To use the Chua-Rubenfeld terminology, it comes from a combination of a superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control. These traits, the authors compellingly point out, run contrary to the American notions of equal opportunity, optimism, and youth-centered culture. They write: “America’s own cultural antibodies invariably attack these groups, encouraging members to break free from their cultures’ traditional constraints.”

Therein lies the paradox: America’s own success as a nation, argue the authors, was always based on some variant of the Triple Package. The first European settlers, the Puritans, were persecuted in their home country, had a sense of being of an elect sect, and as for impulse control—well, that was pretty much the entire basis of Puritan belief.

Yet by the latter part of the 20th century, the authors say, “America [lost] its insecurity—and hence the Triple Package… but the real culprit was success itself.”

Which is to say that any advantages that certain cultures endow on their children, the traits that seemingly give some children an early leg-up in worldly success, will eventually cancel themselves out. Assimilation, not success, is the American end game. Don’t worry; mainstream America will win in the end. It always has.