By AMY CHUA and JED RUBENFELD JAN. 25, 2014
A SEEMINGLY un-American fact about America today is that for some groups, much more than others, upward mobility and the American dream are alive and well. It may be taboo to say it, but certain ethnic, religious and national-origin groups are doing strikingly better than Americans overall.
Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. These facts don’t make some groups “better” than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life. But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy.
Crimenoticing, as featured NYT commenters noticed:
Nancy 53 minutes ago
What wildly racist thoroughly immoral gibberish.
Charlie 1 hour ago
As a social scientist, it is always frustrating to read these sorts of articles. This is a zombie idea; it pops back up no matter how many…
Chua and Rubenfeld continue:
Jewish success is the most historically fraught and the most broad-based. Although Jews make up only about 2 percent of the United States’ adult population, they account for a third of the current Supreme Court; over two-thirds of Tony Award-winning lyricists and composers; and about a third of American Nobel laureates.
The Forbes 400 is the acid test, and individuals of at least substantial Jewish ethnicity make up over one third of the billionaires on the Forbes 400 for America (and not insubstantial fractions for the rest of the world).
The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.
Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.
Take New York City’s selective public high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science, which are major Ivy League feeders. For the 2013 school year, Stuyvesant High School offered admission, based solely on a standardized entrance exam, to nine black students, 24 Hispanics, 177 whites and 620 Asians. Among the Asians of Chinese origin, many are the children of restaurant workers and other working-class immigrants.
Merely stating the fact that certain groups do better than others — as measured by income, test scores and so on — is enough to provoke a firestorm in America today, and even charges of racism. The irony is that the facts actually debunk racial stereotypes.
There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.
And if you have any doubts about their credentials, they`ll send you emails that will completely reassure you.
Cuban-Americans in Miami rose in one generation from widespread penury to relative affluence. By 1990, United States-born Cuban children — whose parents had arrived as exiles, many with practically nothing — were twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to earn over $50,000 a year. All three Hispanic United States senators are Cuban-Americans.
Like Carlos Gutierrez, a Republican leader in the war on nativism, who learned his first words of English from a bellhop at his Miami resort hotel.
Meanwhile, some Asian-American groups — Cambodian- and Hmong-Americans, for example — are among the poorest in the country, as are some predominantly white communities in central Appalachia.
MOST fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations. Thus while Asian-American kids overall had SAT scores 143 points above average in 2012 — including a 63-point edge over whites — a 2005 study of over 20,000 adolescents found that third-generation Asian-American students performed no better academically than white students.
The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.
It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.
The fourth is skimming from your homeland: Indian-Americans are not representative of Indians back home, nor are Nigerian-Americans representative of Nigerians in general. Cuban-Americans are much whiter than Cubans on average. (In contrast, Mexican-Americans, a group of about 35 million that produces few outstanding achievers despite many having been here for generations, seldom come from the top 10% or whatever of Mexico, unless they are, say, already successful Mexican film directors.)
Any individual, from any background, can have what we call this Triple Package of traits. But research shows that some groups are instilling them more frequently than others, and that they are enjoying greater success.
It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself.
And the chip on the shoulder, by generating animus, is useful in pushing down competing groups.
Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.
Ironically, each element of the Triple Package violates a core tenet of contemporary American thinking.
We know that group superiority claims are specious and dangerous, yet every one of America’s most successful groups tells itself that it’s exceptional in a deep sense. Mormons believe they are “gods in embryo” placed on earth to lead the world to salvation; they see themselves, in the historian Claudia L. Bushman’s words, as “an island of morality in a sea of moral decay.” Middle East experts and many Iranians explicitly refer to a Persian “superiority complex.” At their first Passover Seders, most Jewish children hear that Jews are the “chosen” people; later they may be taught that Jews are a moral people, a people of law and intellect, a people of survivors.
That insecurity should be a lever of success is another anathema in American culture. Feelings of inadequacy are cause for concern or even therapy; parents deliberately instilling insecurity in their children is almost unthinkable. Yet insecurity runs deep in every one of America’s rising groups; and consciously or unconsciously, they tend to instill it in their children.
Or in the case of the wealthiest, most powerful group, they use their influence over the media to instill it in their children and to depress, demoralize, and divide other groups` children.
A central finding in a study of more than 5,000 immigrants’ children led by the sociologist Rubén G. Rumbaut was how frequently the kids felt “motivated to achieve” because of an acute sense of obligation to redeem their parents’ sacrifices. Numerous studies, including in-depth field work conducted by the Harvard sociologist Vivian S. Louie, reveal Chinese immigrant parents frequently imposing exorbitant academic expectations on their children (“Why only a 99?”), making them feel that “family honor” depends on their success.
By contrast, white American parents have been found to be more focused on building children’s social skills and self-esteem. There’s an ocean of difference between “You’re amazing. Mommy and Daddy never want you to worry about a thing” and “If you don’t do well at school, you’ll let down the family and end up a bum on the streets.” In a study of thousands of high school students, Asian-American students reported the lowest self-esteem of any racial group, even as they racked up the highest grades.
Moreover, being an outsider in a society — and America’s most successful groups are all outsiders in one way or another — is a source of insecurity in itself.
Even if they have to use their hands-on control over The Narrative to declare themselves to be outsiders rather than the leading insiders that objective analysis would suggest.
Immigrants worry about whether they can survive in a strange land, often communicating a sense of life’s precariousness to their children. Hence the common credo: They can take away your home or business, but never your education, so study harder. Newcomers and religious minorities may face derision or hostility. Cubans fleeing to Miami after Fidel Castro’s takeover reported seeing signs reading “No dogs, no Cubans” on apartment buildings.
Oh, boy … We all recall such vicious anti-Cuban racism in the 1950s, such as the lynching of Desi Arnaz for playing the husband of a white woman on the instantly canceled “I Love Lucy.”
During the 2012 election cycle, Mormons had to hear Mitt Romney’s clean-cut sons described as “creepy” in the media. In combination with a superiority complex, the feeling of being underestimated or scorned can be a powerful motivator.
Finally, impulse control runs against the grain of contemporary culture as well. Countless books and feel-good movies extol the virtue of living in the here and now, and people who control their impulses don’t live in the moment. The dominant culture is fearful of spoiling children’s happiness with excessive restraints or demands. By contrast, every one of America’s most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood, inculcating habits of discipline from a very early age — or at least they did so when they were on the rise.
I grew up in a neighborhood that might have been plurality Jewish in the 1960s and 1970. The general impression of the kids on the block was that our Jewish friends got more presents and nicer clothes and had fewer chores than our Catholic or Protestant friends. It wasn`t a big difference, and it was probably just proportional to the parents` wealth: the Jewish parents in the neighborhood tended to be wealthier. Has this moderate degree of spoiling held back Baby Boomer Jews? (We`ve got 50 years of data by now so we ought to be able to hazard a guess.)
Not that I can tell.
In isolation, each of these three qualities would be insufficient. Alone, a superiority complex is a recipe for complacency; mere insecurity could be crippling; impulse control can produce asceticism. Only in combination do these qualities generate drive and what Tocqueville called the “longing to rise.”
Needless to say, high-achieving groups don’t instill these qualities in all their members. They don’t have to. A culture producing, say, four high achievers out of 10 would attain wildly disproportionate success if the surrounding average was one out of 20.
But this success comes at a price. Each of the three traits has its own pathologies. Impulse control can undercut the ability to experience beauty, tranquillity and spontaneous joy. Insecure people feel like they’re never good enough. “I grew up thinking that I would never, ever please my parents,” recalls the novelist Amy Tan. “It’s a horrible feeling.” Recent studies suggest that Asian-American youth have greater rates of stress (but, despite media reports to the contrary, lower rates of suicide).
A superiority complex can be even more invidious. Group supremacy claims have been a source of oppression, war and genocide throughout history. To be sure, a group superiority complex somehow feels less ugly when it’s used by an outsider minority as an armor against majority prejudices and hostility, but ethnic pride or religious zeal can turn all too easily into intolerance of its own.
Even when it functions relatively benignly as an engine of success, the combination of these three traits can still be imprisoning — precisely because of the kind of success it tends to promote. Individuals striving for material success can easily become too focused on prestige and money, too concerned with external measures of their own worth.
It’s not easy for minority groups in America to maintain a superiority complex.
That`s why Sarah Silverman`s worst nightmare has come true and all those hard-charging Chinese have taken over the media.
Then Chua has some stuff about black people …
The United States itself was born a Triple Package nation, with an outsize belief in its own exceptionality, a goading desire to prove itself to aristocratic Europe (Thomas Jefferson sent a giant moose carcass to Paris to prove that America’s animals were bigger than Europe’s) and a Puritan inheritance of impulse control.
Our current myths about what the Founding Fathers thought are just bizarre. Franklin`s “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” emphasizes that America is exceptional in having a lot of land per person, from which the greater prosperity and happiness of Americans flows. Franklin was very aware that Europeans were intellectually more advanced than Americans, and often thought permanently settling in London of Paris. Americans put little effort into competing with Europe for high distinctions for generations, instead building up a prosperous civilization built upon a non-European abundance of land per capita. Of course, this American narrative has largely been jettisoned in recent decades in the frenzy to rewrite America history as one of huddled massesness.
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld are professors at Yale Law School and the authors of the forthcoming book “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.”