Why Amy Chua’s book on the exceptional gets civil rights all wrong

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld know a lot about at least one thing. That would be marketing. Their new book, “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America,” arrives Feb. 4 amid a swirl of controversy and publicity, and from the rather self-satisfied look on their faces in the twin New York Times portraits that accompany a recent profile, they couldn’t be happier.

Chua skillfully traded in stereotypes with the “Tiger Mom” opus that publicized her strict parenting practices laced with a smattering of self doubt and made her a household name. Now she and husband Rubenfeld – both Yale law professors – are coming back with more, much more of the same. I’m not mad at them, though the couple’s scholarship and language, with countless anecdotes and caveats, sound more self-help than Ivy League. I’m writing about them, too, because the scene they’ve created is impossible to ignore. Who could miss excerpts of “The Triple Package” and stories by and about the couple? I read about as much as I could.

Amy Chua in a February 2011 Washington reading for her memoir "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post.)
Amy Chua in a February 2011 Washington reading for her memoir “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

You might have heard or seen them, explaining what they really mean in the book  when they say that certain racial, ethnic and religious groups possess the secret of success, as they define it, and others don’t. The “triple package” they revere: a superiority complex, feelings of insecurity and impulse control. The eight groups they say have it are the Chinese and Jews – wouldn’t you know that includes Chua and Rubenfeld — Nigerians, Indians, Cuban exiles, Lebanese, Iranians and Mormons. (Stephenie Meyer, author of the “Twilight” series is Mormon, they remind us.)

Though Chua and Rubenfeld have managed to include a variety of groups in the mix – a virtual United Nations of top-tier talent — they have been criticized for a list that seems to rank certain races as superior and others as inferior. In a New York Times opinion piece, they counter this charge when they say the fact that the fortunes of some groups have risen and fallen in America “punctures the whole idea of ‘model minorities’ or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.”

Yet they are smart enough to know that flirting with notions of cultural superiority invites the racial ranking that’s also an important part of the American way, one with accompanying discrimination and violence. That history is acknowledged but dismissed far too easily or twisted to further prove a dubious theory. The ugly details are so well known, they write in the book, that they “barely require repeating.” But everyone knows the issue is a sure headline grabber in a diverse, economically perilous nation, where some still look for scapegoats.

In their opinion piece, they conclude, “It’s not easy for minority groups in America to maintain a superiority complex. For most of its history, America did pretty much everything a country could to impose a narrative of inferiority on its nonwhite minorities and especially its black population.”

I have no doubt that even when enslaved, most black Americans realized their moral superiority to the people who were buying and selling them, raping them, beating them and tearing apart their families. Declaring that obvious truth or acting on it could and did have consequences. Rebel they did, however, in countless ways, from subversive acts to outright revolts. That the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and restrictive laws and retribution persisted was due primarily to the policies of the majority rather than any minority’s insecurity.

In their book, their assessment of the historic civil rights movement that freed all Americans to be their best selves and challenged America to live up to its founding principles and realize its promise is willfully, dumbfoundedly clueless. Who could view the photos and newsreels of brave men, women and children, and conclude that the movement took away hope for a “superiority narrative” by striving for equality under the law? Apparently Chua and Rubenfeld. “In this paradoxical sense, equality isn’t fair to African-Americans,” they write.

It takes a super-human, superior sense that you have right on your side to stand against the power of the state, to put your life on the line for a cause. When I would speak with Franklin McCain, the Greensboro Four civil rights sit-in pioneer who recently died, he would describe the exhilaration he felt sitting on that stool, though he didn’t know if he would get out of Woolworth’s alive. He had no problem knowing his worth, and to suggest that he or anyone else sacrificed so much in a movement, just to get to “equal,” insults generations. It was justice the civil rights movement was seeking.

Chua and Rubenfeld give the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others credit for attending historically black colleges and universities that instill racial pride, a plus in their opinion, but Sean “Diddy” Combs gets more space as a spokesman for black historical truth. That’s a warning sign in itself.

“America’s most successful groups are cashing in on superiority stories they still believe in and still pass down to their children. This is an advantage that was denied to African Americans and continues to be denied to them today,” they write, as though African Americans are not agents of their own destiny and do not even control the lessons taught to family members.

The civil rights movement they disparage contradicts that notion. The narrative told by so many black parents — the pride and respect for ancestors who survived and triumphed despite unimaginable hardship, the admonition that you have to work twice as hard to get half as far and you do it with the knowledge of elders who endured much more – is mentioned as an exception, practiced in the families of black “aristocracies.” My life experience, and that of neighbors and friends who grew up in homes as modest as I did, prove them wrong. I’m guessing they haven’t spent much time listening to dinnertime cross-talk in African American families.

Chua and Rubenfeld may be educated, but they aren’t smart enough to know what they don’t know about history and the movement that benefited all Americans – cultural groups that would include them.

 

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.
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