Book review: Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld on immigrant culture

Attack of the power migrants

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld pledge to lift the lid on the cultural secrets of success of certain immigrant groups in the US. According to Daniel Bax, their book is nothing more than an exercise in cod folk psychology

Why are some immigrants more successful than others? This question is periodically debated in the US. For example, the fact that within a short space of time, Asian immigrants have outstripped long-established African-Americans with regard to social status – something that has fuelled animosity between the two groups – was already on the table more than 20 years ago in connection with the LA riots.

Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, two law professors from Yale, both of whom have found fame and fortune by writing bestsellers independently of each other, are now offering a bafflingly simple explanation for the differing advancement dynamic of distinct immigrant groupings: it's culture, stupid!

Three years ago, 52-year-old Chinese-American Amy Chua caused a furore with her confessions of a "Tiger Mom" in her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother". In this book, which was published in German under the restrained title "Die Mutter des Erfolgs" (The Mother of Success), she praised the strict parenting methods of Chinese mothers who forbid their children to watch television, go on sleepovers with friends and even celebrate their birthdays, instead spurring them on to perform to their maximum potential at school and in learning to play a musical instrument – if needs be, by threatening to burn their beloved cuddly toys. This unsubtle "praise of discipline" could be succinctly summed up thus: Chinese mothers are better than others.

For her new book, Chua has now joined forces with her 55-year-old husband, Jed Rubenfeld, to explore the connection between culture and success. In their research, they identified eight groups as "over-performers" in consideration of criteria such as income, exam results and intelligence tests. Chua and Rubenfeld's personal Top Eight include Chinese and Jews – groups to which they both belong – as well as Iranians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Cubans and even Mormons.

The over-performers

Cover of Chua and Rubenfeld's book "The triple package"
Husband and wife Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld claim there is a very simple explanation for the success of certain immigrant groups in the US: a superiority complex, a deep-seated insecurity and impulse control – all of which are rooted in their respective native cultures

The author couple maintain that these groups have all attained social advancement in the US because they had at their disposal a particular bundle of qualities that other groups lack. This explains the book's original title, "The Triple Package"; the German version is strangely titled "Alle Menschen sind gleich. Erfolgreiche nicht." (All People Are Equal. The Successful are Not).

Their Triple Package formula is simple: firstly, all of the highlighted groups have a superiority complex – or, in other words, a deeply rooted belief in the distinctiveness of their own group. Secondly, even though it may sound like a paradox, they are also characterised by a deep-seated insecurity and fear of never being able to meet their own expectations.

The third factor is impulse control. This means the readiness to put one's own desires on the back burner, the ability to bounce back from setbacks and be tough on oneself in the form of self-discipline and resilience.

It is at this point that, from far back in the mists of time, we hear the voice of Max Weber and his "Protestant ethic" theory, which has long been a familiar strand of sociological discourse. The popularity of the idea, which suggests that a particular cultural mentality influenced the triumphant march of capitalism, has not been diminished by the fact that it has been called into question on several occasions.

In a similar vein, the rise of the Asian Tiger nations was attributed to an alleged "Confucian ethic", and the devout and hard-working entrepreneurs of Central Anatolia, who currently form the power base of the Erdogan government in Turkey, were swiftly declared "Islamic Calvinists". After all, the capitalist ethic has long undergone a process of globalisation.

It is no coincidence that the "triple package" theory is strongly reminiscent of the "Asian values" cited to explain the economic boom in the authoritarian Tiger nations of the region in the 1990s, before the Asia crisis brought it to a temporary end. In fact, the theory is so insubstantial that upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that it is little more than cod folk psychology.

It is, nevertheless, in vogue because it gives bar-room prejudice a pseudo-scientific aura. At the latest since Samuel Huntington divided up the world into cultural spheres, it has become fashionable to use the terms "culture" or "civilisation" to explain everything from terrorism to economic success to failure at school. Not that there are no cultural aspects that can impact upon all these things, but these days, "culture" is applied as a blanket concept to explain everything and nothing.

Debunking the myth

Perhaps we can at least be grateful for the fact that unlike Thilo Sarrazin, Chua and Rubenfeld do not blame genetics or religion for the fact that talents are so unequally distributed. The book was nevertheless savaged by US critics. Even the German daily "Die Welt" wrote of "racist fear propaganda".

But in Germany too, the fact that the offspring of Vietnamese immigrants are more successful in school than the offspring of Turkish immigrants is often explained by cultural aspects – the Confucian ethic, remember? The fact that discrimination could be a factor or that the children of Italians – who are among the most popular immigrants here in Germany – have below-average school grades, is often ignored; after all, it doesn't chime with the cliché that the Islamic religion is to blame for every indication of backwardness.

For Chua and Rubenfeld, Jews are the "epitome of the successful migrant": while they account for just two per cent of the US population, they are clearly over-represented among Nobel prize-winners, in business and law as well as Wall Street and in Hollywood, which provides ample material for conspiracy theories. But as far as the myth of the Jewish zeal for education is concerned – often cited in explanation of this phenomenon – the authors set the record straight.

Most of the Jews who arrived from Europe at Ellis Island in the early twentieth century had barely any education and were incredibly poor. Moreover, the members of that first generation, which made a living as craftsmen and retailers, were not overly concerned about a securing a better education for their children, write Chua and Rubenfeld.

Jed Rubenfeld (photo: picture-alliance/Effigie/Leemage)
For Chua, who is of Chinese heritage, and her Jewish husband, Jed Rubenfeld, the Jews are the "epitome of the successful migrants": although they account for just two per cent of the US population, they also account for a disproportionately high number of Nobel prize-winners, top business executives, layers, brokers and Hollywood stars

The authors neglect to mention, however, that this was also one of the reasons why the US drastically reduced immigration from Eastern Europe after World War I. The advancement of American Jews was a process that began later.

Cultures change, and immigration often occurs in cycles: while the first generation brings with it the audacity to assert itself in a new environment, but must fight for its very survival, it is generally only the second generation that manages to advance. The third generation then rests on its laurels, on what has been achieved, and ambition wanes.

It is obvious that secondary virtues such as hard work, discipline and tenacity are important when aiming to achieve advancement from the very bottom. Moreover, the fact that exclusion by majority society can serve as a motivation to be twice as good as others is something that can be said of many immigrants. For this reason, the choice of the eight groups highlighted by Chua and Rubenfeld appears quite arbitrary.

African-Americans lack drive

In order to justify their selection, they quote statistics that back up their theory, stack up the generalisations and omit any facts that could interfere with the overall scheme. For example, that Iranians and Cubans were members of the elite before fleeing to the US ahead of the revolutions that swept their nations, or that Nigerians and Indians benefit statistically from immigration regulations that favour particular professional groups and academic qualifications. This is why upper-class emigration from western Africa has resulted in the phenomenon that at many elite universities in the US, black students from Africa have outperformed African-Americans.

But it comes across as almost cynical when Chua and Rubenfeld try to explain this development by saying that African-Americans lack the right kind of drive to fight their way to the top, because they place their faith in the promise of equality enshrined in the US constitution. There could hardly be a more flippant way to qualify the legacy of slavery, the reverberations of which can still be felt to this day.

The bottom line of the book is this: a female immigrant gives her new country a stern talking to, confident in the belief that she is superior to majority society. By praising the set of values present within those ethnic communities that have apparently not yet been corrupted by the molly-coddled mainstream of the US and its "culture of immediate reward", she is essentially celebrating the country's parallel societies. Her bellicose message reads: Move over, old America, the ambitions of many immigrants are inevitably propelling them into the fast lane.

Their ultra-conservative performance creed also plays on the fears of the white middle classes that they are not good enough to assert themselves in global competition. This fear – that one's own children might soon be outpaced by brilliant immigrant nerds – is not limited to the US. For this reason, Chua and Rubenfeld can expect their book to rocket up the German bestseller charts, just as Chua's previous work did. People who will order their book have already bought books such as "Lob der Disziplin" (In Praise of Discipline), "Warum unsere Kinder Tyrannen werden" (Why Our Children Are Turning Into Tyrants) or "Warum französische Kinder keine Nervensägen sind" (Why French Children Aren't Annoying) on Amazon. After all, no one wants to be left lagging behind.

Daniel Bax

© Qantara.de 2014

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/Qantara.de

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Comments for this article: Attack of the power migrants

The third factor is impulse control. This means the readiness to put one's own desires on the back burner, the ability to bounce back from setbacks and be tough on oneself in the form of self-discipline and resilience.

Impulse control is the most important ingredient in personal success, but is a poor predictor of group success.

While taking nothing away from the successful individuals in these groups and lauding their accomplishments, there are macro factors that may well have been more critical in determining their success in the USA.

What the book fails to note is the relatively small size numerically and the geographical concentration is affluent areas.

Additionally, the featured successful immigrant groups arrived with enormous human capital in terms of high levels of education that were immediately applicable in highly remunerative occupations.

The dynanics of the American economy also provided the successful groups opportunities in virgin economic fields at the time of their arrival.

Labor in highly remunerative occupations was available at the time these immigrant groups were available and untethered to other fields of enterprise.

The migrants' recognized the patterns and behaviors needed to succeed and worked hard to pass them on their children, it remains to be seen whether the success of the successor generations stems more for the relatively high status from which they began their careers or whether they will be able to advance still farther in American life.

Robert Chapman29.03.2014 | 17:11 Uhr