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Esther Cepeda: Taking it out on the messengers

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Esther Cepeda
March 29, 2014

CHICAGO -- Even before Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America” was published, the book was being denounced as sociologically lightweight and packed full of historical blind spots. Chua, who gained notoriety as “The Tiger Mom,” was savaged as a “full-blown eugenics-pushing racist.” The irony is delicious: An ultra-successful Asian-American lawyer-turned-author writes about how some marginalized groups rise to prosperity, and all she gets for it are vicious attacks from people incensed that someone highlighted the achievements of certain groups.

There were many impassioned takedowns, but Jie-Song Zhang’s “Tiger Mom vs. Brooklyn Dragon: I Hereby Challenge Amy Chua to a Barefist Kung Fu Duel” on The Huffington Post, accusing Chua of “endangering the American future,” was among the shrillest. Here’s an excerpt:

“We could shadow-box in the middle of the Stuyvesant High School cafeteria, amid a room full of Chinese kids taking the SATs and scoring perfect on the math sections. We could get real, real Chinese with it.

“I’m talkin’ the most Chinese Mahjong Fukien showdown. Ever.”

The uproar this book has inspired borders on the deranged. And over what? A slim volume that basically says that if you’re driven, work hard and think a lot of yourself—but not too much, no one likes a showoff—you can be successful in life.

This is what used to pass for common sense. And the craziest part is that if you bother to actually read the book, you’ll see that it’s not at all about why some people are better than others but a manual for success in America.

The triple package that Chua and Rubenfeld describe rests on the premise that we live in a world in which “certain individuals and groups do strikingly better than others in terms of wealth, position and other conventional measures of success.” This assertion disgusts the book’s critics, but it’s just a fact.

The three factors are: a superiority complex—a deeply internalized belief in your specialness, exceptionality and superiority based on a story about the magnificence of your people’s history and civilization; insecurity—a feeling or worry that what you’ve done or have is not good enough; and impulse control—the ability to resist giving up in the face of hardship.

I actually found the best part of the book to be the explanation of why some groups don’t succeed.

“The absence of the Triple Package was not the original cause of their poverty,” the authors contend. “In almost every case, America’s persistently low-income groups became poor because of systematic exploitation, discrimination, denial of opportunity and institutional or macroeconomic factors having nothing to do with their culture.”

In describing why the combination of triple-package factors doesn’t work for some low-income groups, the authors describe a variation on the “Marshmallow Test” of self-control.

In it, test subjects are promised a double serving of a favored treat if they delay gratification. But some are promised by a person who has proved to be untrustworthy and others by someone who kept their word in a previous instance. Those who had been prompted by the untrustworthy person did not delay gratification.

“If people don’t trust the system, if they think society is lying when it tells them that discipline and hard work will be rewarded—if they don’t think that people like them can really make it—they have no incentive to engage in impulse control, sacrificing present satisfactions in hopes of future gain. This is as true in America’s inner cities as in rural Appalachia,” the authors say.

This is the big takeaway of the book—one too important to be missed in silly discussions about imperialism or racial superiority. If we want a nation of people willing to work hard and sacrifice in order to attain the American Dream, we’d better be ready to consistently deliver on its promise.

Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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