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.
– Professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld of Yale Law School, in a New York Times essay based on their new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (affiliate link).
(Is the book “racist”? Let’s discuss, after the jump.)
Yesterday the New York Times Sunday Review published What Drives Success?, an interesting and engaging essay by Professors Chua and Rubenfeld that’s presumably intended to promote their forthcoming book, The Triple Package. But the essay could also be viewed as Chuafeld’s response to accusations, discussed in the Daily Mail and the New York Post, that their book is “racist.”
Having read the essay and the first few chapters of the book (which I’m enjoying so far), I don’t believe the book is racist. It’s candid and provocative, and it touches on some sensitive subjects, but it’s not racist. If you read Chuafeld’s Times piece and look at its discussion of the African-American community, for example, you’ll see how the authors emphasize the role of cultural, social, and hitorical factors — “slavery, systematic discrimination, schools that fail to teach, employers who won’t promote, single motherhood and the fact that roughly a third of young black men in this country are in jail, awaiting trial or on probation or parole” — and make no claims of racial superiority or inferiority.
For further explanation of why the book isn’t racist, check out Euny Hong’s take over at Quartz:
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….
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…. 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.
And cultural exceptionalism makes people uncomfortable — especially people inside the legal academy, which is generally left-leaning and not so keen on theories that compare one cultural group to another.
I’ve heard other critiques of Chuafeld from fellow law professors as well. Some legal academics I’ve heard from, for example, have complained that the book is not legal scholarship. That is certainly true — it’s a general-interest book being published by a major trade-publishing house, not a law review article — but perhaps beside the point (and possibly a bit of player-hating by less-prominent professors).
Many leading law professors have transcended the confines of the law to become public intellectuals, and you generally don’t hear complaints about that from the schools that employ them or the students who learn from them. To the contrary, schools are often pleased when their faculty members ignite broader public debate, and students are happy to go home at Thanksgiving and say things like, “Guess who I’m learning Contracts with — the Tiger Mother!”
Congratulations to Professor Chua and Professor Rubenfeld on their thoughtful and thought-provoking new book. They’ve racked up multiple bestsellers between them, and their “What Drives Success?” piece is currently the most emailed article on the NYT website. As you may recall, Professor Chua’s last bestseller, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (affiliate link), was similarly preceded by a widely read Wall Street Journal essay.
What drives success? In the book world, it’s buzz. So bet against The Triple Package — both the three traits of successful cultural groups, and the book that describes them — at your peril.
What Drives Success? [New York Times]
Tiger Mom is many things — but she’s no racist [Quartz]
The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America [Amazon (affiliate link)]