When I first saw the New York Post’s scathing review of Amy Chua’s new book, The Triple Package, the phrase “triple threat” immediately came to mind. Surely Chua’s PR hawks would’ve warned her off using the word “threat” to describe select, successful, largely immigrant “cultural groups.” After all, today’s white U.S. workers are rightfully anxious about the future, but wrongfully suspicious of “the other”– undocumented workers, Muslims, China as a whole, young black women who knock on the door asking for help… But I believe “threat” would’ve been a more honest word choice.
I haven’t read the book, nor am I likely to. The politics behind the framing and messaging of the book’s publicity and subtitle – How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America – is easy to spot. It’s rife with American exceptionalism and model minority thinking – the notion that anyone can succeed in America if they just act right, and those who don’t will get what they deserve.
The book names three cultural traits as a blueprint for success in the United States: a sense of superiority over others, an accompanying sense of insecurity that drives hard work, and good-old-fashioned discipline, or “impulse control”. My main problem with this is that it ignores the history of race in America.
Penguin Press, in its online description promoting the book, writes, “It may be taboo to say, but some groups in America do better than others.” So which groups are we talking about? Well, Nigerians, for one, and this is particularly problematic. Offering one example of black uplift, in very specific cultural terms, is an insidious wink at the indictment of blackness implicit in the book’s premise: These black people are making it. Why can’t the rest? The recent Nigerian immigrant population in the United States tends to be highly educated, but one must ask why. Answering that demands exposing the history of slavery and of Nigeria. In fact, the first Nigerians to arrive in the United States did so as slaves in the 1600s, but because of slavery, few descendants can trace their Nigerian roots.
So let’s be clear: when Chua talks about Nigerians in America, she’s not talking about the descendants of slaves. She’s talking about those who can identify as Nigerians in the United States today, who largely arrived over the last 30-40 years on student or highly skilled visas. They tend to be professional and middle class, and raised largely in a westernized context (the legacy of British colonization). They are among the most economically and educationally privileged in their countries of origin – not a shield against anti-black racism in the United States, but a significant advantage.
Another example that Chua offers is Mormons, who, as she describes, are “hitting it out of the park with conventional success… one of the most successful groups in America.” With their “corporate, financial, and political success… Mormons seem determined to prove they’re more American than other Americans.” Again, one needs to do some digging into the history of the Mormon Church to place this “success” into context. Chua particularly lauds the affluence of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints through the “Mormons’ extraordinary capacity to earn and amass wealth.” She writes:
The amount of American land owned by the Mormon church is larger than the State of Delaware… the Church of the Latter-day Saints is believed to have owned $25 billion to $30 billion in assets as of 1997, with present revenues of $5 billion to $6 billion a year.
How did that happen? One way was through an aggressive campaign of international missionary work, which expanded membership and revenue through tithes to the church. But the other way was through settler colonization. The church’s land ownership is the result of a history of stealing indigenous lands, resources, and livelihoods.
To be fair, Penguin touches upon the “dark underside” of the triple-threat formula that the book promotes. It acknowledges: “Each of its elements carries distinctive pathologies… they can have truly toxic effects… the authors conclude that the Triple Package is a ladder that should be climbed and then kicked away.”
Hm… It’s an apt metaphor for the belief system reflected. For in the United States, what is success if not money and power, gained by climbing above (aka: exploiting) racialized political and economic systems in a cynical, zero-sum game with winners and losers? The very notion of success should be questioned. In a nation that is the number one jailor in the world, that has the second-highest child poverty rate of any developed nation, and whose black-white wealth gap is widening despite increased income and educational attainment among African Americans, buying into exceptionalist arguments to explain disparities means endorsing a dehumanizing system of racialized norms.
Chua’s argument is flawed in the same way that the model minority myth is flawed. If the premise is that hard work is the path to prosperity, then shouldn’t the descendants of slaves be the most richly rewarded inheritors in the United States? And if work is the thing, then why are indigenous communities forced to fight for tribal fishing rights and other livelihoods? Why are undocumented immigrants and other low-wage workers locked out of the promise of prosperity? And why are Asian Americans, if we are indeed so exemplary, so invisible and so disparate?
The message of Chua’s book is based on a fairytale, an ahistorical view of the world where the playing field is even. It asks us to forget that the present is built upon the past, that the real and brutal terrain of American enterprise is rife with racial bluffs and potholes forged over centuries.