A Word on Amy Chua

triple package

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.


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By Soya Jung

Soya has been active in the progressive movement for over 30 years. During the 1990s she worked as a reporter at the International Examiner, communications and policy staff for the WA State House Democratic Caucus, and executive director of the Washington Alliance for Immigrant and Refugee Justice. She was the founding chair of the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition, which formed in 1996 to restore food and cash assistance for low-income immigrants and refugees in Washington State. During the 2000s she worked at the Social Justice Fund, a public foundation supporting progressive organizations in the Northwest, and consulted for various institutions like the Western States Center, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, the Nonprofit Assistance Center, the City of Seattle, and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center.

At ChangeLab Soya has authored two research reports: "Left or Right of the Color Line: Asian Americans and the Racial Justice Movement" and "The Importance of Asian Americans? It’s Not What You Think", and co-authored the Asian American Racial Justice Toolkit. She has convened numerous public events uniting scholars with social movement activists to explore race, gender, war/empire, and Asian American identity. Her writing has been published in Othering & Belonging: Expanding the Circle of Human Concern, and cited in places like the Routledge Companion to Asian American Media, ColorLines, and The Guardian.

22 replies on “A Word on Amy Chua”

All the whacky social “science” aside, I think the most sinister aspect of the book, as I understand it, is that if the “triple threat” leads to success, what leads to “failure?” If, for instance, “impulse control” is one of the characteristics that makes Chinese Americans and American Jews more successful than other cultural groups, aren’t Chua and Rubenfeld, in the end, basically saying that members of less successful groups lack impulse control? Making such a claim would require evidence in order for it to rise above the level of extraordinary cultural bigotry if not plain old racism.

What may be most interesting about this book is that it (apparently) fails to consider how different responses to racism impact the success of the groups the authors mention. “Go along to get along” seems to work well for some”; but daring to resist Western cultural hegemony/whiteness looks like an economic death sentence by comparison. My skin may crawl the entire time, but I might actually read this book. Though I suppose I should wait until it enters library circulation since the thought of putting money in the author’s pockets is just too much to take.

Thanks for the comment, Sheri. I actually do intend to read the book too when it comes out next month.

This is quite disturbing. How quickly we forget the history of this country. If you are going to put me in a race, at least have everyone start from the same point. Seems like her and her husband have already decided who the winners are.

What is most scary is the fact that they are instructors of higher learning. Do you give as much help to the Mexican-American, or just the bare minimum because you ‘research’ has deemed they won’t succeed anyway? So much for cultural diversity!

Just wanted to say “we’ll done” Soya for pointing out the obvious truth when historical context is considered because it seems quite obvious that Chua and Rubenfeld’s views are myopic when it comes to race and privilege in America. Chua’s mindset is obviously “colonized”.

Thanks, Jermaine! Honestly, I think all of our mindsets are colonized, aren’t they? Unfortunately it takes work to unpack history and then apply it to our thinking and actions in the present. But I hope it’s what more of us strive to do!

The problem i have with this is that with the so -called hard work pays off. If that was the case, My grandfather should have been a multi-millionaire by the time he was in his twenties. What Chua fails to consider is that with African-Americans when we were brought here, we weren’t allowed to have our customs, traditions with us. they were beaten out of us to the point that we had forgotten about ourselves. In addition, everything African-Americans created during slavery were for the benefit of the whites. Latinos themselves are discriminated against for similar reasons: cultural stereotypes as well as education. Instead of writing about how some groups are better, they should have just kept their eugenicist, ignorant views to themselves. Ms. Jung i thank you personally for pointing out with everything that is wrong with this book. I wish that there were more people like you who truly understood the history of this country and how racial disparities still effect everybody in this country everyday.

Thanks, Rob! I agree that the hard work pays off argument is deeply problematic!

A good lesson for her: the ends do not always justify the means.

Hmm, married to a white man. That was my suspicion after watching a few of her interviews — either married to a white man or divorced.

Amy Chua’s next book title, “Am I White Yet?: How to Join the White Club”.

Thanks for your comment, Rashnu. I do think we need to refrain from personal attacks and critiques of Chua’s personal life. My critique is of the book’s politics, based on its publicity rhetoric. Your comment is also a reminder to me that all of the arguments/politics that I attributed to Chua in my post should’ve been attributed also to her husband and co-author, Rubenfeld.

I agree. It’s hard for me to quell my reflexive resentment as a white woman when I see so many Asian women with white men, but I look upon this as my problem, not theirs. It’s not as if it’s any of my business, after all.

These colonized minds: Chua and Rubenfeld are indeed challenged. I will just say, “All people are created equal.” But we do not all come of age with equal resources, assets, abilities, values or desires. My greatest concern was relayed by Ed Starkey….they are educators which means they are passing on this buffoonery to curious minds. My greatest hope is that they are exposed countless times. Thank you Soya for leading the way!

Thanks, Ruby! I agree that as educators they are in an especially powerful position of influence that requires a great deal of responsibility and accountability. If only the likes of Howard Zinn’s work were the standard in our education system.

Has anyone commenting here actually read the book? Chua’s first book, Battle Hymn, also elicited a tide of furious reactions by people who hadn’t read it. (Rather savvy marketing, no?) But those who read it know that the book itself is much more nuanced.

Read it or don’t, but don’t pretend to understand it if you haven’t read it.

‘World On Fire’, which she published in 2003, has the same idea at its center, just pointed outward. I doubt I will buy or read this book since Ms Chua seems to be in possession of one and only one idea (roughly, there is an ethnic/racial basis for different groups’ members differing life outcomes). Life is too short to spend it arguing about whether Malaysian, Indonesian & Thai Chinese work harder than the ‘natives’ of those countries.

I wonder if these two have ever read any of the works of the members of the Nazi Party. They had many arguments about why white, especially German, people were superior. This a famous example but there are many writings about why ones own group is superior. Racism is illogical.
Any time you attribute characteristics to a group of people based on their race, gender, etc. you are being racist.
very simple.

Nice review. Chua’s points about ambition and frugality are not entirely wrong (more on that in a moment) but are written in a sensationalized, obnoxious way that ignores socio-economic factors, as well as shameful histories of racism and/or manipulation, which have created cycles of poverty that are not easily broken. While Chua’s case is that the rich are rich, because they have “better values,” the evidence presented by Chua shows that wealthy, connected immigrant groups (Iranians, Cubans, etc.) can transfer assets and connections much easier than poorer groups. )No surprises here.)

I would explain what Chua is arguing in a more respectful way. Positive role models, assets, opportunities and connections make hard work go much, much farther than when absent.
Fundamentally, I Chua’s book is off-putting, because I have different values about success than her. She tends to see life as something for the taking. I think a better life is in the giving. Maybe I am soft and lazy, unambitious, according to Chua’s definition, but I stepped away from a broken, working-class white family, seeking to grow as a person. I borrowed money to get an education. I explored the arts and humanities. I traveled. I opened up to a lot of things. I embrace different cultures and learned from difference. I was not thinking about being wealthy and social status. I wanted to be enriched rather than rich. My hard work has led to an enjoyable life – not without problems and stresses by any means. Fortune shined on me, as I am married to a lovely Korean lady. We have enriched one another greatly. This is better than any kind of money to me. We have a wonderful, kind-hearted boy. We are not riding him son into the ground with Chua’s odd mentality of telling him he is the best and then cutting him down so his insecure. We are encouraging his interests, providing discipline and liberty. I want him to make the most of freedom and good things. Life is too short to be keeping up with the Joneses or the Sungs.

Ryan makes a critically important point. Chua is imposing her values for success on everyone. I spent 20 year working 60 hours helping young people become teachers. Seeing them grow into professional educators and knowing all of the children that they help was my success. I doubt Chua was see this as much of an accomplishment.

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