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Culture and Poverty

The Persistence of Banality

by JOSEPH GROSSO

It was twenty years ago when Raymond Hernstein and Charles Murray published The Bell Curve, which proclaimed to great fanfare that genetics plays a leading role in intelligence and that some groups, notably African Americans, basically bring up the rear explaining their place at the bottom of the American economic spectrum.

Fast forward to the present and it may be said that in the Age of Obama at least such overt racial sentiment, while acceptable in the annuals of rabble rousing talk radio and TV- i.e. Bill O’Reilly’s lamenting the end of the ‘White Establishment’ in the face of the colored hoards who want ‘stuff’- is somewhat less acceptable in the realm of academia. Instead there is plenty of room for less overt forms of such analysis disavowing racism while masquerading under the banner of ‘culture’. A decade ago there was Samual Huntington’s 2004 Who are We?: the Challenges to America’s National Identity, which warned of a nation divided by language and multiculturalism, and now enters The Triple Package: How Three Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America by Yale Law professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld.

Chua and Rubenfeld claim to have explored why certain ethnic groups are achieving success nowadays and proclaim that they’ve uncovered the three key traits that these successful ethnicities have over the rest of us. They come up with:

* A Superiority Complex: ‘A deeply internalized belief in your group’s specialness, exceptionality, or your superiority’. Examples they cite include Jews believing they are the ‘chosen people”, Nigerians the supposed uniqueness of their royal Yoruba lineage, Mormons similar to Jews, Cubans, etc

* Insecurity: the alleged but necessary flip-side to the superiority complex, they define it as ‘an anxious uncertainty about your worth or place in society.’

* Impulse Control: the ability to resist temptation and persevere in the face of hardship (ah…the downfall of many an ethnic group)

The Americans that Chua and Rubenfeld claim to have the right stuff are Jews, Nigerians, Cubans (determined to spite the Cuban government), Indians (apparently coming from the right caste that instilled their feelings of superiority), and the Chinese. Clever reviewers have pointed out that a rainbow coalition of ethnicities was chosen, probably to deflect the obvious racist charges that would be forthcoming. Others have pointed out that Filipino-Americans, despite ranking third on the household income list for ethnic groups, were not included despite the darker complexion that Chua and Rubenfeld find useful, for the possible reason that Filipino men, even with that high household rank, earn less than the national average (so much for woman). Perhaps more plausible is that the authors just couldn’t come up with any nonsense to fit Filipinos into their theory (Feeling inferiority over the American occupation? What better than go to the land of the free and kick some ass?)

Of course not a shred of credible evidence is put forward that any of the groups referenced suffer a collective superiority-inferiority complex with a mastery of stoicism (particularly important since the authors claim it’s vital to keep the edge and not come complacent in success as generations go by- a fate they fear is heading for the WASPs and Jews). The success of each group is simply taken as a cultural given, the superiority complex justified under a “we all know”, “common knowledge” banner with a few quotes from intellectuals and some high profile types thrown in. Chua, the insolent troll of Tiger Mom fame, has strangely found a profitable niche in telling people how to live (her parenting advice: no sleepovers and call your child ‘garbage’), resembling in a sense Dickens’ Bounderby in hyperbole, ethical conviction, and hypocrisy given her wealthy background.

If one insists on actually thinking in terms of ethnicity it doesn’t take much in the way of serious research to explain why the groups Chua and Rubenfeld love have a leg up. In The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and class in America, Stephen Steinberg writes of the early waves of Jewish immigrants:

Despite their poverty, however, Jewish immigrants were concentrated in economically advanced sectors of their counties of origin, and therefore had industrial experience and concrete occupational skills that would serve them well in America’s expanding industrial economy. In contrast, the vast majority of other immigrants who came during the same period were peasants or, more often farm laborers…Furthermore, these skills corresponded with remarkable precision to the needs of the American economy.

Other reasons exist for other groups. Mormons have their own state in Utah translating to financial and political power- a helpful boon to Mormon businesses and a finer recipe for  economic success than Mormon teenagers being less likely to consume alcohol, smoke pot, or watch X-rated films.

Indian and Nigerian Americans? Simply a fact that immigrants from India and Nigeria, who can afford the expensive plane tickets to the U.S. that cost about a year’s wage in those countries, often represent a richer and highly educated subset of those countries populations, rather than the poor masses of earlier immigration periods. Despite much hype in recent times India and Nigeria are not yet pillars of prosperity and stability (not that Western statecraft has helped) Forty-two percent of Indians in the U.S. age 25 and older have postgraduate degrees while twenty-six percent of people in India are illiterate. Nigerians share a similar dynamic: Twenty-seven percent of Nigerians over age 25 have postgraduate degrees verses the thirty-nine percent of people in Nigeria who are illiterate.

Indeed if India or Nigeria shared a southern border with the U.S. it’s easy to conceive Samual Huntington having wrote about the ‘Indian Challenge’ rather than the Hispanic (i.e. Mexican) one.  Here was Huntington back in 2004:

Unlike past immigrant groups, Mexicans and other Latinos have not assimilated into mainstream U.S. culture, forming instead their own political and existing enclaves-from Los Angeles to Miami-and rejecting the Anglo-Protestant values that built the American dream. The United States ignores this challenge at its peril.

Ironically in the same Foreign Policy article, Huntington offered a brief repute to the Triple Package thesis when he imagined the benefits of a country without Mexican immigration, one of which was ‘the average education and skills of immigrants continuing to arrive would reach the highest levels in U.S. history’.

As for Cubans, the Hispanic group that Chua and Rubenfeld do admire, they can be divided between the earliest (and lighter-skinned) who were doing more than fine in Cuba before the revolution, and who left with plenty of offshore accounts and connections, and the later, darker ‘Marielitos’ who somehow are still lower on the economic ladder.

It would be wonderful to simply dismiss the kind of scholastic garbage espoused by The Triple Package except doing so ignores the tragedy that it appears to echo and reinforce the kind of racial division that has so plagued American culture and whose practical application is to keep a population, particularly its working class, divided and an open target for the nihilistic conservatism that both impoverishes the majority and blocks the path of improvement by pointing blame for poverty on the poor themselves who can be cast aside under the now tainted idea of the ‘culture of poverty’. For those like Amy Chua, born to a well off family and now nicely ensconced at Yale Law School, it’s all in a profitable day’s work.

Joseph Grosso is a librarian and writer in New York City.