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Playing the race card: the Triple Package by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

A provocative new exploration of ethnicity vs success in modern America by the authors of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Tiger mom: author Amy Chua at a the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012. (Photo: Getty)
Tiger mom: author Amy Chua at a the Jaipur Literary Festival in 2012. (Photo: Getty)

The Triple Package: What Really Determines Success
Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld
Bloomsbury, 336pp, £18.99

It is not surprising that The Triple Package has caused such a stir. Its subject matter – the connections between culture, ethnicity and success – is emotive and controversial. Written by the husband-and-wife team of Jed Rubenfeld and Amy Chua, the author of the parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it has a fluent style and possesses all the hallmarks of American comfort food: it is easy to consume but not altogether fulfilling.

The “triple package” is touted as the combination of magic ingredients that enable certain ethnic groups to achieve extraordinary success in modern America. Chua and Rubenfeld identify three key qualities: a superiority complex, a sense of insecurity and “impulse control”.

Some have denounced the book as racist. This loaded term is often bandied about in discussions about culture and achievement. Yet to point out the material success of Mormons in the United States is clearly not racist. Mormons represent just 1.7 per cent of the US population but they are disproportionately represented in the higher levels of business and politics in the country (Mitt Romney is perhaps their best-known representative). When the subject is Jews or African Americans, people get nervous. However, to talk about sociological differences is precisely the opposite of the biological racism that was prevalent in the 20th century. The book’s point is that it is cultural, not genetic, factors that lead to success.

The Triple Package is not racist but it is certainly provocative. Chua and Rubenfeld write: “The majority of African Americans typically still do not – to put it mildly – grow up with a group superiority complex.” This trite observation is used to explain their underachievement.

The book is peppered with interesting but rather meaningless facts. We are told that Jews, who make up just 2 per cent of the US population, have received 36 per cent of all Nobel Prizes ever awarded to Americans. Among African Americans, Nigerian immigrants are held up as exemplars. In 2010, there were some 260,000 people of Nigerian origin in the US – 0.7 per cent of the black American population. Yet in 2013, between 20 and 25 per cent of the 120 black students at Harvard Business School were Nigerian. One response is simply: “Who cares?”

The three determinants of success are curious, if rather crass, subjects of speculation. The superiority complex is familiar to historians. The British empire was shaped by it; no class in history has been as self-confident as the late-Victorian imperial administrator. Unfortunately, the past is a glaring omission from The Triple Package. Identifying groups is all very well but you cannot understand culture without an appreciation of history, an observation that surely applies with as much force to the example of the computer whizz-kid son of Chinese immigrants who sails through Stanford with top grades in the US today.

Next, Chua and Rubenfeld deftly explore the roots of insecurity among their fav­oured ethnic groups. Here, American Iranians, Arabs and Indians are held up as examples of peoples who have deep insecurities that derive from the casual stereotyping they have experienced, especially since 9/11. Depictions of Arabs as baddies in films and popular culture have reinforced a sense of insecurity in the past decade.

The third ingredient is impulse control. This refers to delayed gratification. The con­cept is not new; even the most casual sociologist will know Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), which describes the hoarding instincts of Protestant capitalists in the early modern era. John Maynard Keynes, from a different intellectual tradition, described this instinct to accumulate more than 90 years ago, when he wrote about Europe in the 19th century: “To save and to invest became at once the duty and the delight of a large class.” As the economist put it, in a spirit of irony: “A rich man could, after all, enter into the Kingdom of Heaven – if only he saved.”

The last chapter of The Triple Package addresses the favourite subject of all Americans: the United States of America. The authors somewhat naively call for the US to recover its triple package, to ensure economic dominance. Despite the range and diversity of the ethnic groups described, the book is intensely self-regarding. It remains firmly in the “America the Beautiful” genre.

Though parochial, Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument is enjoyable and timely. After the financial crisis – and with rising material inequality – discussions about the cultural roots of economic success are necessary. The Triple Package may be superficial but the issues it raises are serious. They will no doubt generate more controversy and impassioned debate in the years ahead. l

Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP and the author of “Ghosts of Empire” (Bloombury, £9.99)