Why Do Students of Different Races Achieve as They Do?

In one heck of an op-ed by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in the NY Times Sunday Review, they lay out their case for the three conflicting (somewhat) reasons why students in different groups perform the way they do.  The two authors have a book coming out called "The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America."

It's long but worth it (especially the comments).  The comments are widely different and you can see a lot of "right on" with "racist trash." 

One commenter asked a question, "A more pressing question for us here in the US is "What drives a successful SOCIETY?"  Is that the more important question - how we succeed as a society or as individuals? 

Another says: I think the authors have a very limited idea of what constitutes success--"income, test scores and so on." What's missing is emotional success: humanity, compassion, strong family ties, empathy.

Again, are we asking about societal success or individual success (and in that case, who defines "individual success?"

From the op-ed:

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.  

So who does better?

Indian-Americans earn almost double the national figure (roughly $90,000 per year in median household income versus $50,000). Iranian-, Lebanese- and Chinese-Americans are also top-earners. In the last 30 years, Mormons have become leaders of corporate America, holding top positions in many of America’s most recognizable companies. These facts don’t make some groups “better” than others, and material success cannot be equated with a well-lived life. But willful blindness to facts is never a good policy.

So is it this?
 The most comforting explanation of these facts is that they are mere artifacts of class — rich parents passing on advantages to their children — or of immigrants arriving in this country with high skill and education levels. Important as these factors are, they explain only a small part of the picture.

 Today’s wealthy Mormon businessmen often started from humble origins. Although India and China send the most immigrants to the United States through employment-based channels, almost half of all Indian immigrants and over half of Chinese immigrants do not enter the country under those criteria. Many are poor and poorly educated. Comprehensive data published by the Russell Sage Foundation in 2013 showed that the children of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese immigrants experienced exceptional upward mobility regardless of their parents’ socioeconomic or educational background.
There are some black and Hispanic groups in America that far outperform some white and Asian groups. Immigrants from many West Indian and African countries, such as Jamaica, Ghana, and Haiti, are climbing America’s higher education ladder, but perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians. Nigerians make up less than 1 percent of the black population in the United States, yet in 2013 nearly one-quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry; over a fourth of Nigerian-Americans have a graduate or professional degree, as compared with only about 11 percent of whites.

 Most  fundamentally, groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASP elites have been declining for decades. In 1960, second-generation Greek-Americans reportedly had the second-highest income of any census-tracked group. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations.

The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of “model minorities” or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.

What are these three traits?
 It turns out that for all their diversity, the strikingly successful groups in America today share three traits that, together, propel success. The first is a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in their exceptionality. The second appears to be the opposite — insecurity, a feeling that you or what you’ve done is not good enough. The third is impulse control.

It’s odd to think of people feeling simultaneously superior and insecure. Yet it’s precisely this unstable combination that generates drive: a chip on the shoulder, a goading need to prove oneself. Add impulse control — the ability to resist temptation — and the result is people who systematically sacrifice present gratification in pursuit of future attainment.

The United States itself was born a Triple Package nation, with an outsize belief in its own exceptionality, a goading desire to prove itself to aristocratic Europe (Thomas Jefferson sent a giant moose carcass to Paris to prove that America’s animals were bigger than Europe’s) and a Puritan inheritance of impulse control.

First there's this - the foundation of many success immigrant children:
 A central finding in a study of more than 5,000 immigrants’ children led by the sociologist RubĂ©n G. Rumbaut was how frequently the kids felt “motivated to achieve” because of an acute sense of obligation to redeem their parents’ sacrifices.  

By contrast, white American parents have been found to be more focused on building children’s social skills and self-esteem. There’s an ocean of difference between “You’re amazing. Mommy and Daddy never want you to worry about a thing” and “If you don’t do well at school, you’ll let down the family and end up a bum on the streets.”  In a study of thousands of high school students, Asian-American students reported the lowest self-esteem of any racial group, even as they racked up the highest grades.

Immigrants worry about whether they can survive in a strange land, often communicating a sense of life’s precariousness to their children. Hence the common credo: They can take away your home or business, but never your education, so study harder.   In combination with a superiority complex, the feeling of being underestimated or scorned can be a powerful motivator.

And impulse control?
 Finally, impulse control runs against the grain of contemporary culture as well. Countless books and feel-good movies extol the virtue of living in the here and now, and people who control their impulses don’t live in the moment. The dominant culture is fearful of spoiling children’s happiness with excessive restraints or demands. By contrast, every one of America’s most successful groups takes a very different view of childhood, inculcating habits of discipline from a very early age — or at least they did so when they were on the rise.

In isolation, each of these three qualities would be insufficient. Alone, a superiority complex is a recipe for complacency; mere insecurity could be crippling; impulse control can produce asceticism. Only in combination do these qualities generate drive and what Tocqueville called the “longing to rise.”

Then they get to African-Americans and it gets real:
 It’s not easy for minority groups in America to maintain a superiority complex. For most of its history, America did pretty much everything a country could to impose a narrative of inferiority on its nonwhite minorities and especially its black population. Over and over, African-Americans have fought back against this narrative, but its legacy persists.

Black America is of course no one thing: “not one or ten or ten thousand things,” as the poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander has written. There are black families in the United States occupying every possible socioeconomic position. But Sean “Diddy” Combs — rapper, record producer and entrepreneur — undoubtedly spoke for many when he said: “If you study black history, it’s just so negative, you know. It’s just like, O.K., we were slaves, and then we were whipped and sprayed with water hoses, and the civil rights movement, and we’re American gangsters. I get motivated for us to be seen in our brilliance.”

Culture is never all-determining. Individuals can defy the most dominant culture and write their own scripts, as Mr. Combs himself did. They can create narratives of pride that reject the master narratives of their society, or turn those narratives around.

A good question is - what is the narrative today for African-Americans?  Hispanic groups?  Asian groups? Other blacks in America?  Is the same narrative as when we were growing up?

What does it take?
 The same factors that cause poverty — discrimination, prejudice, shrinking opportunity — can sap from a group the cultural forces that propel success. Once that happens, poverty becomes more entrenched. In these circumstances, it takes much more grit, more drive and perhaps a more exceptional individual to break out.

But research shows that perseverance and motivation can be taught, especially to young children. This supports those who, like the Nobel Prize-winning economist James J. Heckman, argue that education dollars for the underprivileged are best spent on early childhood intervention, beginning at preschool age, when kids are most formable.



Anonymous said…
That was a beautifully written piece, and timely. It made me uncomfortable in all the ways it should have. It doesn't have answers...but it laid out some facts that are hard to hear in PC Seattle, where we don't like to acknowledge unpleasant facts, and white liberal guilt runs as high as institutional racism. Did you catch the stat about the ethnicities of who was accepted at NY's prestigious (and public) Stuyvesant High School? Based SOLELY on test scores: I think it was 9 African Americans, 20-something Hispanics, 110+ Caucasians, and 617 of Asian descent, many of whom were children of first generation restaurant workers. (Going off memory - read article this morning). Wow. I thought of this blog immediately. What do people think of this? I think it's an important discussion starting point. No answers here - but kudos to those writers for doing the research and making a reasoned theory.
-Love the NYT
Maureen said…
Have any of you read Whistling Vivaldi? I would love to discuss it in a group mixed by sex/age/ethnicity/socioeconomics.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Maureen, I did mention that book a couple of months back as a worthy read on this topic.

Reader, I don't care if you blank out swearing or not, we're not doing that here. Most readers are offended and it is our blog policy not to use it. (Yes, I know there is the occasional BS thrown in but that's rare.)

I'll reprint most of it but please keep the guidelines in mind.
The model minorities, including me, better kiss the ground of the descendants of American slaves right now. It was because of them, their courage, their sacrifice, their blood, their lives, their struggle that brought about the civil rights and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The 1965 Act allowed those model minorities to show up on these shores from China, India, Nigeria and the Caribbean.

Grit doesn't even begin to describe what terrible sacrifice and what ugliness that have perpetuated on African Americans and American Indians and the continual tragedy this ugliness continues today in newer hands of Amy Chua and her hubbie. It perpetuates in the latest eugenic idea couched in sophisticated sophistry by two very able hucksters (on their way to more million$) and all those who buy into their theory.

Real credit and grit go to the mettle and character of the millions of law abiding, tax paying individuals who go about their daily lives quietly and humbly without the trumpet and heraldry. Who go on without the need to parse out which of them and their kind has the superior rating. Who pursue life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with the understanding that it is how we respect and value one another as individuals, not by ranking or selecting eight groups judged to be worthy, that makes this nation great.

For a far better read:


Anonymous said…
Fine, I'll modify the quote.

First sentence that got bleeped out should be:

If this constitutes enlightenment from NYT and Yale, then the crazy guy on the bus got it right, " we are all (modified word here) --screwed."

Hope that passes muster?

Anonymous said…
Reader, I can do nothing but agree most heartily with you. I'm troubled that (apparently) this blog has been taken in by Chua. It's so much more complicated that she and her ilk believe.

And, as you note, "success" isn't all about test scores and admission to Harvard. It's the good everyday people out there who are successful as well-it's just a different, and some might argue, better, definition.

Nota fan

Taken in? I read an interesting article on race that I thought had some interesting things to say.

Did I say I agreed with all of it? No.

And did I say that there might be other things than test scores and how much money you make defining "success?" Yes.

It's an opening for a discussion.
Anonymous said…
I also not a fan. But, mostly because I don't think they are saying anything. The op ed (I might read the book, but the reviews I've read of the book make the same complaint that there's no real data/support there, either) is dinner table chatter. Yes, we can talk about whether their buzzwords are interesting starting points for thinking about the characteristics that make for successful outcomes. But, in the article I don't see good examples of control groups and lots of examples of circular reasoning. Yes, maybe one can argue that Mormons are an "outsider" group, but they aren't in Utah, where many of them live. The writers offer hand-waving arguments of any objection to the "hypothesis" that makes it untestable and meaningless (and circular).

Seems to me that many discussions stereotypes/race/culture end up in the same circularity of argument.

Anonymous said…
In addition, let's take the argument, that others have presumably raised, and that they counter, casually -- that there might be a significant cost, to the requirement for excellence (because, after all, they presume that a high number will fail). It's dismissed with the statement that suicide rates are lower for Asian-Ams -- if you look it up, you find that indeed, suicide rates are lower for Asian-American males, but, not for Asian-American females (lower than whites -- both whites and As-Ams have higher rates than blacks or Hispanics).

I'd personally make the guess that the differing rates for As-Am and white males are a result of higher white use of firearms (which are not common in the As-Am culture). I wouldn't use my guess to make a strong case, but I bet one could make a case that there is a significant increase in unhappiness with the stereotyped As-Am parenting style (especially if it weren't mitigated by actually individuals making decisions about their own children). But the entire discussion is dismissed with a facile statistic about suicide rates.

One could go on with such examples, but I don't find the ideas expressed in the article substantive enough to be a useful discussion.

Anonymous said…
PS: My suicide statistics were for 10-24 year olds.

Anonymous said…
Nice link, reader. Funny in the beginning, but also a better read for dinner table chatter.

"The Black community began its history in the United States of America held by chains. They have since marched through generation after generation of inequality, brutality, systematic dehumanization... and across the distance of this advancing struggle, they have met each step with grace and pride intact. How does one rely on numbers to tell of such strength and radiance of heart? And this is to say nothing of the cultural innovations of Black America -- in the arts, in language, in urban culture, in freedom of expression -- which have profoundly altered the design of the entire human culture"

Anonymous said…
Oops, that was me, zb.

So I read the piece at the Huffington Post and it, too, was illuminating.

This is all quite interesting as I have now read two takes on this in Time (the book is not yet available)and the one in the Huffington Post.

The guy at the Huffington Post gets very personal with Amy Chua and ends on a big note:

"Now, is a time when the spreading of thoughts that antagonize and divide our communities is most dangerous; a time when gestures that might unite our communities, are most necessary."

Okay, but then what changes?

I didn't get that the authors were saying any group is superior. In fact, they argue that some groups do well for a time and then that changes. That there is an ebb and flow to which groups do well and possibly why seems a valid question to ask.

(I do agree that throwing in Mormons is an odd choice.)

The hugely long article at Time by Suketu Mehta, The Tiger Mom Superiority Complex, calls this a new kind of racism, not based on race but culture.

But we've always had arguments about immigrants and who does well. (I'm not missing that African-Americans were NOT immigrants.)

Mehta says,
"This is what President Obama was talking about in his remarks after the Trayvon Martin verdict, when he said, "I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

(Mehta uses a pretty funny example about how Chua/Rubenfeld's triple package is wrong. When my father started his diamond business on 47th Street in Manhattan, there was a network of Indian diamond merchants who could show him the ropes. My sons, in turn, will benefit from my connections." Well, sure when you start a diamond business, it's connections that count.)

Mehta also makes this claim:
Immigrants, claim Chua and Rubenfeld, are wary of "an excessively permissive American culture"--the bogeyman that haunts the dreams of so many who see the U.S. as losing the vigor of a former age. But isn't that permissiveness exactly what makes America work: this messy mix, this barbaric yawp, this redneck rondeau, this rude commingling? Isn't that what permeates its films, movies, books?"

Well, yes, it does permeate our culture. Is that a good thing? Vigor is one thing but the U.S. culture is now pretty much, anything goes. That may translate to kids as doing whatever they want and my life experience is doing whatever you want usually does have the best outcomes.

I think one thing that gets missed - from the public education standpoint - is how there are differences about perceptions about education among groups. Whatever the reason, it exists.

I'm not sure - from a public education standpoint - that it is about culture or race. It's about how parents perceive education for their children and what perceptions and attitudes they bring to school.
Anonymous said…
These one-size-fits-all theories that lump huge number of different individuals together to get an AVERAGE result to be used as THE representative truth are extremely problematic. This might work for the physical sciences, I don't think it works as well for the social sciences. People are not averages.

Also, I've gotten the clear impression from many immigrants, esp Asians, that they do not consider being called the "model minority" at all a compliment.

Anonymous said…
It's actually quite amazing how Chua manages to condescend to even the few groups that she praises.

Charlie Mas said…
I'm not sure what people are supposed to do with data like this.

Students work hard and do well in school when they are motivated to work hard and do well in school. Many students get that motivation at home. The school should focus on providing it for those who don't.

I think it is insipid and nearly ontological to say that members of cultures that value X care a lot about X and are really good at X - whatever X may be.

I think it is foolish for members of cultures that value X act as if X is a better thing to value than Y, which is a high value for another culture - no matter what X or Y may be.

Sure culture matters, but schools should create their own culture.
Anonymous said…
I think there is a discussion to have on the idea of schools creating their own culture, and what it should be.

I believe that performance should be valued (though not just on test scores or income or any narrowly defined measure of performance) and that a culture that encourages the application of persistent effort to reach a high level of performance is a value that should be taught at school.

That said, focusing on the supposed cultures those values come from, is both inaccurate and not useful. And, we have to be careful to define performance and effort fully, and, we have to provide concrete rewards for the application of this effort. If you are living on the edge of an abyss, it's can be rightly difficult to see why persistent application of effort is going to result in anything positive for you.

"Sure culture matters, but schools should create their own culture."

Yes, absolutely but what home culture? That's hugely important.
Anonymous said…
Self image
Anxiety level

Turn the knobs to various levels and you will get a multitude of outcomes.
If we only look at academic success, then those knobs need to be at the levels discussed in the article. Other combinations create different people. Artists, inventors, adventurers, mystics, etc.
Some of these traits could be more physical than cultural, even pathological, like mental illness. The US has always been an escape valve for the anxious and over-confident, the misers and missionaries who just had to escape the confines of their culture. After a generation they intermarry and the traits become diluted and mellowed.
Any Chinese or East Indian or Nigerian that chooses to move here is either very brave, scared, very self-confident or all of those.
AA folks are of course the anomaly. Them and the First Nations survivors. Those groups had no compulsion to go anywhere, no inflated ego or insecurity. No hoarding instinct. So as groups, those two have more difficulty with the national psyche and are pushed into self-destructive behaviors by a society that actively seeks or sought to dehumanize them.
The immigrants came here in large part to escape persecution of some sort, whether physical or spiritual or economic. The slaves and Am. Indians had persecution rained down on them right here.

Washington, very good analysis.

BUT, where do we go from here? For public education, does this matter? If so, what should we be doing differently or better?

Popular posts from this blog

Tuesday Open Thread

Seattle Public Schools and Their Principals

COVID Issues Heating up for Seattle Public Schools