Recently, the Nigerian newspaper Punch opened an article as follows: “Nigerians … have been rated among certain races who are bound to succeed over others in America, the News Agency of Nigeria reports.” Anyone who reads book reviews or listens to middlebrow talk radio in America is likely to know that this refers to the new offering from Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld (that’s them looking self important above).
Their book, The Triple Package claims that Nigerians and a few other groups share the characteristics that are commonly supposed to have made Asian immigrants so successful in the U.S. (In a far stranger opinion piece in the Premium Times, Reno Omokri, an advisor to Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, cites Chua and Rosenfeld as support for anti-gay policies.)
One can see why the Nigerian elevation to model minority status might be welcome news in some quarters. After all, Asian-Americans have come a long way.
For much of twentieth century, Asians were the “yellow peril” that had to be kept at bay by overlapping layers of racially discriminatory policy. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (pretty much exactly what it sounds like) was followed by a 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” with Japan. (That arrangement spared the Emperor the embarrassment of having his citizens similarly barred, but only if he agreed never to let any try to emigrate.) Combined with an “Asiatic Barred Zone” established in 1917 and the “national origins” quotas enacted in 1924, these measures added up to repeated, official U.S. government declarations that people from East and South Asia were not citizen material. When U.S. citizens of Japanese descent were herded into internment camps during World War II, the Supreme Court doubled down on this estimation, essentially holding that blood would tell.
In the early twentieth century, there was plenty of support for these measures from U.S. social scientists. Franklin Giddings, the founder of modern sociology in the United States, published a “scientific scale” (See the chart on page 142 at this link) showing “Asian yellow” to be the seventh-least civilized racial group in the United States. “Civilized” blacks were next, followed by “uncivilized” on the bottom.
John W. Burgess, Giddings’s counterpart in political science, thought whites had a “world-duty of carrying civilization into the dark places of the earth,” but still opposed America’s imperial adventurism in the Philippines, worried that it would add “unspeakable Asiatics” to America’s list of problems (e.g. Indian, negro, labor, and Mormon). And when the U.S. did acquire an Asian colony in the Philippines, social science stood more or less united behind the proposition that “assimilationism” was doomed to fail. In the words of international relations scholar Paul Reinsch, the U.S. would “never succeed in making Americans” of its new subjects, since “deep racial differences cannot be bridged over by political institutions.”
Fast forward to 1966, just after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act deracialized U.S. immigration law (on paper, at least) and the U.S. civil rights movement won its great legislative victories. That’s the year the sociologist William Peterson coined the term “model minority,” claiming that with their strong families and stringent work ethic, Japanese-Americans had proven that discrimination was no barrier to the American dream. The media piled on, finding exemplary qualities and success in all manner of Asian-descended groups.
Suddenly, the “deep racial differences” that had meant Asians could never make it American-style were reimagined as their secret weapon for doing just that.
But it wasn’t so much what made Asians different from whites—the kinds of differences that had preoccupied people like Giddings, Burgess, and Reinsch—that made this trope so appealing. Sometimes implicitly, but often as not explicitly, the differences that mattered were with “negroes,” so tragically unfit to get on with the business of becoming middle-class Americans. Senator (and Tufts-trained sociology Ph. D.) Daniel Patrick Moynihan crystallized the liberal version of this canard in “The Negro Family: a Plan for National Action” (better known as the “Moynihan report”). For Moynihan, black poverty may have originated in slavery and discrimination, but stemmed in modern times primarily from the resulting damage to black culture. In particular, Moynihan highlighted the “deterioration of the Negro family” evidenced by the high incidence of female-headed households. By this logic, the solution wasn’t antipoverty programs but rather a federal effort to “stabilize” black family structures along patriarchal lines.
These weren’t new ideas—versions of them had long informed “uplift” schemes peddled by paternalistic liberal whites and many black elites. But this image of black Americans, paired with the new, improved version of Asian-ness, was a potent brew. That is, just at the moment that de jure racial oppression was dismantled, social science found that it was not the real problem. The real problem was black Americans themselves.
This “damage” discourse has had a curious history since. Roundly denounced by activists and social scientists for “victim-blaming,” it nonetheless lived on in various strains of “underclass,” “cycle of poverty,” and “pathology” theories of class and racial hierarchy in America. (For more on this, see Adolph Reed Jr., on “The Underclass as Myth and Symbol”.) That is, it became at once a commonplace of mainstream liberalism (“It’s not ‘race!’ It’s ‘culture!’”) and deeply suspect (“‘culture’ is the new ‘race!’”).
Chua and Rubenfeld have hit the publicity jackpot by playing at the edges of this paradox, going mainstream by locating racial superiority in culture rather than genes, and at the same time trying to finesse the controversy by endowing some black people with their “triple package” of desirable cultural traits. (Sorry – no link to the book here. It’s bad enough we’re writing about it.)
Of course, the book is nonsense. And it’s scurrilous nonsense to boot. In point of fact, “culture” isn’t the new “race.” It’s the old “race.” Biological racism is particularly lurid (and saw particularly heinous expression in eugenics and Nazism, for example), but racial oppression has as often (or perhaps even more often) been justified on cultural, religious, or economic grounds. To disavow, as Chua and Rosenfeld do, “the whole idea…that groups succeed because of innate biological differences” and claim instead that “cultural forces are at work” does not put you on the side of the angels.
In any event, boosters should take note—being among the anointed has its hazards. As the political scientist Claire Jean Kim has pointed out, for Asians, the stamp of elite white approval has come with plenty of othering. You may be successful, the story goes, but you are really strange—not one of us, unassimilable.
And heaven forbid you’re an Asian-American family on food stamps, with children who will probably never walk the halls of MIT. What the hell is wrong with you?
And that, of course, is what the authors of The Triple Package are selling: The idea that elites are on top because they are better; everyone else simply doesn’t have what it takes.