How to Raise a Model Minority

"Tiger Mother" Amy Chua is right about one thing: Assimilation is the enemy of achievement for minorities in America.


"We gotta get out of here."

My friend Allison was talking about the city we both live in, Washington D.C., where she and her husband were typical black strivers trying to do right by the race. Couple of kids, a house, advanced degrees, professional careers. Model minorities.

Allison and her husband were thriving professionally but felt suffocated by the U.S. education system, backlash against the Obama election, guns at town hall meetings, the inexplicably enduring public presence of a failed Alaska governor, the dueling Beck and Sharpton rallies -- the nastiness that settled over us like an angry, evil cloud.

So where to? Maybe they wanted to join the bourgie reverse migration down South?  "Mozambique … ," she said. "Maybe Venezuela. We haven't decided yet."  

Huh? Crazy talk! But I couldn't fault her for wanting to flee the country. My son, an athletic bookworm, was having a rough year when we heard an NPR report in the car about black boys failing in schools. There was a long, uncomfortable silence as I searched for but did not find the words to say, "But they don't mean you!" without denying him pride in his racial identity.

My then 9-year-old spoke first. "That won't be me," he vowed. But the daunting results of that study -- which showed that not even favorable socioeconomic "nurturing" factors were giving black boys a leg up -- made me wonder at that moment if maybe they weren't just allergic to this country. So yeah, self-imposed exile is looking like a better option every day.

Amy Chua -- author of the controversial parenting memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which gained notoriety recently when an excerpt from it, about the superiority of strict Chinese mothers, appeared in the Wall Street Journal -- would agree that assimilation into the American system doesn't make much sense. In many ways, her experience as Tiger Mother represents both the disease of and cure for modern parenting.

Many have inferred from her much discussed new memoir that disproportionate Asian academic success can be attributed to a regimen of no sleepovers, no playdates, no quitting, no coddling, no praising mediocrity and lots of drills. The ancient Chinese secret is, in short, demand perfection and accept nothing less. Children are not so fragile that they will break under these expectations.

This is the same immigrant work ethic that catapulted my parents from poverty in Guyana to the country-club class of North America. Ditto for my husband's parents in Jamaica, and Allison's husband's parents in the Caribbean. Ditto, it should be said, for Allison's grandparents, who, as Isabel Wilkerson's brilliant book on the Great Migration showed, had their own immigrant experience moving from the South to Northern cities, where their achievements in culture and society forever changed America. 

But Chua is also part of the disease, because she has essentially written a manual for how to create superior sheep. But I still share many of her philosophies on the sturdiness of children, and in general have enormous respect for her. There she is, a Yale Law School professor, married to a white professor at the same school -- technocratic royalty in the land where privilege was invented -- and yet she has not allowed that success to be a reason to lose her identity, melting away into the American pot.