Tiger Mom’s Latest Book? Obnoxious, but Not Racist

Calling some cultures superior to others is pretty galling. But it’s not racist.

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Amy Chua at Time magazine’s “World's 100 Most Influential People” gala, April 26, 2011, in New York City

DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

With her first book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, in which she sang the praises of strict parenting and Chinese mothers in particular, Yale law professor Amy Chua evoked some bruising criticism. Some, like the Broad Side’s Joanne Bamberger, wrote that Chua’s parenting prescriptions “bordered on child abuse,” while others simply accused her of being a lousy mom.

But the criticism she has managed to provoke for her latest book may be even worse.

So far she has been accused of being a racist, or at least promoting a racist ideology, and the book hasn’t even hit shelves yet. Cafe Mom’s “The Stir” went with the headline, “‘Tiger Mom’ Is Back With Her Most Racist Views Yet.” And sources who’ve read her latest offering, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, say that Chua argues that eight cultural groups are poised for global superiority and success.

African Americans are not one of those designated groups.

But there are black people included on Chua’s eclectic list: Nigerians. According to Chua and her co-author—and husband—Jed Rubenfeld, Nigerians, along with Mormons, Jews, the Chinese, Indians and those of Cuban, Lebanese and Iranian descent, are poised to perform and compete at superior levels in America. The book’s title refers to the characteristics the authors believe people in these groups possess that give them communitywide advantages over others. Those three traits are a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control.

At first glance, it’s easy to assume that Chua and her husband are making a case for genetic superiority. But their argument is more nuanced than that. They say that because these groups perceive themselves as superior, it allows them to perform at a higher level. I see this argument as no different from when coaches tell athletes to “think like a winner.” After all, thinking like a loser is certainly not a winning strategy.

From the coverage of Chua’s latest tome, it’s clear that she’s struck a nerve—a big one. But I’m not entirely sure why. If the book were titled, “The Triple Package: Three Ways Certain Groups Are Genetically Superior,” then I would be joining in the literary lynch mob going after her right now.

But the book’s premise is rooted not in inherited and unchangeable traits such as race (as that horrifying book The Bell Curve once did) but in cultural traits that can theoretically be taught. So what’s the problem?

After all, the third trait is “impulse control.” The need for greater impulse control is certainly not a race-specific characteristic, but it does manifest in different communities differently. For instance, many of the health woes in the African-American community, such as diabetes, are tied to our diet and the rich cultural history that comes with our food.

But as much as we may try to dismiss the harm that is being done to our bodies by using language that downplays the brutal truth (maybe by telling ourselves “a little cobbler never hurt anybody”), the reality is that consistently making unhealthy food choices constitutes poor impulse control. This gives communities that collectively make wiser food choices an advantage over our community. So why shouldn’t an author be allowed to write about that?