By Suketu Mehta
From time to time, every Indian American finds an email in his or her inbox, wearing a font of many colors, like the one my grandfather once sent me: "Take a Pride--Being an Indian. 38% of Doctors in U.S.A. are Indians. 36% of NASA employees are Indians. 34% of MICROSOFT employees are Indians.
And 100% of the CEOs of Microsoft! Boo-yah! In-di-a! In-di-a! In-di-a!
"India invented the Number System. Decimal Point was also invented by India. Sanskrit is the most suitable language for computer software ..."
Of course, that was just my grandfather's ethnocentrism speaking. Not me!
On my desk now is a book-length version of such an email: The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. You may remember Chua as the "Tiger Mom" whose 2011 memoir about the rigors of Chinese parenting set off waves of anxiety among aspirational American parents who had been raised with Dr. Spock's permissive child-rearing attitudes. Her new book, co-authored with her husband, widens its aim, purporting to explain why not just Asians (like Chua) but also seven other groups--Cubans, Jews (like Rubenfeld), Indians (like me), Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians and Lebanese--are superior when it comes to succeeding in America.
The book claims that these groups thrive because of three traits: a superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control. The ones lacking the "Triple Package" are African Americans, Appalachians, Wasps and pretty much everybody else.
Does such thinking shock you?
I should hope so.
If not, it may be because it has become so insidiously commonplace over the past decade as a new strain of racial, ethnic and cultural reductivism has crept into the American psyche and public discourse. Whereas making sweeping observations about, say, African-American or Hispanic culture--flattering or unflattering--remains unthinkable in polite company, it has become relatively normal in the past 10 years to comment on the supposed cultural superiority of various "model minorities." I call it the new racism--and I take it rather personally.
I am an American, Calcutta born. I'm writing a book about immigrants in New York, dedicated to my two American sons. I want them to know why we came here and how we found our place in this new land. I want them to know about the teachers at the Catholic school in Queens who called me a "pagan," and the boy there who welcomed me to the school by declaring, "Lincoln shoulda never let 'em off the plantations," and the landlord who welcomed us to the country by turning off the electricity.
In other words, the most important family memories that my sons are having inculcated in them is that they are Victims of Whites. That's the most important legacy to instruct your children in in the 21st Century.
I also want them to know why their family did well in the end. We worked hard, yes, and we read books and went to the right schools and are "well settled," as our relatives back in India describe us. But we also benefited from numerous advantages--from cultural capital built up over generations to affirmative action to an established network of connections in our new country--none of which had anything to do with racial, ethnic or cultural superiority.
None, I tell you, none!
By the way, why do we Indian immigrants get affirmative action? I could never figure that out. Are you people crazy or something? I'd say thanks, but then you might start figuring out how nuts it is.
Not us, actually. The Mehtas are Gujarati diamond merchants from Bombay. Perhaps we're Jains (who dominate the diamond trade) or maybe Parsis (like conductor Zubin Mehta) or Brahmins or merchant caste, but whatever Amy Chua-type Market Dominant Minority I am, I try to keep my privileged ethnicity obscure here in the
The U.S., of course, has its own deeply troubled history with regard to race, but its path has tended toward more equality.
Recently, though, the language of racism in America has changed, though the plot remains the same. It's not about skin color anymore--it's about "cultural traits." And it comes cloaked in a whole lot of social-science babble. The new racialists are too smart to denigrate particular cultures. Instead, they come at things the other way. They praise certain cultures, hold them up as exemplary. The implication--sometimes overt, sometimes only winked at--is that other cultures are inferior and this accounts for their inability to succeed.
When everybody knows it's really their Bad Karma.
The U.S.--like Brazil or England--likes to think it has moved beyond race. After all, we elected a black President, twice. But in reality, the terrain of race-baiting has simply shifted. The condescension once aimed squarely at African Americans now also claims as its targets Latinos, Muslims and--in a novel twist--large swaths of whites. And the people doing the condescending might be black or brown themselves.
A Congolese immigrant whom I met in the course of researching my book told me about the African Americans she knows at the supermarket where she works. "We are really different," she said about her community, as opposed to African Americans. "They don't have African values. They don't have the values to be black."
I asked her what that means.
"To be black," she explained, "means you get married and you don't have children before." The American blacks at her supermarket, she said, need to go to college. "They ask if you want to have marijuana. It's just normal for them. It's easy for them to say that 'My ancestors were oppressed.'"
Let me be clear that I, Suketu Mehta, didn't say this. An extremely black woman from the Congo said it, not me. She may have been an extremely black woman lesbian pre-op transgender immigrant from the Congo for all I know. In other words, don't blame me for what she said. I'm a person of color myself. I would never ever think that maybe she had a point about African Americans, with whom I stand in utter solidarity from my Manhattan high rise apartment provided to me free by NYU, where -- did I mention? -- I'm a professor. I'm not endorsing the shameful thing she said, I'm just reporting it so we can all cluck in approbation over it.
A book like The Triple Package, even if it takes pains to argue in nonracial terms, is an example of this sort of ethnocentric thinking writ large. And it is only the latest in a long line of books--spanning more than a century--arguing for the superiority of this or that American group over others. The roots of alleged superiority have changed over time from race to class to IQ to religion and now to culture.
In 1916 Madison Grant wrote The Passing of the Great Race, which purported to demonstrate the racial and cultural superiority of Northern Europeans over Southern Europeans.
I'm annoyed that Time wouldn't give me the column inches to work in a clever reference to Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby here.
The book was influential in drumming up popular support for passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed Act, which barred Asians from immigrating to the U.S. and established quotas for Southern and East Europeans, to keep out Jews.
Which caused the Holocaust.
Decades later, an influential 1959 article by Bernard Rosen
Presumably, not a Jew. I mean, I wouldn't passively-aggressively quote some utterly obscure Jewish person saying something politically incorrect 55 years ago, now would I? I mean, who would write a gigantic passive-aggressive put-on like this article appears to be? I'd have to have grown up in some place like Queens and really resent Jewish domination of the New York literary world to go out of my way to find somebody who isn't a famous Jewish thinker to poke fun at for my own private satisfaction while you can't prove I'm criticising Jewish thinking. Are you implying that this article is just a hoax to see what I could get away with without any editors at Time actually getting the joke?
I mean, Rosen could be a Teuton, right?
declared that "Protestants, Jews and Greeks place a greater emphasis on independence and achievement training than southern Italians and French-Canadians." ...
And that was obviously wrong because TBD
This line of argument expanded in the 21st century. In 2004 Samuel Huntington, the Harvard professor who became famous for his book The Clash of Civilizations, warned against Latino culture in a Foreign Policy cover story bearing the title "José, Can You See?" In his book published the following year, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, he explained the differences between Anglo and Latino culture by quoting a Texas entrepreneur on "Hispanic traits ... that 'hold us Latinos back': mistrust of people outside the family; lack of initiative, self-reliance, and ambition; low priority for education; acceptance of poverty as a virtue necessary for entrance into heaven."
Of course, that's wrong because the 50 million Latinos in America provide only two members of the Forbes 400 while the few million South Asians provide six members. Boo-yah! ... Which just shows how racist America is.
In 2009 an article by Jason Richwine
Shouldn't somebody fire that guy?
, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute
Up to a point, Lord Copper.
, caught the attention of my people with its title, "Indian Americans: The New Model Minority." East Asians continue to excel in the U.S., he noted, but Indians are clearly the latest and greatest model. Why? "Exhibit A is the spelling bee." Success in spelling and other similar cognitive tasks, according to Richwine, proves that we are smarter than whites as well as Ashkenazi Jews--a happy finding for my father, who spent a lifetime in the diamond market, where they have a big presence. Richwine's conclusion: immigration policy should favor these model minorities over, say, Mexicans.
Obviously, I, Suketu Mehta, utterly disagree with this finding. But I think you should know about it ... just so you can be mad at Richwine. I'm not trying to plant any ideas in your head or anything about how brilliant we Indians are. I'm totally not into saying that us Indian Americans are smarter than you Ashkenazi Jews, but I think you should know that this horrible Jason Richwine person said it. Get 'im. For me. For the children!
Then there is Stanford University's Thomas Sowell, who in Migration and Cultures: A World View identified six model "middleman minorities" who exemplify the entrepreneurial virtues he thinks the U.S. desperately needs. Last year he took the argument to another level, writing that there are some cultures that are just incompatible with Western values, primarily (surprise!) Muslim culture.
Where are these maniacs coming from recently? Back in the 1970s you'd never hear any vicious racist nonsense like this! What? Sowell's just repeating his 1978 book Ethnic America?
These bromides don't just come thundering down from the ivory tower. They're all around us in casual conversation about group accomplishment and group blame. Typical was a recent podcast by the comedian Adam Carolla,
I heard that Carolla grew up in practically the same neighborhood as that horrible Sailer person.
in which he interviewed San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Newsom noted that half of Latino and African-American families in California don't have access to a checking account or ATM.
"What's wrong with them?" asked Carolla. "I want to know why those two groups don't have access ... Are they flawed? ... Do Asians have this problem? ... They were put in internment camps. Are they at the check-cashing places?"
"Look at the history," Newsom responded. "It's naive to suggest that those things don't matter."
"How about the Jews?" asked Carolla. "No problems in the past? ... Why are the Jews doing well? ... Why do some groups do so much better? I'll tell you why: they have a family who puts an emphasis on education." He may have been speaking lightly, but Carolla's words show how easily the line can blur between cultural praise and cultural denigration.
Of Ethnicity and Reality
... The new American racism, however, is turning the clock backward. While Chua and Rubenfeld are not the only ones peddling this pernicious line of thought, their book is likely to make them prominent spokespeople for it. So it's worth taking a close look at the "evidence" they marshal for their argument. Too often they--and their compatriots--ignore the realities of American history to make their half-baked theories stick.
The authors attempt to barricade themselves against charges of racism by protesting that the Triple Package has nothing to do with race or IQ; it's about ethnicity. So not all blacks are losers--look at Nigerians and Liberians! They are so well represented in the Ivy League! But the authors fail to acknowledge that Africans and Afro-Caribbeans are beneficiaries of affirmative action, won through the civil rights struggles of African Americans.
Which makes what I just said about quotas A-OK. We shall overcome ... Sing it!
What's more, African Americans are not in a bad way because of lack of racial pride
In fact, have you noticed that African Americans seem to have plenty of self-esteem? I'm just sayin' ...
or a problem with their impulses.
I would never say that.
Their challenges as a community trace back centuries; they were brought here in chains, their women raped
Not by me, personally, but your tastes may vary.
and their families deliberately broken.
Take that, Chua! Let no one ever say that a Chinawoman can out BS an Indiaman.
This is what President Obama was talking about in his remarks after the Trayvon Martin verdict
That Zimmerman guy, I have to say, a year of hiding indoors really did his complexion a world of good. "Wheat-colored" we'd call it in the marriage market personal ads.
, 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."
Look at all those instructive historical epics, such as 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, and Lee Daniels' The Butler. It used to be that blacks caused problems for themselves because of white racism, but now the country has elected some
In summary, don't blame me: Us Indians just got here!
Time and again, when examining the claims of the new racialists, we find other, deeper, often more complex explanations for why the children of some groups do better than others.
As Nancy Foner, a leading immigration scholar
Here's the extended Foner family family tree of leftist academics and Marxist labor organizers. Three of her four Foner uncles were blacklisted during the McCarthy era. By the way, I was hoping that Nancy would introduce me to the movie star Gyllenhaal Siblings, but she explained that they are her cousin Eric's ex-wife's children by her second husband, so I'll just have to figure out another way to get my screenplay into Jake's' hands: Maybe I'll tell him, "'The Prince of Persia' changed my life!" D'ya think?
, points out in an essay, "Today, the way East Asian--as opposed to black or Hispanic--immigrants fit into New York's racial hierarchy makes a difference in the opportunities they can provide their children." Because they are not black, she notes, "East Asian (and white) immigrants face less discrimination in finding a place to live and, in turn, send their children to school." That translates into greater access to heavily white neighborhoods with good public schools.
Well, that clears that up. For example, that's why Stuyvesant is about 70% Asian: it's near Wall Street, which is heavily white.
Moreover, even if they attend school with native-born blacks and Latinos, they do not feel a bond of race with native minorities--making them less likely to become part of a peer culture found among some disaffected inner-city black and Latino youth.
In other words, Asians youths are less likely to join criminal gangs. So, it doesn't have anything to do with culture.
Cubans, meanwhile, are in favor over other Latinos among the new racialists, since they appear to do better in America than groups like Mexicans. But as City University of New York's Philip Kasinitz, an expert on ethnic assimilation, notes, "If Mexicans threw out the top 10% of their population into America, you'd be singing a different tune about Mexicans."
Maybe we should try only taking the top 10% of Mexicans? Speaking of Talented Tenth Mexicans, maybe Alfonso Cuaron would like to direct my screenplay as his Gravity follow-up? I could add some long tracking shots for Lubezki to film. Heck, I could make the plot about the oppression of illegal alien Mexicans in a post-apocalyptic England. What was that movie about, anyway? But I don't care: if Cuaron wants to direct, I'll slap in a maid, gardener, busboy, whatever. I'm cool.
And among Cubans, there's a subset that hasn't done well: the "Marielitos," who immigrated in 1980 when Fidel Castro emptied the island's prisons and told the inmates they were free to head to America. They were much darker in complexion than the first wave of Cubans, and they have not done anywhere near as well as their light-complected compatriots. What does this suggest? First, that if you were doing well in the country you're leaving, you'll do well in the country you're going to, and vice versa. Second, that lighter-skinned people tend to fare better than darker-skinned people when they immigrate to the U.S.,
Or any country ... Except for those damn Tamils. Have you ever noticed how pushy Tamils are? Don't they know their place?
even if they're from the same country.
Here's something I didn't actually know about the Marielitos until I started getting just plain hateful emails after my Time article appeared: a sizable fraction of the Marielitos were career criminals or lunatics emptied out of Cuba's penal institutions by Castro and dispatched on boats as a giant middle finger guffaw at the expense of Castro's archenemy.
I'll grant you that's not common knowledge, but apparently there is this obscure art film called Scarface directed by the exquisitely tasteful Brian De Palma, written by the Oxford professor of history Oliver Stone, and starring an understated character actor named Al Pacino as Tony Montana that obliquely referred to that history:
What about Jews? Scholars like Stephen Steinberg in The Ethnic Myth have pointed out that the success of immigrant Jews was largely due to the fact that they arrived in the U.S. with "industrial experience and concrete occupational skills" well suited to the booming urban economies of the new world.
That's why so many Jewish-Americans these days have good paying jobs as factory foremen.
Not, as Chua and Rubenfeld posit, because "Jews maintained for millennia the idea that they were God's chosen people."
Well, that clears that up once and for all.
... Lastly, what shall we make of Indians--who, aside from Chinese, are perhaps the new racialists' favorite model minority? Indians in America are, as Chua and Rubenfeld note, "by any number of measures, the most successful Census-tracked ethnic group in the country."
Well, if Indians are so great, what explains India? The country is a sorry mess, with the largest population of poor, sick and illiterate people in the world, its economy diving, its politics abysmally corrupt. For decades, those who could afford to get out did. The $1,000 that it takes to purchase a one-way ticket to the U.S. is about a year's salary for the average Indian. If India shared a border with the U.S. and it were possible for its poorest residents to cross over on foot, we would fast cease to be the model minority, and talk-show hosts would rail against us just as they do against Mexicans.
You mean to say that legal restrictions on immigration are actually good for the American public? Maybe we shouldn't take the rest of the world's "huddled masses?" No, I'm just kidding. U-S-A! U-S-A! Statue of Liberty FTW!
The groups Chua and Rubenfeld and the other new racialists typically pick out as success stories are almost without fail examples of self-selection. Forty-two percent of Indians in the U.S. ages 25 and older have a postgraduate degree. But only about 20% of those they've left behind in the motherland even graduate from high school, and 26% of the population is illiterate. It's the same with Nigerians: the ones who are here represent a vastly richer and better-educated subset of the country's population as a whole.
So Africans really aren't that smart on average? Is that what I'm trying to tell you? No, absolutely not. You should be ashamed of yourself for even thinking that. What kind of racist are you?
Further, the authors pay almost no attention to the role of networking, which accounts for so much of the success of groups like Jews, Cubans and Indians. Part of the reason so many immigrant groups thrive is that when they arrive in the U.S., they already have an uncle who runs a store and cousins who are tutors, doctors or lawyers who can help them negotiate the new country.
When my family immigrated in 1977, we didn't do well because of delayed gratification or cultural superiority or a chip on our shoulder. We did well because my uncle in Detroit, an engineer, brought us over on the family-reunification bill, not in shackles or in steerage. 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.
Oh, come now, the diamond industry is notoriously meritocratic and wide open to any individual with a little moxie.
My sons, in turn, will benefit from my connections.
Much of The Triple Package focuses, naturally enough, on immigrants in New York City--then and now the immigrant capital of the country, if not the world. So you could profitably browse a gold mine of a book just put out by the NYC department of city planning, The Newest New Yorkers, a compendium of figures about the diverse groups that make up my hometown.
Chinese Americans in New York City, it turns out, earn less than other groups lacking the Triple Package. The median household income of Chinese in the city ($42,766) is lower than that of Ecuadoreans ($46,126), Haitians ($48,175) and Pakistanis ($50,912). The New York City group with the highest percentage of high school graduates isn't Chinese or Indians; it's Ukrainians (94.4%). But rarely are we treated to encomiums about the cultural superiority of the Borscht Mom.
Like the Brooklyn Nets are owned by a simple Slavic farm boy who was just better than anybody else at growing potatoes. Or something. I wasn't really paying attention. I leave that to bad people like Amy Chua. Did I mention how much you should hate her?
America's Real Exceptionalism
The pity is that this book, and this entire line of argument, is taken seriously--among my relatives
Whom I totally disagree with.
"Every one of the premises underlying the theory of the Triple Package is supported by a well-substantiated and relatively uncontroversial body of empirical evidence," the authors assert. "Give me a break," said Foner, who is one of the authorities cited in the endnotes. "There is a large body of literature showing that the most important factor predicting success among the children of immigrants is parents' human capital." That is: skills and education, from family to family and individual to individual.
And family has nothing to do with culture. Or genes. Neither nurture nor nature matters. Don't even think about children inheriting genes from their parents. No Indian has ever thought about blood ancestry. You can't hear this Indian thinking about biological inheritance. I'm putting my fingers in my ears and chanting so you can't hear me think about that.
Nyah Nyah Nyah.