Stuyvesant High School, that bastion of hyper-competitiveness that regularly sends students off to Harvard and Yale, is thought by many to be the best public high school in New York City. The most recent student-body figures show that nearly three out of four students there are Asian.
So much for Jewish superiority, at least in New York. (OK, but we still have three members of the Supreme Court — all three from New York — and a slew of Nobel Prize winners.)
That sense of superiority is one part of what Tiger Mom Amy Chua and her Jewish husband, Jed Rubenfeld, dub the “triple package” — a trifecta of traits that help define why certain cultural groups achieve great things.
Coming on the heels of “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” which ignited a cultural firestorm about Chua’s extreme parenting, the new book is getting roundly criticized for positing an argument that seems a generation or two out of date, at least where the Jews are concerned.
In “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America” (Penguin), the Yale professor power couple argue that their success — as well as that of America’s Cubans, Indians, Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians and Lebanese — is due to three shared characteristics, which, in addition to a group superiority complex, are a personal feeling of inferiority and a heavy dose of self-discipline.
The book “resurrects discredited theories of why some groups make it and others don’t,” said CUNY professor Stephen Steinberg, author of the seminal 1981 work, “The Ethnic Myth.”
“Despite all their caveats and against their intentions, they end up casting cultural blame on the groups left behind,” he said.
Steinberg and other sociologists who focus on immigration also criticized the authors’ methodology.
“They didn’t do research, they picked and chose things that agreed with their premise,” said Hunter College sociologist Nancy Foner, author of “From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration.”
In an interview with The Jewish Week last week, Chua and Rubenfeld argued that they’re not trying to compare groups or attribute a group’s success to innate qualities.
“We’re saying that we can all learn from what they’re doing,” Chua said.
They say that they didn’t cherry-pick their examples but rather worked with a “team of research assistants” to “systematically determine the most strikingly successful groups” and “empirically examining census data and other economic data.”
“We did the opposite of cherry-pick; we were so incredibly rigorous in this,” Chua said. “We pretty much went straight down the ancestry group income table produced by the U.S. Census and we gave the reasons that we excluded the groups that we did.”
But Duke sociologist Lisa Keister says that it doesn’t matter how Chua and Rubenfeld determined their groups. “You cannot say anything about a group if you do not have a general sample to compare to. … I don’t care if a team of experienced statisticians did the cherry-picking, it is still not going to tell you anything. … This is statistics 101. It is a lousy way to draw a sample, and there is no serious academic in the world who would believe a word they say from it,” she said.
The other major criticism is that their premise is based on “selecting on the dependent variable.”
“You take these people who are successful and look at what they have in common. What’s wrong with that is what if you have unsuccessful people who have the same characteristics?” said Hunter College sociologist Philip Kasinitz, author of “Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age.”
“What you’re missing is the guy that had all of the same traits as Mark Zuckerberg but didn’t have his success,” agreed Duke’s Keister, author of “Faith and Money: How Religious Belief Contributes to Wealth and Poverty.”
“Maybe it’s luck that explains all of this,” she added. “There’s absolutely no way to know what’s right if you eliminate all the failures along the way.”
Chua and Rubenfeld argue that their book does examine “unsuccessful groups,” such as African Americans, Appalachians and the Amish, and determines that they lack the “triple package.”
But sociologists aren’t buying it.
“They do indeed make some very partial references to other groups — non-successful groups (they are not stupid, after all) but I find those references to be partial, perfunctory and unconvincing,” Kasinitz said via e-mail. “They never systematically measure whether the triple package leads to success … and assume the absence of those traits explains the lack of success of other groups. The world is much more complex than that.”
“They mention race but they don’t really seriously take it into account how race operates,” said Foner. “If you look in New York City at Caribbean groups, their achievements are not that soaring — not higher rates than the Chinese. They come with very, very strong attitudes towards achievement, but I think they face a lot of discrimination.”
So what does explain why some immigrant groups do better than others? It has to do with a myriad of other factors such as when they arrived, what skills and resources they brought with them, and how much discrimination they faced when they got here, researchers say.
Chua and Rubenfeld say that race is not a major factor when it comes to an immigrant group’s success by pointing to Nigerians; they make up a quarter of Harvard Business School’s black students, and one in four Nigerians in America have a graduate or professional degree.
But such an argument fails to take into account that the Nigerians who come to the United States come from the upper ranks of Nigerian society, and that some colleges and universities opt to accept African, rather than African-American students to meet diversity requirements.
“A lot of them come in through affirmative-action programs, so the son of the Nigerian ambassador gets the space,” said Kasinitz.
“These Nigerians were part of an educated elite,” agreed Steinberg. “If anything, this status was just transferred from one country to another. You’re comparing apples and oranges in terms of social class.”
“There’s a large canon of studies on the culture of poverty that locate the anchorage of poverty in conditions of social class and racial barriers,” said Steinberg. “The whole black middle class is testament to what happens when opportunity for African Americans opens up.”
As for Jewish success, there are a series of factors, none of which have to do with feelings of superiority or inferiority, researchers say.
One thing is timing: Jews arrived in America with a vast array of skills, especially in the garment trades, just as this industry was taking off. The thousands of Jews fleeing Nazi Europe also arrived at a good time.
“Between 1945 and 1970 it was tough not to be economically successful in America because the economy was doing so well,” said Kasinitz.
There are also the resources Jews brought with them, especially compared to groups, such as Italians and the Irish, who were mostly farmers, said Kasinitz.
“They tended to have more experience in industrial cities, they were more urban, they had more skills, they were almost all literate and they very often had small business or artisanal skills,” said Kasinitz.
“The second thing is that Jews sent very little money back home. Compared to Italians, Irish and Poles, these Jews, they weren’t going back. … Jews were committed to being in America almost from the minute they got here,” he said.
Other factors that helped the Jews as well as most of the other groups Chua and Rubenfeld examine are their tight-knit communities and a strong value placed on mutual support, he said.
Plus Jews (as well as most of the other groups on the list) had a diversity of classes in the U.S. “Even though most of the immigrants were poor, there were artisans, a middle class and wealthy Jewish employers who could hire Jewish employees. Jews could get loans from Jewish financial institutions,” he said. “That is much, much harder to do if you don’t have that entrepreneurial class.”
But Chua and Rubenfeld never get into any of those explanations in any depth, observers say.
“The key factor in explaining success is the education and social background of the parents. They really underplay the importance of that,” said Foner. “Even some of the examples they give — they kind of tout the number of people at a certain institutions — but that’s not how social scientists do it. Just looking at how many Supreme Court justices are Jewish isn’t a way to measure success.”