Amy Chua’s “Triple Package”: Success Formula for Some?

Is success monolithic and limited to certain groups? Attributes of success cannot be monopolized by certain groups, cultures, ethnicities, or religious groups. Most people that are successful, in fact, appear to have characteristics in common and these characteristics are not driven by their membership in certain groups. The premise of the American democracy is based on the notion that all can succeed through hard work and access to opportunity. In Outliers, the Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell observes:

Nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf. It is, rather a gift. Outliers are those who have been given opportunities—and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.

Yet according to Amy Chua and Jeb Rosenfeld in their new book, The Triple Package, the combination of three cultural characteristics has led to the success of eight groups in America (Chinese, early Cuban exiles, Indians, Nigerians, Mormons, Iranians, Lebanese and Jews): 1) a superiority complex; 2) a sense of insecurity; and 3) impulse control. In fact, they assert,

all of America’s disproportionately successful groups have a superiority complex; in fact most are famous for it” (p. 72).

This superiority complex, they state, is “deeply ingrained” (p. 83). And strikingly, the authors do not support these sweeping statements with research findings or empirical sources of evidence.

Chua and Rosenfeld’s thesis has distinct Orwellian overtones by suggesting that some groups have what it takes to be more equal or successful than others. As NYU professor Suketu Mehta points out in an article titled “The ‘Tiger Mom Superiority Complex’” in Time Magazine,the book represents “a new strain of racial, ethnic, and cultural reductivism,” a sort of “ethnocentric thinking writ large” or what he terms “the new racism.” And, he adds, “I call it the new racism—and I take it rather personally.”

The Triple Package touches on some important themes, but also suffers from a number of critical flaws. Most importantly, the book does not address the nature of structural discrimination that is reflected in disparate historical, economic, and social realities for minorities through the predominance of what social theorist Joe Feagin calls the “white racial frame.” According to Feagin, this frame is comprised of racial stereotypes, racial narratives, racial images, and racialized emotions that shape how many whites behave and interact with all Americans of color. Systematic, structural forms of exclusion of minorities have pervaded access to housing, education, distribution of economic resources, and job opportunities.

Arguably, the sense of superiority of any group is affected by forces of social oppression and the internalization of these forces has an impact on the psyche of affected individuals. Chua and Rosenfeld have correctly identified the fact that blacks have been systematically denied access to a group superiority complex and bear a significant cultural burden by susceptibility to stereotype threat. However, the omission of African Americans from the chapter on impulse control seems to do a disservice to hardworking African Americans who have been highly successful.

Second, the co-authors’ emphasis is on immigrant success. Factors in immigrant success, however, are not representative of the American population as a whole. For the most part, the legal immigration system has provided upper and middle class individuals the opportunity to emigrate to the United States. Take, for example, the fact mentioned by Chua and Rosenfeld indicate that 65 percent of Iranian Americans are foreign born. They also distinguish between the success of the first wave of Cuban immigration between 1959 and 1973 which included an influx of mostly white middle and upper class professionals “at the pinnacle of a highly stratified society” (p. 37) with the later wave of Cuban immigrants who were black or of mixed race or mostly poor. As the authors observe, these individuals were not successful in business and are absent from Miami’s power elite. Yet rather than cultural factors, the racism and classicism evident in the treatment of second-generation Cuban immigrants represent powerful structural, social influences in their relative lack of mobility and success.

Third, the authors assert that the Triple Package is a cultural explanation of group success that does not include education or hard work as core components. In their view, education and hard work are dependent and not independent variables. This dismissal of education flies in the face of Horace Mann’s view that education is

a great equalizer of the conditions of men,–the balance wheel of the social machinery” that “gives each man the independence and the means by which he can resist the selfishness of other men.

Or to put it in a more contemporary framework, as Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of the Lumina Foundation points out, “college-level learning is key to individual prosperity, economic security, and the strength of our American democracy.”

And, in Chua and Rosenfeld’s view, America previously had the Triple Package culture, but,

in the latter part of the twentieth century, something happened. America turned against both insecurity and impulse control (p. 208).

As a result, the authors indicate that to recover the Triple Package, Americans would have to recover from “instant gratification disorder” (p. 218).

The basis for these statements is not explained, documented, or footnoted. In essence, individuals from oppressed groups, no matter which group, have similar aspirations and wish for a better life and to be part of the American dream. These aspirations are not driven by cultural characteristics and can be advanced through education, hard work, and structural and opportunity mechanisms that facilitate individual progress. Due to the lack of evidence offered for the assertions of the Triple Package, the book essentially provides commentary on a very complex subject rather than scholarship and, as such, lacks credibility. Should certain groups accept the unsupported premises of this book, self-fulfilling prophecies could set in, and public opinion and debate could be affected by unverified statements that are not grounded in empirical data or social science research.

Light Skin, Light Jail Time? A Dissent to Some Prominent Research

Anyone studying issues of race, ethnicity and incarceration knows that African American men, all things being equal, receive longer sentences for similarly situated crimes than White men (Uggen, Wakefield, and Western 2005). This is especially true in crimes of violence when the victims are White (Radelet and Pierce 2010). So it does not come as a surprise that a recent social science paper which identifies data that there are additional negative consequences for Blacks, separate from Whites, in the criminal justice system based on their skin color, has been receiving positive endorsements.

The paper entitled “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders: a research note” appearing in The Social Science Journal, 48 (2011) 250–258 by Jill Viglione, Lance Hannon and Robert DeFina in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Villanova University has been praised in NewsOne, The Root, Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, Sentencing Project Race & Justice News and most positive of all in thisonline blog: Racism Review.

Actually, “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders” is an important paper in that it could have shown how the disparities in the US criminal justice system continues –based on the invidious distinction of skin color—and moved us beyond seeing things simply as “black and white,” had it not been for faulty science and methodology used in the research itself. For starters the researchers take at face value the coding system employed at the North Carolina prisons; coding light skinned African American women as “1”, and dark skinned African American women as “0.” Any empirical social scientist knows that extensive training of “coders” and reliability analysis must be performed before measures such as these are considered to be reliable. I see no evidence that either of these important aspects of data collection have been performed. Additionally, there is certainly widespread discussion of the complexities of color in the African American community—both discussions of it as a fact and of its impact on issues such as the restricted complexions represented in the media, in certain places of employment and so forth. Yet, most research on complexion also acknowledges that complexion occurs on a continuum. To represent it as “light” and “dark” based on a binary coding system is reductionist to the point of rendering the data potentially irrelevant.

There are, to be sure, major methodological and conceptual problems in the research that should have been addressed prior to praising the paper. For example, in the research by Thompson and Zingraff (1981), they point out that

sentence length is a product of status differentials between the offender and the victim Given: 100 white robbery offenders and 100 black robbery offenders sentenced in 1973 and matched on prior record and total number of charges intra-racial incidence of robbery in 1973: 93% of black offender robberies and 52% of white offender robberies sentence lengths (a) black offender/white victims 20 years; (b) white offender/white victim 16 years; (c) black offender/black victim 10 years; (d) white offender/black victim, 5 years. The average sentence lengths are computed as follows:
black offenders (93 X 10) + (7 X 20)/100= 10.7 years ;
white offenders (52X16)+ (48X5)/100=10.7years

The example shows that even when 100% of the judges discriminate, researchers who do not account for victim characteristics may conclude that no discrimination exists. Recent research shows similar patterns in sentencing still exist today (Tonry 2011).

In addition to the severe methodological problems plaguing this paper “The impact of light skin on prison time for black female offenders,” in order to demonstrate this type of wide-spread discrimination based on color, rather than race, would require the authors to demonstrate collusion of benefit afforded to light skinned African Americans by arresting police officers, prosecutors, district attorneys and judges (juries) relative to darker skinned African Americans separate from the demonstrated discrimination based on race (White versus Black). The question becomes: why would this be in light of disparities in sentencing (White v. Black) that have been in existence since the formal establishment of the convict leasing system (Oshinsky 1997).

Lastly, the praise for this paper focuses almost exclusively on its ability to demonstrate the persistence of color bias inside the African American community, yet there is no evidence that the “coders” of the data are in fact African American! It is unfortunate that this paper suffers from fatal methodological flaws, as the topic, as stated above, would allow us to explore the nuances of race and the criminal justice system beyond “black and white.” It is also unfortunate that so many who praised the paper mistake it for a contribution to the “colorism” research and debates that have been a positive factor in disentangling the intra race/ethnic discrimination in the African American community that has been around ever since– If you’re black, get back. If you’re brown, stick around If you’re light, you’re alright (Hochschild and Weaver 2007; Keith and Herring 1991), also see the film by Spike Lee entitled: School Daze.

It is even more unfortunate that so many noted scholars were so quick to praise the paper and circulate it to a wider readership without engaging in the critical assessment of the methodsthat reveals flaws that lead this reader at least to conclude that the findings are irrelevant and can’t be substantiated unless more rigorous methods and reliability analysis are applied and performed.

Hochschild, Jennifer and V. Weaver. 2007. “The skin color paradox and the American racial order.” Social Forces 86:643-670.
Keith, Vera and Cedric Herring. 1991. “Skin tone stratification in the black community.” The American Journal of Sociology 97:760-778.
Oshinsky, David M. 1997. Worse than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow Justice. New York: The Free Press.
Radelet, Michael L. and Glenn L. Pierce. 2010. “Race and Death Sentencing in North Carolina -1980-2007.” Manuscript, Colorado Springs.
Thomson, Randall and Matthew T. Zingraff. 1981. “Detecting Sentencing Disparity: Some Problems and Evidence ” American Journal of Sociology 86:869-880.
Tonry, Michael. 2011. Punishing Race. New York: OXford.
Uggen, Christopher, Sara Wakefield, and Bruce Western. 2005. “Work and Family Perspectives on Reentry ” Pp. 209-243 in Prisoner Reentry and Crime in America, edited by J. Travis and C. Visher. New York: Cambridge.

Dr. Earl Smith is professor of sociology at Wakeforest University.