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The Problem With a Culture of Excellence

• June 18, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: hxdbzxy/Shutterstock)

Asian Americans have become a model of academic achievement. This is bad news for basically everyone.

Speak with anyone about student success in America and race will either enter the discussion early or be the increasingly difficult-to-ignore elephant in a cramped room.

In 2011, when the Wall Street Journal excerpted Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, trumpeting Chinese-style parenting (characterized as strict, harsh, and withholding) over permissive Western-style parenting, an avalanche of responses ranged from accusing her of being a bad mother to applauding her for speaking a difficult truth. Most subsequent research on Asian achievement has been covered in the press with catchy tiger-related headlines: “Revenge of the Tiger Mother”; “Poor Little Tiger Cub”; “Tiger Mom vs. Brooklyn Dragon.” Buried beneath the heated argument about parenting styles, however, lay a seed of cultural frustration that made Chua’s argument so compelling: Asian Americans excel at academics, and people want to know why.

Since the United States is so racially diverse, Americans are especially likely to associate academic achievement with race. In a 2013 paper published in the American Sociological Review, Tomas R. Jimenez and Adam L. Horowitz write:

In ethnoracially mixed settings, norms about academic achievement are usually explicitly defined in ethnoracial terms. Normally, whiteness is tightly coupled with notions of success relative to other ethnoracial categories. Asians, the putative model minority, stand as an exception compared to other non-whites. If the stereotype is a knock on the status of any group, it is other minorities.

The authors go on to show that in the high-skilled immigrant gateway of Cupertino, California, Asian achievement has clearly surpassed that of their white counterparts.

Asianness is intimately associated with high achievement, hard work, and academic success. Whiteness, in contrast, stands for lower achievement, laziness, and academic mediocrity. This understanding of ethnoracial categories in relation to academic achievement is widespread.

While this specific study only notes a shift in racial hierarchy in just one city, the statistics show that its findings are grounded in a national reality. At almost every level, Asian Americans in the aggregate have surpassed the education outcomes of other large racial groups. (To be clear, some Asian immigrant groups—Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian—have education outcomes that are well below average, which is often ignored when Asians are viewed as a homogenous group; more on that later.) Many Asian immigrants—particularly those from East and South Asia—arrive with postgraduate degrees and in sound financial shape. Still, studies have shown that Asian Americans do better, on average, than other racial groups, even after controlling for socioeconomic class.

Beyond the reductive tiger mom hypothesis, do we know why some ethnic groups do better in school than others? Chua and her husband Jed Rubenfeld, both law professors at Yale Law School, published a book this year arguing that some ethnic groups have a “cultural edge” that “enables them to take advantage of opportunity far more than others.” Their argument has been criticized for perpetuating cultural essentialism, the idea that ethnic cultures are homogenous groups with fixed, immutable traits. This perspective often means people conflate race with culture, even though one race can have wildly different cultures depending on time period, geographic location, religion, and a host of other factors.

“[Chua and Rubenfeld] focus on traits, behaviors, and values that some groups possess without considering how they emerge from a set of different circumstances for different groups,” says Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at University of California-Irvine.

To highlight the shortcomings of the cultural essentialist approach, Lee wrote in The Society Pages in 2012, “Among the second-generation in Spain, the Chinese exhibit the lowest educational aspirations and expectations of all second-generation groups, including Ecuadorians, Central Americans, Dominicans, and Moroccans.” Chinese Spaniards are hardly the model minority that places high value in education.

An even more troubling consequence of Chua’s arguments and those like hers, Lee says in an interview with Pacific Standard, is that “There are two sides to the same coin. When we mark certain groups as high achieving because of their culture, we’re arguing that some groups are low achieving because of culture.”

Saying that Asian Americans, as a whole, do better in school than black Americans is technically correct. But stopping there—or even opting for simplistic explanations like “Asians are hard-working”—is extremely dangerous.

Lee points out that Chua and Rubenfeld’s argument sidles up closely to the long-abandoned “culture of poverty” notion, embodied by sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family,” which claimed that African Americans suffer in poverty due to a “tangle of pathology” that weakened family structure and made it impossible for young black kids to succeed. The report, which was intended as a policy prescription, was criticized as being racist, perpetuating negative stereotypes, and deflecting the blame of black America’s socioeconomic plight onto black people themselves; the phrase “blaming the victim” was coined specifically to attack it.

“The ‘culture of poverty’ has been dispelled by social scientists for decades,” Lee says. “Today, we do not argue that culture is unimportant. But when you read the work done by sociologists who study culture, they’re much more specific about what they’re referring to.” In other words, modern sociologists discuss the actual cultural elements (including ethnic resources, cultural frames, and institutions) rather than linking them to race or nation of origin. The study of these elements, while more difficult to understand, is far more gratifying than drawing conclusions from ethnic caricatures.

For instance, a recent large-scale study on Asian Americans, conducted by Amy Hsin and Yu Xie and published in PNAS, concluded that, regardless of higher socio-economic status and higher intellect, the reason Asian Americans are more academically successful than white Americans is because they work harder. But Hsin and Xie didn’t stop at that over-simplified notion. They teased out complex cultural reasons for the Asian American work ethic that aren’t necessarily related to ethnicity. For instance, many Asian Americans come from immigrant families, and immigrants are self-selected to be the most hard-working and resilient people in their home countries. Immigrants also are more likely to believe that aptitude is not innate and can be gained through hard work.

But immigration status alone isn’t enough to set Asians apart from other ethnic groups in America. Socioeconomic factors play a part, as do parents’ education levels. (In a recent study, Lee, the University of California sociology professor, found that if you take into account a baseline of parents’ education levels, Mexican Americans are more high-achieving than Chinese Americans.) There’s also an essential, oft-overlooked factor of ethnic capital. In a paper published this year in Race and Social Problems, Lee and her colleague Min Zhou write:

High levels of ethnic capital in an immigrant group give parents and their children a competitive advantage (even when parents hail from low-socioeconomic status background) because groups with high ethnic capital create and provide access to invaluable ethnic resources.

It sounds wonky, but the idea is relatively simple. If some members of an ethnic group are doing well, they can provide access to middle-class resources (information on good schools, job and housing opportunities, role models, etc.) that their lower-class co-ethnics could not normally access without the help of their ethnic network.

Is this starting to sound familiar? The concept should ring true for those who followed the debate earlier this year about the plight of the black middle class and how it affects the social mobility of their entire racial group. “Middle-class blacks are far more likely than middle-class whites to live in areas with significant amounts of poverty,” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie writes. “Among today’s cohort of middle- and upper-class blacks, about half were raised in neighborhoods of at least 20 percent poverty.” While Bouie focuses on impoverished neighborhoods and how they are a main driver of downward mobility, he is also inadvertently explaining the structural barriers for middle-class blacks to building ethnic capital.

Battle_Hymn_of_the_Tiger_MotherTHIS IS THE PERFECT encapsulation of why the connection between race and achievement is tenuous at best, and damaging at worst. Saying that Asian Americans, as a whole, do better in school than black Americans is technically correct. But stopping there—or even opting for simplistic explanations like “Asians are hard-working”—is extremely dangerous, and it deprives the national discussion of a deeper understanding of success in America. Much like you can’t simply tell someone to “work harder and care more about education” to boost their outcome, you can’t ask blacks to simply build more ethnic capital to reduce black poverty. Once you dig into the specifics, cultural factors identified in the Asian success story can’t be directly applied to other ethnic groups, often because of structural and institutional barriers.

But, as Lee points out, other ethnic groups have found their own source of ethnic capital. In her research on Mexican immigrants, for example, she found that Mexican Americans did not have access to the SAT prep or tutors that Chinese Americans often do. Instead, they used their public schools as resources to help them attain levels of education that surpassed their parents.

After Chua and Rubenfeld’s book release, there was some pushback to the criticism of their perspective. As Vivia Chen writes at Time:

Chua is under attack because she and Rubenfeld are talking about ethnicity in a way that makes people uncomfortable. She’s writing about differences among divergent groups (ethnic or otherwise) and how those differences enter into the equation of success, as measured by education and socio-economic achievement (and yes, that definition of success has become a flash point too). The fear is that acknowledging those differences is to place cultures in a hierarchy, to be elitist.

Chen is right, to a certain extent. Some liberals have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of culture influencing socioeconomic outcomes—after Moynihan’s “culture of poverty” report, sociologists over-corrected by focusing almost solely on the structural and institutional causes of poverty, largely ignoring culture. Starting in the 2000s, a new wave of researchers using a “pluralist and supple” view of culture revived the connection between culture and poverty in a more nuanced way, while effectively banishing the cultural essentialism that is apparent in Chua and Rubenfeld’s book. These researchers aren’t denying that culture has an affect on academic achievement—they just acknowledge that culture is malleable and separable from race, and that the way culture develops is just as important as the race with which it is associated.

Contemporary research is especially careful to note that defining academic achievement in ethnoracial terms is detrimental to all parties. For blacks and Latinos, the problem is obvious when you look at the well-established concept of stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which people do poorly on tests when they are reminded that their reference group (whether it’s a race or gender) scores worse than average. It’s difficult to perform under the pressure of negative stereotypes—and it’s even harder when your teacher believes in them. Studies have shown that teachers make assumptions about students’ ability based on race (PDF)—even unconsciously—which dampens the chances of success for black and Latino students.

But what of Asian Americans? “We’re finding that the positive stereotypes against Asian American students can enhance and boost their performance,” Lee admits, “But I wanted to caution: These stereotypes are a double-edged sword.” Lee and Zhou’s interviewees who didn’t fit the strict Asian idea of success (getting a graduate degree; working in medicine, law, or engineering) viewed themselves as lesser, or “bad,” Asians, and tended to distance themselves from their ethnic identities. The study also showed that Asian American college students had lower self-esteem than other groups, even controlling for academic performance. Impossibly high expectations take a toll on the psyche.

Most of all, conflating race with achievement invites policy prescriptions that ignore the heterogeneity of racial groups. While Asian Americans are overrepresented in higher education and income brackets, disadvantaged ethnic groups, like the Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian, are left far behind. “Resources that should go to helping poor and under-achieving Asian ethnic groups are being lost—that perception [of homogeneity] is very damaging from a policy standpoint,” Lee says.

In their paper entitled “The Success Frame and Achievement Paradox: The Costs and Consequences for Asian Americans,” Lee and Zhou conclude:

Culture and ethnicity matter, but not in the way that the Tiger Mother … claim[s] it does. Treating culture as a core set of racially/ethnically intrinsic, comprehensive, and unchanging values, and linking these values to outcomes provides a glib explanation, but a specious one. In our research, we reject the notion of culture as static and intrinsic to race or ethnicity.

The legacy of the “culture of poverty” has made a generation of Americans shy away from difficult questions around culture and achievement. The best way to repent is not to continue ignoring these questions, but to insist upon a more rigorous and detailed examination of them—more than the Tiger Mom herself can provide.

Bettina Chang
Associate Digital Editor Bettina Chang previously directed editorial content at HomeStyle and Real Estate Weekly. A Chicago native, she serves on the board of directors for Supplies for Dreams, working to improve education outcomes for Chicago Public Schools students. Follow her on Twitter @bechang8.

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