An Alternative View of Immigrant Exceptionalism, Particularly As It Relates to Black: A Response to Chua and Rubenfeld

An Alternative View of Immigrant Exceptionalism, Particularly As It Relates to Black: A Response to Chua and Rubenfeld

The contrast between Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s The Triple Package (Chua & Rubenfeld 2.0) and Chua’s previous work, World on Fire (Chua 1.0), is striking. Chua & Rubenfeld 2.0 contends that particular ethnic and religious groups are spectacularly successful in the United States because of a “triple package” of traits that are largely cultural; however, there is nary a word in Chua & Rubenfeld 2.0 about the role that law might play in contributing to wealth acquisition among the subject groups. In contrast, Chua 1.0 clearly acknowledges the role of law through “law-in-culture” when accounting for the wealth of those whom Chua calls “market- dominant minorities.” “Law-in-culture” consists of binding rules, such as default contract terms, that often underlie market relations in perilous “third world” environments. While these rules are not enforceable by the state, they are powerful because those who ignore them risk ostracism by their co-ethnics, with whom they often contract.

Perhaps because Chua & Rubenfeld 2.0 focuses on particular ethnic groups within the United States””a country that epitomizes the protection of property and contract rights””it overlooks the potential role of “law-in-culture” in accounting for wealth acquisition of particular groups. This oversight is significant. Many of the subject ethnic groups had contracting advantages underwritten by “law-in- culture” in their countries of origin.

I am particularly concerned about the absence of a discussion of institutions””whether underwritten by “law” or “law-in-culture””” when Chua & Rubenfeld 2.0 discusses Black people. A case in question is Nigerian Americans. Given their focus on Nigerian American economic success, a comparison to African American economic success (or lack thereof) is foreseeable. The question is inevitable: if Nigerian immigrants do so well in the United States, what does this say about the continuing scholarly emphasis on institutional (as opposed to cultural) impediments to native Black, that is, African American economic success?

Chua & Rubenfeld 2.0 acknowledges institutional impediments to African American success, but they say very little about institutional advantages that Nigerian Americans may have. In fairness to Chua and Rubenfeld, they are likely constrained by the dearth of scholarship on the pre- and post-migration trajectories of Nigerian Americans, who are largely recent migrants. Thus, to explore the potential relevance of institutional factors, I consider the original Black “triple package” group for which much more scholarship is available, West Indians. I contend that institutional background matters. For example, even the earliest turn-of-the-century Black West Indian migrants gained exposure to an institutional context for wealth acquisition through the extension of property and contract rights to slaves and their descendants in the West Indies. This stands in stark contrast to the institutional context that generally existed for African Americans, not only during slavery, but also in the pre-civil rights southern United States.

Thus, despite the historical sociological focus on West Indian American success, I question the notion that West Indian Americans are necessarily a useful comparative sample to African Americans simply because they are Black””particularly given the historical disparity between West Indian Americans and African Americans in accessing institutions for wealth creation. The question then becomes if the same might be true of Nigerian Americans.


More in this Issue

The Other War at Home: Chronic Nuisance Laws and the Revictimization of Survivors of Domestic Violence

This Note discusses the unlikely intersection of local chronic nuisance ordinances and domestic violence. It posits that chronic nuisance law grants law enforcement, or third parties acting in a police capacity, the ability to revictimize survivors of domestic violence, disproportionately impacting women of color and poor women. Using the example of Lakisha Briggs, a Black […]

When Neurogenetics Hurts: Examining the Use of Neuroscience and Genetic Evidence in Sentencing Decisions Through Implicit Bias

Courts increasingly use neuroscience and genetic evidence (“neurogenetic evidence”) to shed light on various aspects of a defendant’s mental state and behavior. The evidence is particularly prevalent in cases involving defendants with mental illnesses and is used to determine issues of mental capacity, personal responsibility, and treatability. However, using neurogenetic evidence risks framing mental illness […]

The Uneasy Case for Marijuana as Chemical Impairment Under a Science-Based Jurisprudence of Dangerousness

As the marijuana legalization movement advances, states face a jurisprudential dilemma in addressing the burgeoning public health issue of “drugged driving.” Zero-tolerance laws targeting drivers with any illegal drugs in their systems, currently justified under a “jurisprudence of prohibition” based on the blameworthiness of the drug itself, are no longer a good fit due to […]

Identity and Form

Recent controversies over identity claims have prompted questions about who should qualify for affirmative action, who counts as family, who is a man or a woman, and who is entitled to the benefits of U.S. citizenship. Commentators across the political spectrum have made calls to settle these debates with evidence of official designations on birth […]

Don’t Ask, Must Tell—And Other Combinations

The military’s defunct Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy has been studied and debated for decades. Surprisingly, the question of why a legal regime would combine these particular rules for information flow has received little attention. More surprisingly still, legal scholars have provided no systemic account of why law might prohibit or mandate asking and telling. […]