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Why do some Groups succeed and othersa Fail?

Selwyn Ryan

By Selwyn Ryan

 A recent article entitled “What Drives Success” which appeared in the New York Times Sunday Review dated January 25, 2014 piqued my interest in part because of its possible relevance for what is taking place here. 

The article, written by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld of Harvard University, argued that entrepreneurial “success” in the United States is driven by three interactive factors.

The authors identified certain ethnic groups that are “getting ahead”.

 They include the Jews, the Iranians, the Lebanese, the Koreans, the Chinese-Americans, the Mormons, the Nigerian-Americans and the Cuban-Americans in Florida and Texas. 

The black Americans and the White Anglo American Protestants (WASPS) were noticeably absent.  

Some of the groups mentioned occasioned surprise. In respect of Nigerians, it was noted that they made up less than one per cent of the black population in the US, but were doing well. In 2013, nearly one quarter of the black students at Harvard Business School were of Nigerian ancestry. 

What was responsible for success? 

As they tell us, “The fact is that groups rise and fall over time. The fortunes of WASPS have been declining for decades. Group success in America often tends to dissipate after two generations.”

 As the authors conclude, “The fact that groups rise and fall this way punctures the whole idea of ‘model minorities’ or that groups succeed because of innate, biological differences. There is no magic gene. Rather, there are cultural forces at work.”

What are some of these factors (inter alia)? “superiority complex” and a belief in their exceptionality and/or relationship to God, insecurity,  marginality, impulse control and a wiliness to postpone gratification.

The authors agree that the traits may each be counter productive depending on context. A superiority complex may lead to intolerance. Insecurity may lead to postponement of gratification. Insecurity is often passed on to children not always consciously.

The authors note that family pressure is an important factor in the success of offspring who might feel that sacrifices have to be made because family honour is at stake. 

African-Americans are also low on self-esteem, but the complementary factors required to transform  self-esteem into academic success are just not there. This is particularly true of parental involvement. 

The authors note that most successful groups are  outsiders  in one way or another, and that that was a source of insecurity. They worry about whether they would succeed or not. This was a powerful motivation.

The concern of the host group is no longer impulse control. 

The concentration is on “feeling good”, and an unwillingness to spoil children’s good time and happiness.

The authors note that in isolation, each of the three qualities would be insufficient and might be counter productive. 

Similar views were expressed by Prof John Robertson, author of the book, The Winner Effect, which looks at the success and failure of individuals and groups through the prism of neuroscience. 

As he opines, “All stigmatised groups chances of winning in life are sabotaged by the insertion of stereotypes into their brains, which create unconscious, self-imposed glass ceilings that further create self-fulfilling prophecies in their performance.”

So far, we have looked mainly at what fosters group success in the USA. What has caused groups to decline after they have achieved a measure of success  after they had once risen?

That is a much debated issue in Trinidad and Tobago and of course elsewhere. 

During its evidence gathering meetings, the Committee on Youth at Risk which I chaired was told that many of the offspring of Indian parents who had risen were misspending their parents’ hard-earned money and were behaving socially dysfunctional.

It was said that male Indian youth were beginning to lose the edge that allowed their parents and grandparents to rise out of the canefields and lagoons. We were also told, and verily believe, that young blacks were not always at risk and that a great many had done very well as they fought to break the chains of colonialism and racial discrimination.

What has befallen that cohort and  its descendants? Is Eric Williams and his master narrative about “Massa Day Done” mainly responsible as many believe and allege? Clearly that is a nonsense.  Many other glass ceilings were inserted in the brains of our young people.

They need help to break them.

 A debate on the causes of young black failure is currently  taking place between columnist Maxie Cuffie and Dr Selwyn Cudjoe. 

Cudjoe has been a sort of one voice in the wilderness preaching that young blacks need to be given a leg up if they are not to became more self and socially destructive than they currently are. Cudjoe, whose views were recently voiced in a two part series in the Daily Express, has been criticised as being “racial” and even “racist”. 

It is being said that he is calling for “affirmative action”, that toxic policy mix that frightens so many. Cudjoe however insists that he is not recommending supplemental policies only for  black Trinidadians. He was instead targeting  and seeking to focus  attention on what he calls “that specific element of the Afro-Trinidadian population that has not done as well as it should under the PNM”.

I do not quite understand what is “racist” or “racial” about the recommendation. It may be politically discriminatory as the Partnership’s policies also are. My view is that the proposed policies seek to be instrumental and preemptive. If the society does not target young black youth for rehabilitation, young black youth will seek members of the wider society  by night and ultimately by day as well. The goal is crime suppression and not the pursuit of entitlement policies aimed at the promotion of Afro-Trinidadians generally. Similar arguments were advanced in respect of marginalised Indian youth, particularly rural youth, some of whom are economically disenfranchised. They too should be sought out and given the remedial help which they might need.There are invisible glass ceilings on many brains, and not only in East Port of Spain.

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