Random Penguins in the House: Are They Racist?

Penguin Groups Marketing Strategy_Misfortune of Knowing Blog

We all know that controversy sells books — until it doesn’t.

 Remember Paula Deen? Back in June, after the celebrity chef admitted in a deposition in an employment discrimination case (that was subsequently dismissed) to having used racial epithets in the past, the publisher of her cook book, Ballantine Books, stopped publication. At the time, I wrote:

Rightly or wrongly, Paula Deen’s deposition caused her to transition in the public consciousness from being a part of the charming New South to being a part of the racist Old South, and so she had to be banished from our kitchens, televisions, and cookbooks, lest she remind us of our own past.

Apparently, Paula Deen’s transgressions mattered so much that, even half a year later, her career has not bounced back from the ignominy.

I’m not saying that her career should bounce back, but I find it curious that one publisher cared deeply about the appearance of “political correctness” back then, while a closely related publishing company is now promoting a different book specifically because of its racist themes. Racism is controversial (to put it lightly), controversy sells books, ergo racism sells books. Right?

I hope not, but that seems to be the thought process behind Yale Law professors (and married couple) Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld’s new book, The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America (published by Penguin Group). In this soon-to-be-released book, which the New York Post reviewed, Chua and Rubenfeld purportedly list eight “exceptional” ethnic groups (Jews, Indians, Chinese, Iranians, Lebanese, Nigerians, Cuban exiles, and Mormons) that have three traits underpinning their success (superiority complexes, insecurity and impulse control).

My impression about the book, having read only the New York Post’s review (and having no intention of ever reading the actual book), is that it is little more than stereotypes and pseudoscience. The New York Post notes how frequently Chua and Rubenfeld themselves admit the paucity and unreliability of their data: “The authors have such dubious data — ‘getting a statistical fix on Mormon income and wealth is notoriously difficult’; ‘hard numbers, however, are surprisingly hard to come by’ — that they undermine every assertion of so-called ‘cultural’ supremacy.” I suspect that, once the book is released to the community at large, it will be found to be just as guilty of the charges that Stephen Jay Gould leveled against The Bell Curve twenty years ago: “[the book] presents no compelling data to support its anachronistic social Darwinism…”

This book sounds atrocious, but that doesn’t surprise me considering its authors.

You may remember Amy Chua as the “Tiger Mom” of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, a book that was so controversial in its endorsement of a particularly harsh method of parenting that it “earned” a spot on The New York Times’ Best Sellers List.

Fewer people have probably heard of Rubenfeld, but, to me, he’s the more pernicious member of the pair. Recently, in “The Riddle of Rape-by-Deception and the Myth of Sexual Autonomy,” published in the Yale Law Journal, Rubenfeld argued that rape shouldn’t be defined as “sex without consent” because sexual autonomy is a “myth” and because such a definition could, in theory, criminalize “rape by deception.” Rubenfeld thus argued that rape should really be defined as sex by the use of or threat of force, and thus there should be a “force requirement” to the crime of rape. The “force requirement” for which he advocates was used for generations to let perpetrators off the hook for marital rape, acquaintance rape, and rapes while victims were intoxicated or unconscious.

Everyone’s entitled to their own dubious opinion, but it’s outrageous that trolls like Chua and Rubenfeld have such large and prestigious platforms from which to spread their idiocy: Yale Law School and Penguin Group.

Interestingly, on July 1, 2013, just after Ballantine Books dropped Paula Deen, its parent company, Random House finalized its merger with Penguin to become Random Penguin House Penguin Random House. Who knows what this merger really means for the subsidiaries, but it makes me wonder if the new Random House wholeheartedly supports stereotypes and racism now that the Penguins have moved in.

*Image: I thought this picture of the penguin sign on St. Patrick’s day (2012) was appropriate for this topic. “Guano into gold” seems to be Penguin’s marketing strategy these days.


  1. I appreciate the point, and am glad you pointed out the Rubenfeld law review oddness. It seems from these authors’ credentials that they would know better than to publish ridiculous things, but maybe their ambition is getting in the way of their judgment.

    P.S.: I also love the picture. Was the penguins’ water supposed to be almost as green as the St. Paddy’s hat? Is it one of those dye-the-river-green things, like they do in Chicago?

    1. Yeah, you’d think Chua and Rubenfeld would know better (or that at least one of them would!). As for the picture, I actually thought the water was usually that green, but now I’m not so sure. I’ll have to check its color on our next zoo trip.
      Thanks for the comment!

  2. I love reading your posts..wow..just ugh..I do sometimes we are society that thrills a bit in anything scandalous..just look at miley cyrus..people are still talking about that one event as though somehow it is beckoning the end of all cultured society..but at the same time it is a best selling album that continues to thrive..same with 50 shades the author is a bestseller whose income and sales exceeds even jk rowlings..the more society views something as shocking the more people are drawn to it!

    1. Thanks, Alisa! I agree that, as you said, “the more society views something as shocking the more people are drawn to it.” However, I hope that drawing attention to the pernicious themes of Chua and Rubenfeld’s new book will have the opposite effect. Something has to counteract the heavy publicity the publishing company will give them! It’s absolutely ridiculous that such a terrible idea for a book received a publishing contract.

      I hope you had a nice weekend! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Well written piece as usual. I love hearing your perspective on these things. Sounds like a book few should bother with (if any). 😦

  4. I think the Big Six, of which Random House and Penguin are a part, are scrambling financially since ebooks have proved so lucrative, and they have constantly been behind the curve. I no longer have much respect for them. They continue to publish known authors while pretty much ignoring (or screwing) new writers, so it doesn’t surprise me they’d think this was worth putting out on the off-chance it might make them some money. Greed trumps scruples every time. I won’t be reading it.

    1. “Greed trumps scruples every time.” Yeah, I think you’re right. “Tiger Mother” was a success, and now they’re hoping to have another one on an even more controversial topic. I definitely won’t be read it.

      I hope you had a nice weekend!

  5. I disagree with nothing you said including the editorializing. But Chua and Rubenfeld are American success stories in this trash culture, where excellence is eschewed, merit is degraded and conventional wisdoms serve as reason.

  6. I don’t know about this case, or these names, in particular, but it saddens me that some authors think that deliberate rudeness (to put racism lightly) is the same as bringing a unique feel to their books or dealing with difficult issues that other authors might not. As a social scientist, I hate that non-fiction authors can bend the truth in their books as well. And ‘Penguin Random House?’ I shall have to check that merger out sometime.

    I love your daughter’s little outfit in that picture!

    1. Thank you! Americans really like St. Patrick’s Day. It was hard to keep track of my girls at the zoo that day because so many children were dressed exactly like they were!

      As for Chua and Rubenfeld’s book, it definitely sounds much more like fiction than social science.

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I can’t believe that Penguin published this book. There are probably many wonderful books (that aren’t racism dressed up as “scholarship”) that they passed over to publish this one.

  7. Interesting thoughts. I still am having angst over the Paula Dean issue. As you might remember, I believe her situation was wrongly managed. I know it is off the topic, but the Duck Dynasty situation was similar. No matter the crude words in either case, they each had the right to say them. And in the A&E show, freedom to act on one’s religion seems to be getting Phil (head duck) in deep trouble.I never watched either show (Dean or Robertson) but feel that they both had their right to speech, and in the case of Roberson, his right to religion trampled.

    1. I don’t think anyone’s right to speech or religion had anything to do with the Deen or Robertson situations. Right to speech and religion are rights the people have as against the government, not as against corporate sponsors. Deen and Robertson have every right to say terrible things, but others also have the right to criticize their statements, and private enterprises have the right to terminate contracts. Whether Deen and Robertson should have been fired or not is a different issue than whether their rights were “trampled.”

      1. Well, as attorneys you would know more than myself in these matters, but A&E buckled under the pressure of the fans of Duck Dynasty and the general opposition of the public as to the concerns to Robertson’s right of his religious beliefs. Also, many had differing opinions to the issue of gay unions, believing them to be whatever the couple believes is right for themselves. I also believe gays should live as they desire. I just thought Roberson, as repulsive as his remark was, had the right to say it. To lose his job over what the network thinks is right, different from his beliefs, seemed very wrong to me. Christian beliefs always seem to take a backseat in this country. Losing Christmas everywhere one turns…

        1. Thanks to both of you for sharing your perspectives. As a legal matter, I agree that sponsors can drop Deen, Robertson, or anyone else for almost any statement or behavior, depending on the contract. However, for employees (Deen & Robertson were possibly independent contractors, but not employees), to the extent the statement or behavior is related to a sincerely held religious belief, an employer may be limited in firing that employee (or taking any other adverse employment action) under anti-discrimination laws like Title VII. Off the top of my head, I don’t know how these anti-discrimination laws would apply to anti-gay statements related to religious beliefs.

          I had never heard of Duck Dynasty until the Robertson controversy happened. I believe he’s back on the show now.

          1. I had not heard of it either, but got hooked on following all the controversy. All just seemed wrong to me. Interesting as independent contractors, both were actually what made their shows successful. It was a big gamble for the networks in the eyes of public opinion. Many were going to never watch A&E again from what I read. I believe that was the only reason A&E changed direction to allow him back on the show.

            1. I say let Donald Duck run for President and call it good. Interesting conversation! I agree with Donna in regards to this whole issue. I never watched the Duck Show, but I sure liked watching Paula Deen cook…She is a lovely lady as far as I am concerned that has had her past catch up with her. Should that define her? I really believe she is a sincere person.

  8. a well written piece, thank you.
    The issue of how we in the 21st century deal with previous crimes and misdemeanours is one that every country seems to be struggling with….. it seems the new thinking is that we can’t make any mistakes in life ever…..

    1. Thank you! Yeah, it’s amazing to me that we hold people accountable for past mistakes, no matter how long ago it was, but that current racism dressed up as “scholarship” is somehow okay.

      1. I was thinking about the woman you mentioned in your post, and was thinking that it was brave of here to admit to previous mistakes in thinking. To me that takes courage and honesty, things we should applaud

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