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The White Plight

Charles Murray has written another book about race. Much as The Bell Curve1 argued that many human beings of African heritage were genetically less intelligent than most whites, so Coming Apart addresses the deficiencies of Americans of European origin. He charges large swaths of “white America”—his designation—with indolence, self-indulgence, and failing to understand the nation’s “founding virtues” of honesty, industriousness, marriage, and religion. An air of despair pervades the book. Those whose forebears did so much to build this country lack the kind of resolution the coming century will need.

1.

Murray says he chose to focus on whites so he could conduct his analysis of changes in American society “independently of ethnic heritage.” He omits Asians and Hispanics because most are relatively recent arrivals, just as having African origins brings burdens of its own. This leaves some 200 million people—now 69 percent of the population, down from its 90 percent height in 1950—who told the most recent Census they consider themselves fully white in that they did not add another ethnic designation. As noted, he excludes everyone who identifies as Hispanic, even though half of them add that they are also white. (The 2010 Census form asked respondents both if they were of “Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin” and their race—white, black, etc.) Several generations in Chile apparently would weaken a claim to European ancestry. Nor does he subdivide his white grouping by national origins or religious ties. Here he recognizes that each year sees further assimilation among white Americans, with surnames a last reminder of where they came from.

But Coming Apart is also a book about class. Or more precisely, two contrasting classes of white Americans. One, a “new upper class,” includes not just the rich and powerful, since it takes in a generous 20 percent of the population. By my calculations, it starts with families earning $135,724. The other, a “new lower class,” is everyone in the bottom 30 percent. Its top income, also by my count, would be $52,057. Nor are these classes wholly economic; Murray adds educational and occupational status to give a more rounded portrayal. Thus everyone in his upper class must have completed college and hold a professional or managerial position. He explains what makes both these classes “new,” and why conventional rubrics no longer apply. No discussion is given to the remaining 50 percent, which is odd, since they are literally mid-America and cast most of the votes in presidential elections.

2.

Murray believes that a new designation is needed to characterize a large part of the white population. In the past, it was called a working or blue-collar class, which emphasized their mode of employment. It was a given that such people applied themselves at their jobs, whatever their level of skill, and took family responsibilities seriously. Union wages meant they could own modest homes and send a large proportion of their children to college.

Today, in Murray’s view, this ethos barely exists. As he sees it, “prime-age” whites in this class, particularly men in their thirties and forties, frequently refuse to take available jobs, and put in fewer hours when they do, often by feigning disabilities. By his count, most of them are divorced, separated, or reluctant to take the plunge into marriage. Men who do aren’t much better, at least in a Philadelphia neighborhood he writes about. (The women “almost got an extra son at home, better known as the husband,” as Murray quotes the head of a parochial school.) More than a few engage in activities that end them in prison. At times, Murray refers to them as “rednecks” and “rabble,” not entirely tongue-in-cheek.

A generation ago, the term “underclass” was current, spurred by fears of urban violence, promiscuous procreation, and soaring welfare rolls.2 An unstated premise was that almost all in that class were black, since whites couldn’t fall that far. Murray holds that the Great Society’s benefits sent a something-for-nothing message to the larger society. Starting in the Sixties, whites began to become entwined in the “tangle of pathology” Daniel Patrick Moynihan had ascribed to black Americans. Thus as Table A shows, each year sees white extramarital births coming closer to the black rates. But this presents a challenge for Murray, which he sedulously sidesteps. As was made clear in The Bell Curve, he believes that racial gene pools for traits like intelligence are real, and “black” and “white” are not just rubrics. So does he take the moral deterioration he sees in whites as a sign that a major human race is losing its power to adapt and compete? Murray does no more than imply it is the case.

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Murray begins by praising his new upper class. They are staying married and they say they attend religious services regularly. (No distinctions are made between, say, Episcopalians and evangelicals, even as the latter have their share of college graduates.) They are lauded for being “engaging, well mannered, good parents, and good neighbors.” He admires their social and professional skills, dubbing them a “cognitive elite,” educated for a fast-changing world. Yet their ascent has made them “increasingly isolated” from the rest of society, with “large areas of ignorance about how others live.” Murray supports his point by setting his upscale readers a quiz: When did they last watch Judge Judy or dine at a downmarket Applebee’s? This isolation and ignorance set his new upper class apart from its predecessors. Murray tells of the Iowa town of his youth, where the banker exchanged pleasantries with the local butcher on the street.

Then, without warning, Coming Apart turns harsh. We hear his top class described as “overeducated elitist snobs” who “believe that they and their peers are superior to the rest of the population.” At this point, the book relies heavily on David Brooks’s lampoon of “bourgeois bohemians.” So we hear anew about people who are drawn to spiced apple cider sorbet and spinach feta loaf, health clubs and marathons. The implication is that those at the top are frivolous and self-centered. But statistically this doesn’t fit. Murray chose to make his upper class large, encompassing one of every five Americans. While they may all be college graduates, they range from Yale art history majors to Iowa State engineers, and cider sorbet to burritos at Super Bowl parties. Still, Murray has mounted a grave indictment of his fellow white Americans, starting at the top. For all their cognitive cleverness, they are “an elite that is hollow at the core” and “as dysfunctional in its way as the new lower class is in its way.”

Coming Apart has little to say about the economic conditions that create Murray’s classes. He requires a college degree for membership in his new upper class, since symbols, words, and numbers are its basic products. I occasionally found myself wondering if this isn’t a grand illusion, a fantasy about modern mandarins who feel they can master the universe with spreadsheets and economic models in a world where financial and military decisions rest on differential equations and PowerPoint presentations. Nor am I persuaded that verbal sophistication (“critical thinking,” “moral reasoning”), as defined in academic assignments, necessarily improves productivity. Still, the economy has found funds to underwrite this assumed elite, largely by paying less for blue-collar work, whether performed at home or abroad.

What makes Murray’s new lower class “new” is its tenuous tie to the labor force. The country once had a substantial industrial base, which was predominantly white. While Murray grants that there are fewer Detroit-type jobs, he doesn’t mourn the eclipse of organized labor. (“Unions usually do not play a large role in generating social capital.”) The problem, in his view, is that all too many of his newly lower-class men are what the English once called “work-shy.” Murray tells us that office cleaners average $13.37 an hour, which adds up to an annual $26,740. What one takes home from that, he says, should be “enough to be able to live a decent existence,” adding, “even if you are married and your wife doesn’t work.” So Coming Apart calls for a serious change in attitude, from which will emerge a new post-union class, grateful for $26,740 offers. (The current poverty threshold for a family of four is $23,050.) This altered outlook, Murray says, should enhance interclass comity. Janitors thankful for their jobs will not begrudge $267,400 to recently minted MBAs whose offices they are cleaning.

3.

Murray has always been fascinated by genetic inheritance, whether within entire races or specific pairs of parents. Among his white “cognitive elite,” he says he sees a rise in “the interbreeding of individuals with like characteristics.” With women now receiving more than half of postsecondary degrees, credentialed couplings become common. “When individuals with similar cognitive ability have children,” Murray tells us, “the staying power of the elite across generations increases.” The traits passed on by the partners may be cultural, like diction and demeanor, or intrinsic, like a gift for mathematics or music. Unlike its predecessors, the new upper class will not be based altogether on privilege; it will be more like a hereditary meritocracy in place because of its greater share of society’s intelligence.

To reinforce this point, Murray says research shows that “graduates from elite colleges are likely to marry other graduates from elite colleges.” At first glance, this seems to make sense. Dartmouth and Duke are congenial milieus for young people to meet, even if nowadays a decade may go by before they marry. However, the source he cites doesn’t support this supposition. For one thing, it dealt not with recent graduates, but with men and women who were aged fifty-eight through seventy-two when the article appeared.3 Moreover, less than a quarter in this sample chose spouses “from colleges with the same institutional characteristics.”

For an updated test, I undertook an informal inquiry of my own, which suggests that Murray is only half right. In marriages listed in The New York Times during the first three months of this year, among the couples where at least one spouse had an Ivy-tier degree, in almost half the other did as well. Among the rest, Yale and Stanford graduates chose mates from schools like Baylor and Michigan State.

We know that well-off and otherwise accomplished parents can give their children a good start, or at least try. So the next question is how these presumably favored offspring fare as adults. Such studies as we have suggest that early advantages don’t always last. Tom Hertz, an economist at American University, found that of children raised in families in the top income quintile, only 38 percent were still there as adults. Ron Haskins at the Brookings Institution, also following top-quintile youngsters, was surprised to find that only a little over half (53 percent) obtained college degrees.

Claudia Dreifus and I conducted a similar study for a book we published two years ago.4 We chose a full Princeton class, giving its 883 graduates time to have offspring of college age. We estimated, on the conservative side, that together they had 1,500 children. As it turns out, only 120 of them applied to and were accepted by Princeton—with or without legacy preferences—while about 180 applied but were rejected, which is itself a commentary on elite inheritance.

  1. 1

    Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (Free Press, 1994); see the review by Alan Ryan, The New York Review, November 17, 1994. 

  2. 2

    See “ The Lower Depths,” The New York Review, August 12, 1982. 

  3. 3

    Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Michelle J. Budig, “The Romance of College Attendance,” Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, Vol. 26 (2008). 

  4. 4

    Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It (Times Books, 2010), pp. 71–76. 

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