Creating American Inequality

Who Gets Ahead? The Determinants of Economic Success in America

by Christopher Jencks and others
Basic Books, 397 pp., $17.50

Rules and Racial Equality

by Edwin Dorn
Yale University Press, 158 pp., $14.00

Small Futures

by Richard H. de Lone
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 258 pp., $12.95

The Credential Society: An Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification

by Randall Collins
Academic Press, 222 pp., $13.50

Current Population Reports, Series P-60 No. 120: Money Income and Poverty Status of Families and Persons in the United States

Bureau of the Census
USGPO, 39 pp., $2.00


When asked, “Are people equal?” we usually answer, “No.” For many on the right, innate differences attest to inequality. To many who see themselves as on the left, people are unequal because of the way they have been treated by society. The right sees inequality mainly as internal, as fixed in the human condition. Those on the more liberal side tend to view inequality largely as external, and amenable to remedy. Thus the right feels efforts toward equality can come to no good end. Leveling is inimical to nature and bound to be oppressive. The left would change the ways society is organized and believes such reforms would work.

However there are occasions where the two views intersect. One is “equality of opportunity,” which in America has been a conservative value as well as a progressive goal. Moreover, writers on the left seem to give inherited differences almost as much attention as conservatives do. The result is that while liberals, radicals, and socialists all favor greater equality, they have accepted certain assumptions which can undercut their aims. This is especially apparent in the books under review.

Christopher Jenck’s Who Gets Ahead? is a sequel to Inequality (1972) and must be read as such. So I will backtrack for a moment and recall that earlier volume.1 Inequality captured public attention because it had a social science “finding.” What Jencks and his collaborators found was that schooling in and of itself made only a minor contribution to individuals’ mobility. The key measurable factor was the status of their families. More money spent on schools wouldn’t shake up the social classes, or so Jencks’s data seemed to say. A further variable was “luck,” which really meant all the other elements social science couldn’t measure. Jencks cited several instances of how luck helps. For example, having “the ability to persuade a customer that he wants a larger car than he thought he wanted.” Or encountering “chance acquaintances who steer you to one line of work rather than another.”

But when we start to talk of “family background,” heredity and environment get intermingled. A phrase like “parental influence” implies elements of both. Many traits that make for success (Jencks’s central concern) might, if we accept his own analysis of the importance of heredity, come from combinations of genes going back for generations. The spirit revealed in a supersalesman may be sustained by an endocrine balance which is largely an inheritance from a hyperkinetic grandmother. While two brothers may seem to have had the same outward upbringing, we still know that no two siblings have identical home experiences. Even so, Jencks keeps returning to what he calls “genetic advantages.” Thus, according to Jencks, “the heritability of Stanford-Binet scores” runs to “around 45 percent.” Even if you aren’t your parents’ favorite child, you get your genes from them and that can be a help. Especially in a society that puts a premium on IQ.

Genetic inheritance has always appealed to conservatives, who invoke it…

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