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.
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.
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,…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.