The New White Flight

The New White Flight

Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, has no doubt inspired its fair share of buzz since its release earlier this year. The book explores the formation of class divisions in America through a study of demographic trends in the White community. For those who have yet to read it, I offer a short summary and some preliminary thoughts.

The book is divided into two main parts that address two sizable chunks of the population, elite White folks and lower-income White folks. You can skip Part I if you’ve read Bobos in Paradise or any number of articles by New York Times columnist David Brooks. This first half basically talks about the rise of the meritocrats, creative class, and latte towns. Murray’s contribution here is documenting the rise of “SuperZips,” clusters of highly educated, influential folks in various pockets (including but not limited to people who watch Portlandia and their parents, people featured in Stuff White People Like, etc.).

Part II documents how distinct the trends are regarding taste, behavior, educational attainment, employment, income, religious service attendance, marriage, etc. between elite White folks and their lower-income counterparts. It’s mostly descriptive statistics, but the story still comes through. It’s rather compelling, seeing how not just elite education but also marriage, church attendance, and perks such as holding a job with health benefits are increasingly becoming part of the cultural capital toolkit.

Some raw reactions to Coming Apart:

1. This book is painful to read in parts, which is not a huge surprise, knowing that Charles Murray co-authored The Bell Curve (the 1994 book that stirred controversy with its suggestion of a strong relationship between race and IQ). Murray focuses exclusively on the White community, but one detects a tone of cultural bias that carries over to some of his commentary on race and ethnicity. Still, Murray is better at talking about White people than people of color, so I’d prefer he write this book rather than The Bell Curve II.

2. For all of its painfulness, the book raises some compelling and insightful points on the “White flight” of White elites from being in close proximity and community with poor and working-class White folks. Murray raises fascinating questions about what happens when socioeconomic integration among Whites disintegrates.

3. Murray is smart in sticking to descriptives versus causes. He stumbles when he tries to use his findings to prove that class trumps race in affecting the availability of opportunity in America (someone get this guy a handout on intersectionality).

4. Religion and church are all over this book, mainly as an outcome but also as an implied cause for some of the breakdown (a big worry since religious congregations are the country’s top source of social capital according to Harvard scholar Robert Putnam). Ross Douthat has been blogging about this. It’s making me wonder about the role of multiracial churches in different socioeconomic contexts, both the possibilities and limitations of them. It also makes me think about the role of ethnic-specific ministry as a source of social capital, if it can encourage socioeconomic integration.

5. A big theme of my work is the intersection between structure and culture — that is, how broad-scale structural conditions affect people’s perceptions of what is normal and expected, and over time the amalgamation of the two as they influence one another in a feedback loop.

6. Virtue doesn’t happen in a vacuum; certain groups don’t just happen to work hard or randomly want to attend college — there are structural and socioeconomic conditions that undergird people’s assumptions of what’s normal, and over time these conditions reproduce, further contributing to people’s sense of what’s normal and expected of them. Murray makes me think about how this plays out for White people across social class. For instance, in his review of Coming Apart, Bradford Wilcox notes how globalization has undercut job security, which among other things makes it harder for families to stay together. I also have an upcoming article on how most students recognize the value of a college education, but East Asian Americans are able to access information and resources via ethnic economies and social capital networks that help them turn aspirations into educational gains. (I don’t mean to convey that any social class or people group has a monopoly on virtue, hard work, and principled values, but rather that social class and structural conditions tend to enable certain people in turning aspirations and desire into concrete gains, and vice-versa.)

7. Elite, “meritocratic” education is all over Murray’s book, both as a cause and outcome. It’s hard to go home again, and elite college grads tend to flock to cities and affluent suburbs, meaning that they’re less likely to invest in the communities they once called home. Fewer contemporary counterparts of J. Irwin Miller go back to places like Columbus, Indiana.

8. All of this makes me think of my experience of growing up in and coming back to Ohio. (I spent two years teaching at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, before moving to the University of Maryland last year.) It causes me to ponder the contrast between living in the affluent suburbs versus a rural area, the experience of going to church with people with whom I had very little in common other than a shared faith and, in some cases, an affiliation with the university. It wasn’t easy trying to establish myself in a rural setting, but I look back on it as one of my most valuable experiences, being in a multi-generational community with people whose political affiliations, life experiences, etc. were so different from my own. That type of experience is a lot harder to opt into when you have all of the choices in the world.

All that to say, Charles Murray’s Coming Apart is a somewhat painful read but also pretty thought provoking.

Author’s Note: Two additional links may interest readers, Nell Irwin Painter on Murray’s lack of attention towards the complex history of White poverty and Stephen Colbert’s interview with Murray. This article was adapted from a post that originally appeared at Patheos.com. 

President Obama’s Other Pastor

President Obama’s Other Pastor

FRIEND AND PASTOR TO THE PRESIDENT: Rev. Joel C. Hunter stands in the foyer of Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida. Hunter is one of President Obama's closet spiritual advisers. (Photo: Phyllis Redman/Newscom)

The Rev. Dr. Joel C. Hunter grew up in small town Ohio, the son of a widowed mother who loved black jazz musicians. Now he is a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama and pastor of 15,000-member Northland, A Church Distributed, in Longwood, Florida. “Cooperation and partnership are hallmarks of Dr. Hunter’s ministry,” his church bio says. “Together, he believes, we can accomplish more because of our differences than we would on our own—without giving up our unique identities.” UrbanFaith talked to Hunter about how this kind of cooperation is possible, and about his unique testimony of coming to faith after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., his friendship with the president, and what Sanford area ministers are doing in response to the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

UrbanFaith: You have a unique testimony in that you were involved in the civil rights movement and came to the Lord after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. You also recently wrote an op-ed for Charisma about the Trayvon Martin case. Has racial reconciliation always been a thread in your ministry?

Joel C. Hunter: Yes, it has been. The little town I came from in Ohio didn’t have one ethnicity other than white. I think it was one of those Midwestern towns that had a law about the exclusivity of races. But my mother, who reminds me in some ways of President Obama’s mother, was one of those free spirits who loved everybody and thrived on jazz: Nat King Cole and all of those greats—back in that day they were called “Negro geniuses” with music. And so, when I went to Ohio University, it was a natural thing for me to go to the other end of the spectrum and get involved almost immediately with the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn’t from a faith perspective that that first happened, but when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, I went to Galbraith Chapel, a little generic chapel at Ohio University, and came to Christ. Caring for those who are left out was at the core of my calling to ministry and that’s always been.

Now that there has been an arrest in the Trayvon Martin case, have things settled down in the Sanford area?

We are in the same county and I’m actively meeting with ministers from Sanford, being led by the African American ministers. We have another meeting scheduled for tomorrow night about how we can take our community toward, not just reconciliation and healing, but toward improvement because of what has happened here. We’ve had ongoing meetings together: prayer meetings and brainstorming meetings. We may have a community memorial service with the Martin family. I’m not sure. The publicity has somewhat died down now, but the ministers and spiritual leaders are much more conversant, active, and cooperative than we’ve ever been. So, I’m thinking God is really going to do something wonderful from this.

As a pastor who comes from a relatively humble upbringing, how do you keep being a spiritual adviser to the president of the United States in perspective?

I don’t know how this happens, but it’s really true: people are people to me. The president is a person. He’s great about this; he has a great sense of humor and he’s very personable, so it’s not like this is a lot of work. I realize that to the world, it’s a long way for a kid from Shelby, Ohio (where the largest buildings literally are the grain elevators for the farmers), but to me he’s a person and the job of a pastor is to help the person in front of him or her to get closer to God. And so, that’s exactly what I do.

I remember a time when I had had a conversation and a prayer with the president and within 24 hours I was back at my church talking to a AIDS-infected prostitute who wanted to get closer to the Lord. It struck me that my conversation with her resembled very closely the conversation I had had with the president less than 24 hours previous. To me, that was the ultimate. That’s what a pastor does. Each person has the same value in God’s eyes. I didn’t count one of those conversations more valuable than the other.

When your five-year-old granddaughter Ava passed away from glioblastoma in 2010, the president called you and prayed with you. How do you respond to criticism of his faith when you’ve been so personally engaged with him on a spiritual level?

The president called me when Ava was first diagnosed and then, of course, he called me when she passed away, so it was very tender and kind thing for him to do. I understand that people are ignorant, that is they lack knowledge about his faith walk. I realize there is some political agenda when people accuse him of not being a Christian. I’m not naïve about that, but the president and the candidate Barack Obama chose—even more after he was president—not to make his faith walk very public because he knew it would be politicized and that’s an area of his life he didn’t want politicized.

I always say that nature hates a vacuum and when you don’t have a lot of information, you will fill it in with your latest email. That’s exactly what happens. I know from personal experience and from many personal conversations that they’re wrong. I know his daily practice of reading Scripture. I write many of those devotions. Our prayer times in the Oval Office, over the phone, and on special occasions have been just as sweet and participatory as you can imagine. Of course, there’s always the defensiveness for a friend. I consider the president a friend and any time a friend is wrongly accused, you want to defend them. But, by the same token, I can’t really go much further, because this is the president and I don’t want to give a lot of information that is not directly related to his role and official duties. So, I have to be very careful about not saying too much.

You were on a press call defending President Obama’s faith around the time the Rev. Franklin Graham publicly questioned it. How do you address other Christian leaders who cast doubt on the president’s faith?

I can and do openly tell them about my personal relationship with the president and my personal knowledge of his spiritual life. Sometimes I say I wish most of the people in my congregation were as attentive to reading the Bible every day, praying every day, and trying to put their faith into practice as the president is. Some of them are really taken aback, because they just don’t have the knowledge. It’s not covered in the media by design. That’s fine. I’m very open about my personal knowledge of his walk.

AN OVAL OFFICE CHAT: Last February, Rev. Hunter shared a light moment with President Obama and Joshua DuBois, director of the White House Office for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. (Photo: Pete Souza/Newscom)

I heard the president debate Sen. John McCain at Saddleback Church in 2008. He seemed more articulate and comfortable talking about faith than McCain then and continues to sound more comfortable and articulate talking about faith than some other candidates now. Do you attribute doubts about his faith to politics or to his policy positions on issues like abortion?

It’s kind of all of the above. I think a lot of it is politically driven. I also think there’s some racism attached in this. I don’t play the race card, but I do think that because his father was from a different country (not faith, because his father wasn’t a man of faith) and with the hyper-sensitivity about Islam, there’s been an effort to paint this man as being very different because he does come from a unique background.

In that particular debate with McCain, he said something that didn’t quite come out right; he was a little too flip about it. When questioned about when life begins, he said, “That’s above my pay grade,” or something like that. Because he is such a respectful thinker in terms of religious questions, he won’t give the reflexive responses. When he didn’t say the axiom that “Life begins at conception,” he was hearkening back to something that is not particularly addressed in Scripture. If we don’t come from a particular faith tradition that says this is the dogma of my church and you simply look to Scripture, “Does life begin at conception?” is an open question. And so, part of this is because he is very careful not to give just the patently religious responses, or the religious platitudes. When people don’t get those, then they begin to say, “Maybe he’s not a Christian like others that have given us boiler-plate Christianity.” I would say to that: he doesn’t pretend to be a theologian, but he really does want to search the Scriptures authentically and personally, and it’s because he takes it so seriously and so personally that he won’t automatically give the response that everybody is looking for.

Is there a level of theological illiteracy on the part of the general public that contributes to this kind of misunderstanding?

Absolutely. In cultural Christianity in general there is, but specifically, the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity have shibboleths: “You have to say the right thing with the right accent or you’re not really one of us.” Part of the problem is not his level of sophistication, but ours, not his level of thinking, but our lack of more broad-based responsiveness to the depths of the theology of Scripture. When you don’t come with automatic or dogmatic sound-bite answers, that’s a good thing. That’s a sign of personal engagement. But because we would rather just have a category of correct belief and many people are satisfied with that, then we are the ones making ourselves upset. It’s not because he’s not answered adequately; it’s partially our discomfort at not having simple answers. That’s part of the unease with his particular faith walk.

The president comes down on the side of keeping abortion legal and you are pro-life. How do you, or anyone else, preserve relationships with other believers when there are such deep disagreements over these kinds of issue?

Abortion is probably the premiere issue where we see this. I am pro-life; therefore I think that’s a baby. I don’t happen to subscribe to “It’s a baby at conception,” because I don’t see that in Scripture, but I do believe that soon after that baby is implanted in a womb, it becomes a person. So I think abortion is homicide. Having said that, the way that I want to work with other Christians who don’t have the same theological presumption that I do about the personhood of a developing fetus is to keep my eyes on the goal. My goal is to have no abortions some day, ultimately because no woman decides to do that.

Other people say, “How can we reduce, by practical common sense, the number of abortions?” I’m on board. Every baby that can be saved, I think, is invaluable. And so, if I talk to somebody who is pro-choice and they say, “A lot of abortions come from feeling financial pressure or because people are afraid they won’t be able to complete their education, and if we could relieve that kind of pressure, they would carry their baby to term,” I’m all over that. I don’t have to have an all or nothing. That’s why the president and I, even though we would disagree probably on who should be able to get an abortion, we still can agree on the reduction of abortion as a very important goal together. That’s kind of how I walk that through.