There seems to be intersection between your book and Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, in that you say the trend away from marriage among African Americans has wider implications and he talks about marriage as a virtue to be modeled by the affluent. Do you view marriage as a virtue? Is its decline something we should be concerned about?
Yes, for two reasons. One, a lot of people want to be married who are not, because they find it difficult to find somebody. This is the issue for more black women than who are willing to admit it, because black women want to be strong women. Nobody wants to be viewed as weak or needy. The broader issue, though, is that in our society the decline in marriage has gone hand-in-hand with the increased instability of families. It is not a good development that 70 percent of black children are born into a situation where they’re raised by one parent, but not both, or 30-some percent of white children are born into a situation where they’re raised by one parent, but not both. We might want to kid ourselves that this is a good development, but it’s not. It is partly why we need more social supports. We need the government to do more, because we’ve just left children out there to dry.
I haven’t yet read Murray’s book, but I have read his recent op-ed piece in The Wall Street Journal, as well as The New York Times review of the book, and David Brooks’ column asserting its importance.
David Brooks didn’t mention that one of the reasons he likes that book so much is because Murray talks so favorably about his book. In the first 30 pages, Murray says David Brooks’ book Bobos in Paradise is the best book he’s ever read.
It seems to me, from what little I’ve read, that what’s was missing from Murray’s argument is the role abortion and access to abortion play in educated women’s success. Have you looked at that at all?
No, he didn’t talk about abortion in the book at all. I think there are two big problems with the book. One is that, sadly, he attributes social developments to culture. The divergence in the family patterns of educated and less educated women doesn’t have a whole lot to do with culture. These groups share a culture, American culture. The difference is more one of economics. If marriage is a luxury as I’m fond of saying, it’s one the rich can afford. They’re more likely to become stable and economically secure enough to make marriage possible and to make marriage last, whereas those who are economically disadvantaged are not. There’s absolutely no evidence that culture explains that divide. Pre-marital sex, cohabitation, these are practices that are common among all groups now. They’re not only the province of the less educated.
The other thing that I’m amazed he hasn’t revised over the years is this idea that people’s development wholly reflects their genetic endowment. That is ridiculous. It’s refuted, in fact, by the behavior of the very cognitive elite he lauds. I live in an area where a lot of members of the cognitive elite spend $25,000 a year to get their children into kindergarten. Why would people spend $500,000 in elementary and secondary education for their children, if, as Murray supposes, it actually makes no difference. That is his view, that education doesn’t help anyone. It’s just that people who are already smart tend to go to good schools, go to school longer, and tend to graduate college. But it’s not as though the opportunities that education makes available make a difference.
Why do you think he chose to only focus on white culture in this book?
He thinks there is a broader development that is not about African Americans. Part of the story of the book is that the dividing line in American society is not racial or ethnic. It’s, as he puts it, on the basis of cognitive ability. He wanted to emphasize that. If you put the racial issues aside, you can emphasize that. I think that’s what he would say.
Could people read that choice as being coded to signify race?
It doesn’t have to be coded. He actually says in the book that it would be remarkable if there weren’t genetic differences among groups in intelligence. There’s no evidence to support his position. He just asserts that.
What Do You Think?
Will you read either one of these books? If you already have, share your thoughts with us.