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.
In September, UrbanFaith columnist Jacqueline J. Holness wrote passionately about why she wouldn’t be reading Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks‘ new book, Is Marriage for White People? How the American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone. After receiving a complimentary copy of the book, I read it, then spoke to Professor Banks about its themes and the controversy surrounding them. We also talked about another book that deals with the decline in marriages. That book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, was written by the polarizing political scientist Charles Murray, who previously co-authored The Bell Curve. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CHRISTINE A. SCHELLER: You teach family law at Stanford Law School. What is the relationship between family law and the decline in marriage rates among African Americans that you talk about in your book?
RALPH R. BANKS: The book chronicles some of the changes that were part of the evolution we’ve seen in the last half century. The legality of birth control, abortion, laws regulating people’s intimate lives–those are all part of the master shift that led to people being less likely to marry and more likely to have relationships outside of marriage.
TAKING THE ISSUES SERIOUSLY: Dr. Ralph Richard Banks.
Do you want the law to encourage marriage?
That’s a difficult issue. It’s one of those areas where it’s not clear that we have the right tools to surgically repair what might be a social problem. The big divide in marriage now is between the economically disadvantaged who decide not to marry and whose children are in less stable circumstances and those who are affluent and tend to marry and have much more stable marriages. I don’t think we can easily move people from one category to the other. The best thing to do is to provide more of a safety net for children: improve their educational systems, provide pre-school, high-quality day care for families, even for those who can’t afford it. And then, try to create an economy in which more people are able to be successful. Those are the indirect solutions.
You wrote that in Sweden, people often don’t marry but have long-term committed relationships so their children grow up in more stable homes than some American children whose parents are married. Have you given any more thought to what it is that makes the Swedish arrangement successful?
Sweden is a whole different cultural setting. In the United States, we put a lot of emphasis on marriage. We’re a much more religious nation than a country like Sweden. Marriage is more revered culturally. That’s part of the difference between the U.S. and many of the Northern European countries.
Are there any lessons to be learned from these countries in creating more stable families whether or not parents are married?
The government should do more for those who are disadvantaged generally. It would be great to have a nation where it didn’t matter which school one went to because all the schools are great, where poor kids go to schools that are as good as the schools that the rich attend, where everyone has healthcare. These are issues that are hugely important in helping the next generation to thrive. Our approach in our nation is to privatize too much, so that it depends on your family and your family’s resources. Marriage decline among the poor, in particular, is just one consequence of the fact that privatization hasn’t worked for that segment of the population.
I read lot of compassion in the book, especially for the struggles black women have in the relationship market, that critics seemed to have missed.
Thank you. Most of the critics haven’t read the book. Maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think it’s utterly indefensible and so dismaying that people would write about something they haven’t read. Imagine if you were a teacher in a classroom and you gave students an assignment to review a book and they wrote about why they would not read the book, you would fail them. With blogging, that has become acceptable and I think that’s just bizarre.
Some black women who don’t want to read your book said they are tired of people like Steve Harvey, who you mentioned, telling them what is wrong with them and their lives.
I understand that.
You’ve been invited to speak to African American women’s groups, so obviously that is not the overall consensus. A Chicago Tribune article about one event said the majority of women in the audience appreciated what you had to say.
The women in that audience who read the book said it changed lives. It’s like global warming. People have been hearing about global warming for so long, they don’t want to hear anybody else talk about it. Actually, the information might be useful information for someone who wants to understand something.
Do you think it taps into pain and that explains some of the response?
It does. I think that explains a lot of it, but I think over time that’s going to change. The issues are tough. Black people say they want their issues to be treated seriously, but when the issues are treated seriously, people can’t take it. They’re so accustomed to sensationalism and superficial treatment that when something comes along, they’re actually too wounded or too resistant to acknowledge it and consider it. This happens with a lot of issues in society where they’re treated very superficially and people get upset by that. But then the reason they’re treated superficially in part is because the serious treatment is something that is not always easy to take. Frankly, it requires all of us to examine ourselves and to think more deeply about things that we might prefer to not think about.
One area of criticism was the suggestion that black women more seriously consider having relationships with men of a different race.
I don’t at any point suggest that black women should think more seriously about having [interracial] relationships. I don’t ever make a suggestion. I don’t ever offer advice. You’re getting that from people who, again, by their own admission haven’t read the book.
I got that sense from reading the book, whether you used the words directly or not.
This is the thing: there’s a genre of books, self-help books, and this is actually not a self-help book. This is a book for somebody who wants to understand some major changes in American society, with respect to marriage and family. That’s what this book does. That’s how I started writing the book, but we have such an anti-intellectual society that people don’t actually want to understand stuff. They just want to know, “What should I do?” So, the book has been sliding into the advice category, but in the actual writing of the book, I don’t say that.
But the reaction that you’re getting seems to indicate that people are, on some level, looking at it as a relationship manual.
I think people slide it into that, but this is not an advice book. It’s not an opinion book. It’s not a Steve Harvey book. This is a book that provides information based on actual research. It’s the most comprehensive distillation of the research ever on these issues. It’s written for a popular audience in a way that people will find accessible. It took an extraordinary amount of work to bring all this to bear. It’s hard to control how people construe it, especially when many of the people writing about it haven’t read it.
In the chapter on fears black women have about interracial relationships, particularly with white men, you discussed their concerns about having biracial children. One woman is quoted as saying to her white fiance, “If we have twins, one dark and one light, we’re putting the light-skinned one up for adoption.” As a white mother who gave birth to a biracial child, that was a very difficult thing for me to read. I thought it sounded incredibly racist.
I know it does. I was on a radio show in San Francisco and a black woman called in and said, “If my daughter married a white guy, I could understand that, but if my son married a white woman after all the energy we’ve put into him, I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.” The next caller said, “This woman called in to say that and if she were white, we’d be ready to sign her up for the local Ku Klux Klan, but because she’s black everybody thinks it’s okay.” This is an honest story. There are lots of black people who feel that way.
I’ve experienced that anger.
So it’s not a surprise that people feel that way. I’ve had resistance even from family. One of my sisters, who’s since come to be a big champion of the book, basically said, “Why are you going to write about this stuff in a way that white people can read it.” There are a lot of things that we know and feel are true in our lives, but we don’t want other people to know about them. People don’t want to expose some of that, and it is difficult.
It’s our perspective at UrbanFaith that we need to be talking about these difficult issues in ways that aren’t polarizing.
With race, what typically happens is people prefer to have very superficial, simplistic, meaningless conversations rather than real ones. It’s kind of like your social friends rather than your real friends. You’re not actually revealing things that are deep and meaningful to social friends because once you do that, people are vulnerable. What a lot of people don’t want, frankly, is to be vulnerable to people of other races.
What has the reaction been to the chapter on the fear of interracial dating?
I don’t have a random sample, but the people who read it love it. That’s what they want to talk about, not only African Americans, everyone, because, again, these are issues that might arise in the context of African Americans, but they are actually universal issues about fear of the other. One of the points I make in that section is that black women in particular are asking themselves, “Will he accept me and will his family accept me.” For non-black men, there’s a similar worry: will she accept me and what will her family say?
continued on page 2
Gene Marks has rocketed to the top of the notoriety heap with his recent Forbes.com article, “If I Were a Poor Black Kid,” in which he attempts to offer bootstrap advice to young inner-city minorities. “I would read a lot of books,” and so on. One of my favorites is “I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in school.” Though Mr. Marks appears somewhat clueless and almost refreshingly naïve in his piece — and apparently so controversial that one of Forbes’ own staff writers has questioned Marks’ journalistic motives — I appreciate the fact that he has, however awkwardly, started a conversation about an important issue in today’s society. No, not the disenfranchisement of America’s underclass, or even the gaps in technological access and opportunity inherent in today’s educational system. No, the issue to which I refer is the rampant underachievement of Rich White Men.
Rich White Men are failing left and right to realize the promise of the opportunities that are afforded them in today’s world. Why should they have to suffer? Sure, it will take some hard work and a little luck, but there is no reason why Mr. Marks and his friends can’t reach their full potential one day.
If I were a Rich White Man, I’d start by making sure I got into a good college. I’d prefer Harvard, of course, but I’d settle for Yale. I suppose it would depend on where others in my family had attended. I’m sure it’s totally based on merit, but if my father had graduated Yale, I think I can make a pretty good case of why I should be a Yalie. While in college I wouldn’t spend too much of my energy and time studying, I would instead concentrate on making the right connections and laying the proper groundwork for my future endeavors. After all, it’s often not what you know but who you know.
I would use those connections to avoid the pitfalls and roadblocks that could easily derail me. Is an unpopular war going on? I would by all means necessary avoid the actual battleground and would prefer to serve my country by joining the National Guard. I would be sure to take lots of pictures while in uniform, as these will definitely come in handy in the future. I’d make every effort to become a pilot, because people tend to view pilots as heroic and smart. I’d also technically be able to say that I was a pilot during the war, even though the closest I’d ever been to the actual war would have been a postcard. Actual warfare is for poor people anyway.
I would get involved with the business world as much as I could. I would find some money somewhere (perhaps some small inheritance from a distant relative) and buy an oil field, or maybe a sports team. It’s not important that these businesses succeed, only that I establish myself as someone who is good at “making things happen.” I’d use my influential friends to help me run for some political office — maybe senator or governor. Who knows? Perhaps I’d even try for the White House.
As a C.E.O., I’d take advantage of all the generous tax breaks offered to me to keep my company from relocating to another town or state or country. After all, the jobs I’d provide will be essential to the economy, so the government will owe me at least that much. I’d also be sensitive to the needs of my stockholders, since they are people too. If restructuring my workforce becomes necessary in order to enhance the return on their investment, I’d put my own self-interest aside and act on their concerns. And during times of economic downturn, like we’re facing now, I’d even be willing to sacrifice a few million from my $10 million annual bonus.
At age 55, I’d retire to my ranch, secure in the knowledge that I’ve fulfilled the promise of the opportunities afforded to me, and that the blame for any mistakes I may have made will be left with my successor. “Passing the buck” is, after all, one of the more important strategies in the Rich White Man arsenal.
So that’s what I’d do if I were a Rich White Man. I’m kind of at a loss to explain why ALL Rich White Men are not attempting to go down this path. To quote Mr. Marks, “the opportunity is still there in this country for those who are smart enough to go for it.” Maybe they’re just lazy.
Rev. DeForest "Buster" Soaries
Rev. Dr. DeForest B. Soaries Jr. is pastor of First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, and author of dfree: Breaking Free from Financial Slavery. He served as New Jersey Secretary of State under Republican Governor Christine Todd Whitman and twice served as a political appointee of President George W. Bush. UrbanFaith last talked to Soaries in December 2010 about his book and the personal debt crisis among African Americans. As President Obama and Congress moved closer to resolving the federal budget debate, we asked Rev. Soaries to share his thoughts on the debt-ceiling controversy, the role of race and class in the debate, and reasons for the bitter polarization in Washington. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: What are your thoughts on the federal budget debate?
REV. SOARIES: Having worked in Washington, it did not surprise me that Congress would have such difficulty coming to an agreement. Most of the legislation that’s passed in Washington goes through similar trauma and drama. It’s just that this one, like few others, was under the spotlight and we were able to see all of the challenges. It didn’t surprise me that it came down to the wire. It didn’t surprise me that there was division on both sides of the aisle. The process is not unusual. This is the way Congress operates.
I’ve read critiques saying there is a lot of unnecessary hype surrounding this debate. What do you think is the cause?
The Tea Party has made the national debt a very serious issue and their success in the mid-term elections put them front and center. When you have single issue type zealotry in the legislative process, the word compromise is a bad word and the legislative processes require compromise. No one ever gets all of what they want. That wouldn’t be democracy; that would be a dictatorship.
The national debt is a very serious issue, but the underlying issue in Washington is not so much how much money we owe. It’s more: what is the proper role of government? The Democrats generally feel that it is appropriate for government to sponsor programs that address human needs and the Republicans generally assume that the primary role of the federal government is defense, to protect the country, and that most other activities should be left to the market and private sector. Conservatism and Liberalism have two very different views of the role of government. Once you establish what your view is on the role of government, you then have a perspective on how government should spend money.
When President Bush borrowed over $6 trillion mainly to subsidize and pay for war, the Republicans did not mind that because they believe that war, defense, and security are appropriate roles and responsibilities for federal government. Over the last 40 to 50 years, the debt ceiling has been raised twice as often under Republicans as it has been raised under Democrats. Republicans don’t mind debt as long as the debt is paying for something that they deem appropriate, and Democrats don’t mind debt as long as it’s paying for something they deem appropriate.
You were an appointee of the Bush administration, but it sounds like you don’t share Republican opinions on this issue.
I’ve never shared most of the opinions of George W. Bush. I was appointed twice by President Bush. The first time I was appointed was to serve on the board of the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York. That bank is a part of a system that provides more money for affordable housing than any other source in the country. That’s why I agreed to serve. My second appointment was to chair the Election Assistance Commission that was supposed to correct the voting problems that were revealed in the 2000 election. I was appointed by Bush to chair a bipartisan commission of two Democrats and two Republicans. From the time I was there, every decision was unanimous. I went to Washington for a very specific task, and that was to help states repair their voting systems so that when people vote, we know that the voting has integrity.
You were also New Jersey’s Secretary of State under Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
I was, and compared to the Tea Party, Gov. Whitman was a Democrat. I had no philosophical or ideological conflict working with the Republicans in New Jersey because, prior to Chris Christie, the Republicans in New Jersey were very moderate.
We just published a roundup of potential consequences of the federal budget crisis on the African American community. What do you think the consequences will be?
African Americans are in a very difficult situation. Pew Research just revealed last week that 35 percent of blacks have no net worth or negative net worth. That’s one-out-of-three. The FDIC reported last year that 54 percent of blacks either have no bank account or they don’t use their bank account regularly. That’s half. Our unemployment rate is sky high; it’s over 20 percent in most black neighborhoods. Our savings rate is just about zero. The majority of our people are living marginal lives economically.
Couple that with the fact that over the last two decades, the majority of us who have had good jobs have had them in the public sector. This is what’s so devastating. The majority of blacks work in the public sector and the majority of whites work in the private sector.
When you talk about reducing the size of government, you’re really talking about a disproportionate impact on African Americans. If you talk about reducing and changing the pension construct, you’re talking about a disproportionately high percentage of African Americans whose pensions come from the public sector. Even when you talk about Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security, a disproportionate number of African Americans use those resources to survive.
Philosophically, I don’t think anyone would disagree that government should not be big and taxes should not be high just for the purpose of big government and high taxes, but there is a very explicit racial impact from the fact that, historically, African Americans were denied access to the private sector. Good jobs for black people when I was coming up were teachers and post office employees, or the military. When you consider Washington, D.C., the federal government is basically run by black people. I’m sure that the fiscal conservatives are not all racists, but I’m also sure that they have not sat down and really considered the racial implications of what they say.
Is the reason so many African Americans have public sector jobs because of racism in the private sector, especially in hiring?
Yes, but it’s not just racist acts, it’s the legacy of racism. It’s the private sector basically being owned, controlled, and operated by whites. As government laws to protect the civil rights of blacks were passed, the government held itself more accountable than the private sector. It was easier to document and monitor the behavior of institutions in the public sector than it was in the private sector. So in the military, in the postal system, and in education, government was able to hold its own employees more accountable to equal opportunity and civil rights.
It became culturally accepted among African Americans that a good job, a stable job, is in the public sector where you are protected by civil service laws. If you could get a good job at the post office, you didn’t need much education, you could work there for 40 years and retire and live a comfortable life. That’s the old model. Now that the public sector is incapable of sustaining the level of activity it once had, and it has a devastating impact on African Americans.
Because we have such a shallow political leadership, what happens is if you say that, the first thing the Tea Party types and fiscal conservatives do is back up and say, “I’m not a racist.” That’s a knee-jerk reaction. If I preached a sermon at my church and the majority of the women got together after service and said, “That was a sexist sermon,” I can’t simply say, “I love my wife. I love my mother. I’m not a sexist.” I would have to take seriously their critique. What happens is fiscal conservatism refuses to listen to our critique because, in most of their minds, they are not personally racist. So they’re not willing to step back and analyze the racial implications of their philosophy and their policies, and therefore the discussion goes nowhere.
As the author of a book about debt-free living, you’re clearly not saying that people should abdicate personal responsibility. Are people even able to adopt a debt-free living message in the midst of this economic crisis?
Yes. The first line of defense is to control whatever resources you do have. It requires making some very important decisions. In Texas, black people spend $1.1 billion a year on lottery tickets. The University of Texas did research and discovered 58 percent of the blacks in Texas spend $57 a month on lottery tickets. There’s 1.6 million black people in Texas who are spending $57 a month on lottery tickets. So while I am concerned about the macro-economic issues, my question to them is this: Is that the best use of $57 a month? Fifty-seven dollars a month put into a mutual fund over 20 years will yield some real cash, and it’s more likely that investing or saving $57 a month will yield benefits than it is that you’ll hit the lottery when the odds of hitting the big lottery are 195 million to 1.
Has there been an increased interest in the personal finance courses your church offers given the economic situation?
Oh, sure. I started this ministry in 2005 and things were pretty rosy. People were taking out second mortgages on their houses, refinancing and pulling cash out, and getting approved for new loans in 24 hours. That was then, but this is now. The economic condition of the country and the world has motivated many more people to want to know more about how to handle their money.
Some Christian leaders signed a Circle of Protection document to defend programs that help the less fortunate, and they met with the president to urge him not to balance the budget “on the backs of the poor.” What do you think is the appropriate Christian response to this crisis?
I agree with that. However, having been in government, I understand the challenge that Mr. Obama has. The Congress has much more power over the budget than most people realize. The president doesn’t have a whole lot of power over the budget in terms of what’s authorized.
We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and we’re not going to get out of it overnight. There ought to be a balanced, gradual strategy to repair the federal budget. It has to be balanced in that you can’t simply go to programs that support the most vulnerable, even if you agree that it’s inappropriate. On the other hand, it has to be gradual. You can’t do it quickly.
The Tea Party people made commitments last year when they ran for office, and what they have to take into account is that you cannot eliminate $14 trillion in debt in three months. You have to do it gradually because … there is a human story behind every item in the federal budget, and if you don’t balance your fiscal prudence with humane values, then you’ll do what my grandmother used to say: you’ll cut off your nose to spite your face.
Listen to Rev. Soaries explain the role of race in the federal budget debate.
In One But Not the Same, Pastor Chris Williamson challenges us on our divisive “churchanity” and renews the call for unity and diversity in the body of Christ. Plus, his surprising views on Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and political parties.