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?
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