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.
I lay the flat iron down next to the sink, and when I lean in close, I see the gray is creeping up again. I wonder if I should do something about it, thinking of all the ways I’ve worn my hair through the years, how my hair tells the story of my life.
My earliest memories include collard greens and thick cut bacon and sitting on the floor between my mother’s legs — or my cousin’s or aunt’s legs — as she sat on the couch or on the glider on my grandmother’s porch and worked the comb through my hair.
Whoever got the honor of trying to get me to sit still that day would spread a glob of hair grease on the back of her hand. She’d part my hair and with her index finger, run a line of hair grease down that part, pulling my hair tight into cornrows, or just three braids. Or four. It was years before I knew the white girls didn’t use hair grease and that it was best to keep that information to myself.
Eventually, I started getting my hair pressed. I don’t know how that started or why, but I’d sit in a kitchen chair while my mom heated up the comb on the red-hot eye of the stove. At least an hour passed getting my hair to go from natural to straight while hair grease sizzled and smoke rose up to meet the ceiling before slipping out the window into the air outside. The first time I told a White girl I don’t wash my hair every day — or even every week, for that matter — I thought she’d fall right over. So I stopped telling people that, too.
One year on summer break from elementary school, I let my hair go. Wore it just the way God made it. And when my mother took me with her to visit at a nursing home, the woman in the corner asked my mother about her son. My mother doesn’t have a son. And my hair was soon forced back into compliance.
In middle school, my mother took me to Mrs. Spicer’s house, where a hair salon was set up in the basement. I guess Mom decided it would be easier on everyone to pay someone else to press my hair instead of fighting with the hot comb in the kitchen on a Saturday afternoon. So, twice a month after school, I’d get dropped off for the washing and the drying and the combing out and the pressing, and I was lucky if I got out of there without having my scalp burned at least once.
Eventually, we caved in to the chemicals that mark the point of almost-no-return, and relaxers became the order of the day. I would keep my hands away from my scalp on the day I knew I’d be getting a touch-up, a necessary precaution to keep the lye from burning my scalp. For years, I treated my hair this way because it was easier to wear my hair straight than to deal with the people who wanted to know things like, “Can I touch it?” or “Do you use a pick for that?” or “Does your hair even get wet when it’s like that?” or “Can you hide things in there?”
In my thirties, I let my hair go again. And it was good. It was very good, and I wore it like that for years. When I finally changed it, it was because I wanted to and not because of the questions or the fears. I just wanted Halle Berry’s haircut for a change.
I keep staring at my reflection and the gray that’s creeping back, and I think it might be time to let it go again and wear it just the way God made it.
This essay originally appeared at The High Calling, an online magazine about work, life, and God. It is reprinted here by permission.
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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I remember the feelings of pride and confidence I felt as a child when I heard Bible stories that told of God’s triumphant powers reigning supreme over all the other gods and rulers and kings. Even though I did not consider myself as a “Child of Israel,” I did connect with “God’s chosen people” and felt that I had access to this same power. I felt that with God on my side I would overcome any obstacle and triumph in any situation. I felt invincible. I felt unstoppable. But this wasn’t just youthful arrogance. I had biblical support.
Moses’ fight with Pharaoh’s magicians was not a fight between slaves and tyrant, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When Daniel was thrown in the lion’s den, it was not a fight between man and animal, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When the three Hebrew boys were thrown in the fiery furnace, it was not a fight against man and fire, it was a fight against gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? When David fought Goliath, it was not a fight between men, it was a fight between gods. Who would win? The Living God or the dead god? Each time, as we know, the Living God prevailed and the consistent winningness of God increased the reputation of the Living God (of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
Each day, we all fight similar battles with our own fiery furnaces and personal giants — against political edicts and social and cultural pressures that conflict with our understandings and convictions. But the results of these battles are different from the results during the biblical era.
Too many Christians today carry their Bibles to church and profess their faith in the power of Jesus, but then go back to decrepit communities and overcrowded houses, where they are suffocating in bills, poor health, and an overall dissatisfaction with their lives. Inwardly they struggle with having a better life on earth and being a poor person who suffers long because they are Christians. Any suggestion of one’s life being a physical manifestation of the quality of one’s faith is immediately dismissed as “prosperity gospel” and even anti-Christian. Their (misguided) logic goes like this: heaven is their reward; and though evil appears to be winning today, in the very end good will make a comeback.
As honorable and sincere as this may sound, what would have happened if David had that mentality when he fought Goliath? What if Moses thought like that when he was freeing the Children of Israel out of bondage? Not only would there be no Christianity today, there wouldn’t even be Judaism! And because we have chosen this as our stance today, we are in danger of being the reason why the Christian faith has lost its strength and relevance for the contemporary world.
As a rule, people do not gravitate toward that which appears not to work. And this, I believe, is how the younger generations of Christians interpret Christianity today: anemic, irrelevant, powerless.
Is this a surprise? Either the Living God is losing His power, or Christians are doing something wrong. I say Christians are doing something wrong. Our faith must be more than hope in eternal life with God. It must be a bulletin board for all to see consistency in our lives to show the power that God holds for helping us live holy, purposeful, and relevant lives TODAY.
Young people are not interested in being a part of something that is not working. Young people are uninterested in carrying on traditions for tradition’s sake. We want evidence. We don’t want to be defeated. We want power. We want to feel excited about God and God’s people again.
Let’s have a conversation. Do you think God is losing His power in today’s church? What can we do to make our faith more real to the younger generation?
HAWAII'S SON: President Obama Aloha Bobblehead dolls are among the touristy souvenirs available at gift shops like this one in the Waikiki Beach area of Honolulu. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
The word “Hawaii” conjures up scenes of grass skirts, surfboards, gorgeous beaches, and volcanoes. Recently, images of our current President have been added to that list. Whether one is for or against his style of leadership, one thing is certain: it is unfamiliar. His strong centrist stand is not a popular modus operandi of past presidents, and for this reason it garners attention — unless, you have the “aloha” in you. For those, like myself, who were raised within the group-centric culture of Hawaii, President Barack Obama’s brand of leadership is nothing new.
Those from the “mainland,” what those of us from Hawaii call the continental U.S., rarely understand how truly different Hawaii is from the rest of the United States, particularly for people of color. It is one of the few (and perhaps only) places the European Standards for culture, beauty, power, and “justice” are not in effect. They are replaced by the East Asian and native Polynesian standards that reach back farther in history than the United States of America as country. These standards were social norms I was first introduced to, much like the president. I was torn from my Pacific Ocean-bound paradise as I was entering my tweens. My father’s military career took us from our colorful, diversity-filled oasis to the Midwest cosmos of corn, soybeans, and snow.
How significant is being raised in such a truly diverse, non-Eurocentric, group-driven, island-based culture?
It is significant enough that any person of color who is socialized in Hawaii and then leaves must go through a process of re-learning American race relations within their own group (colorism) and in relation to mainstream American culture. They also have another task: learning their new place on the racial totem pole.
I can say from experience it is a very ugly, cruel, bewildering process. I spent my early childhood on Oahu. Once you go through it, you know it, and you behave accordingly. That is why I will admit to smiling whenever I hear the president pronounce Hawai‘i properly; it’s done deliberately. Hearing “Hawai‘i,” “luau,” and “ukulele” pronounced properly makes me giddy these days.
COMING HOME: President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama arrive at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii for a 2009 vacation. (Photo by Larry Downing/Newscom)
To be sure, Hawaii is not free of racialized class structures, and it harbors its own brand of racism; yet, this too takes a different strain. It is far less disruptive to the almighty Group-with-a-capital-G to simply ignore members it finds undesirable. The Group limits interaction with them and is as polite and distant as is practical when its members must interact with Outsiders. In this way, everyone inside and outside of the Group may save face. “Saving face” is another important East Asian tenant. While this is just as wrong, burning crosses, throwing tomatoes, hate marches, and interesting costumes are not as conducive to “perpetual harmony.”
The “East Asian Cultural standard” I refer to is an amalgamation of major tenants of traditional Chinese, Korean, and Japanese culture. It is the cultural norm of Hawaii along with native Polynesian culture. Together they create an entirely different American experience. It is an experience that challenges mainland perceptions of race, class, and gender relations.
Hawaiian popular and native culture is group centric. In the native culture (keep in mind, it is not monolithic) the idea of “ohana” comes to mind. Translated simply as “family” in true practice, it means far more than that. A great representation of the highest form of “ohana” is what the body of Christ is called to be and what the Christian church is to be, as modeled in the New Testament book of Acts.
The Group always comes before the individual. Life doesn’t revolve around being a special snowflake. Rather, it is more important to lend your talents to the betterment of something above and beyond yourself. This is not a popular sentiment in mainstream American culture, where our love of the anti-hero rings loud and clear.
For instance, a state like Texas, the home of former President George W. Bush, as well as current GOP presidential contender Gov. Rick Perry, is a great example of the “Cult of Individualism” that is a part of the mainland American consciousness. This mentality is the polar opposite of the Group/ohana mindset. When Gov. Perry subtly implied in 2009 that secession could be a possibility for Texas if things didn’t change in Washington, it reaffirmed the image of the Lone Star State as a collection of cowboys (and girls) who answer to no one. This isn’t to say that focusing on the individual is detrimental. But it’s no secret that the worship of self can cause far-reaching negative consequences throughout society, a fact the Bible and secular history have made abundantly clear.
In the case of President Obama, some say he’s too willing to compromise and that he doesn’t assert himself enough when it comes to playing the political game. In a recent, widely discussed Washington Post essay, White House reporter Scott Wilson charged President Obama with being “the loner president,” an isolated politician who prefers policy over people in Washington. “This president endures with little joy the small talk and back-slapping of retail politics, rarely spends more than a few minutes on a rope line, refuses to coddle even his biggest donors,” Wilson observed. “There is no entourage, no Friends of Barack to explain or defend a politician who has confounded many supporters with his cool personality and penchant for compromise.”
But what his critics see as a flaw might actually be a strength, at least from the perspective of ohana. It could be that his great skill in being so centrist (to his party’s and the GOP’s annoyance) comes from the ability to set his gaze solidly on The Group and put its needs before his own, as a matter of upbringing and personal conviction. While caught in the political throes of his own party, the GOP, and the Tea Party, he has delivered the tow-the-line stance he promised during his 2008 campaign — perhaps too well, for the mainland.
In this case, we — the American people, in certain instances — are President Obama’s Group, not necessarily the Democratic Party.
So, why is this a problem?
Did we not elect our congressional leaders, in good faith, to put our needs before donkeys and elephants, red and blue, lobbyists and Wall Streeters? Didn’t we ask them to put aside their own personal (often financial) interests and fight for all people to have a chance at living the “American Dream”
MAN OF THE PEOPLE: President Obama in 2010 with the staff of Island Snow, a shaved-ice shop in Kailua, Hawaii. (Photo by Kent Nishimura/Newscom)
If Congress practiced the concept of “ohana” according to its popular understanding and placed the Group ahead of personal gain, Washington, D.C., and America in general, could become a very different place. That’s not to say everyone in the Group would receive what they desire. However, the Group as a whole would be better off than, say, a privileged 1% of the Group at the expense of the other 99%. The tyranny of the majority is tempered by a hint of the Confucian principles of the Five Ideal Relationships: (1) ruler and subject; (2) father and son; (3) elder brother and younger brother; (4) husband and wife; and (5) friend and friend. Within this environment, there is an understood expectation that those that are submitted to will take care of those that submit to them. These obligations are taken seriously; otherwise one risks dishonor and the loss of his status in society.
In this context, political bias would have to kneel before the desires of the Ultimate Group: the American people. Lobbyists, Unions, Big Business, and personal gain would have to wait their turns as the needs of the American “ohana” — the American family — came first.
We the people — America, the Group — would always come first.
That is a Washington I would love to say “aloha” to.