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).
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.