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’m a registered Republican. I didn’t vote for Barack Obama. I believe in free-market enterprise. I like smaller government. There, I said it. It’s out!
That said, I think government plays essential roles in any civilized society. Defense, interstate highways, basic education to name a few. And there is one more role I would add to the list. Health care!
I know we have the most advanced medical treatment in the world — and the most expensive. I wouldn’t want to see it compromised. But I have to admit that something is wrong with the picture when the working poor and a sizable portion of the middle class don’t have access to these benefits. I am coming to believe what the rest of the modern world has concluded — that health care is a basic human right. To be last in line of industrialized nations to provide medical treatment for all our citizens is not something I am proud of.
I like government close to home. That’s one reason I’m a Republican. But I also have to admit that Social Security has served us fairly well, and I have no real complaints about how my Medicare is working. Oh, yes, the bureaucratic paperwork is aggravating and I hate talking to a computerized recording, but I guess that’s not too different from the way most large corporations function these days.
I seriously doubt that health-care reform can be accomplished without raising our taxes, but, frankly, that’s one of the taxes I wouldn’t mind paying. Compared to the costly wars we have funded recently, health care seems like a rather redemptive investment.
Do I like what Obama is proposing? Actually, I do. While I wouldn’t want a government takeover of our health-care system, I do see the value in a system that insures every citizens’ access to competent medical treatment.
Obviously it’s a very complex issue. And I’d be the first to acknowledge my ignorance in many of the complicated realities of this confusing medical world. I do know, however, that it makes no sense to see my low-income neighbors go to the hospital emergency room for ailments that could be treated inexpensively in a community clinic. And I do know from personal experience that physicians prescribe expensive and unnecessary procedures just to protect themselves from lawsuits. I guess these are a couple of the reasons why they say the system is broken.
I like competition. That’s one reason I like what Obama is proposing. I think I’m ready to let the government give health care a try. Our free-enterprise approach, while propelling us to the top spot in medical advances, has failed to figure out a system that shares the benefits with the whole of society. And that’s a justice issue.
Say what you will about Obama, on this one I believe he’s on the right side. We may disagree strongly about his politics and his methods, but his push to see that all citizens are being rightly cared for — especially the poor — is a push in the right direction.
And I’m still a Republican.
Five reasons why the church should support health-care reform. An urban pastor’s view.
I approach the discussion about health-care reform from the perspective of an urban minister. I’ve worked with urban core neighbors, neighborhoods, congregations, and community groups for more than 20 years. I’ve watched people struggle to access basic health services in the shadow of world-class hospitals. I know hardworking people caught in the “catch-22” level of income: They make too much to access Medicaid but too little to afford health insurance premiums. They work for companies that either don’t offer health insurance or offer it partially at a level these employees can’t afford.
Workers are forced to use a patchwork of health fairs, free clinics, and doctors who will see them occasionally without cost (God bless these). They put off illness or pain until it becomes chronic or unbearable and then make a dash to an emergency room. The health costs they incur are a greater portion of their household income than most Americans. The cost to their dignity is inestimable. But the cost to America’s integrity is even higher.
At the same time, I know that health-care costs are spiraling upward for higher-wage neighbors. The monthly cost for my family’s health insurance is higher than our mortgage payment. Our benefits are stripped down and our co-pays and deductibles are higher than ever.
I know people whose prescriptions are no longer covered, whose important procedures are denied, and whose insurance has been dropped. Many people have filed bankruptcy due in large part to unpayable medical bills.
In short, while the health-care system has not been working for the working poor for a long time, it is not working for more and more middle-income neighbors. None of this begins to factor in the significant levels of abuse of the system by those who game it — professional health-care providers, the insurance industry, and consumers of health-care services. The current system is not sustainable, it is not reasonable, it is not just. It does not reflect what we know is best about or for America.
So, I am completely on board with the call for quality, accessible, affordable health care for all citizens. I’m advocating for this from the perspective of an urban Christian minister on the one hand, and as an American citizen on the other.
As a Christian minister, I am convinced that quality, accessible, affordable health care for all is a moral imperative. As an American citizen, I am personally convinced it is a right that’s implied in the very intent of our Constitution and historic social contract. But it is as a Christian minister that I offer the following considerations on health-care reform to the church I love:
1. The Samaritan principle sets the tone for the Christian church regarding care for the poor, uninsured, and desperate in our land. Simply put, in the care a Samaritan extends to a wounded, helpless victim, Jesus declares what it means to be an authentic neighbor. If we have the resources to help and heal, we should. Not because we’ll get reimbursed. Not because there’s profit involved. Not because we’ll get recognized or rewarded. But because it reflects the caring, healing intention of God for God’s people in relationship to one another and in witness to the world.
We cannot pass by because we presume somebody else will take care of uninsured people. We cannot ignore what’s happening because it’s just bigger than us or beyond us. Jesus calls us to see, respond, help, comfort, and restore — as if those left out and wounded were our very own.
2. Jesus’ ministry of healing was conducted in the face of structures and regulations designed to control, limit, and exclude. I’ve been reading the Gospels again during this time of national concern about health care. Health and healing was front and center for Jesus. Undoubtedly, Jesus’ healings were a sign that he was the anticipated Messiah and that a new era was beginning. However, Jesus’ healings also confronted, exposed, and undermined age-old systems that, in the name of health care, prevented healing from occurring.
Jesus cut through the red tape, system-serving regulations, and control-oriented rituals to actually offer what God desired for people — healing, restoration, and a future of dignity and hope. Instead of defending the current status quo practices that place ordinary folks in similar binds, the people who follow and claim to reflect Jesus should consider how he judged and exposed the ineffectiveness and meanness of structures that served themselves at others’ expense.
3. The context of community, inclusion, and sharing resources to assist the neediest — central in the early church witness — is a pattern and principle to renew. Beginning with Acts 2, we see the earliest believers holding things in common, pooling resources, and selling off assets in order to meet the needs of the weakest among them. It was not about me and mine, but we and ours. In the perspective of that early faith community, my personal self-interest includes your well-being. They realized that we are deeply interconnected with one another.
The apostle Paul affirmed this principle with his counsel to the church in Corinth that we are members of one another, that no part can say to another, “I don’t need you.” To what extent are there such awarenesses or practices in the church today? And to what extent is our sense of community — over against asserting individual privilege and private rights — bearing witness to the larger community and nation of what is good, possible, and godly?
4. Christian leaders should be leading the health-care dialogue by seeking the truth and speaking the truth. To this point, it doesn’t seem to me that there has been a debate or dialogue about health-care reform. Much of the so-called debate to this point has focused on myths, distortions, and outright lies about proposed health reform legislation. The news media focus has been on misinformed people shouting down congressional leaders, calling them Nazis, and burning them in effigy.
I’m convinced Christians should not only not be a part of those scenarios, but that we should make a contribution to the dialogue that is fact-based, truth-seeking, civil, and that moves all to find the common ground necessary to ensure that quality, accessible, affordable health care is available to all American citizens.
If the news media or partisan groups play to distortions and extremes, then people of Christian faith have a significant role to get the facts, convey them in understandable ways, and create conversations that deal in what’s real. We are the people whose scriptures declare, “you will know the Truth and the Truth will set you free” (John 8:32). We are the people who are reminded that “God has given us, not a spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of self-discipline” (2 Tim. 1:7).
5. Let us embody and advocate for the principles, practices, and norms of the beloved community toward which Jesus pointed. Christians have no stake in propping up old-order systems, or aligning ourselves with self-serving institutions, or playing to sub-Christian social stratifications. At personal, community, and systemic levels, Christians are challenged to practice now the norms and promises of the future described in the Scriptures.
I love the way Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it: “God’s future is enacted as present neighborliness.”
Is not quality, accessible, affordable health care for all one such act of “present neighborliness” that is a signal of the direction God intends the future to move? I think so. And I invite Christians and people of other faiths to join me and others in this kairos moment — this period of unique opportunity to witness something magnanimous and restorative in our generation.
This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Sojourners.