Symposium: The State of White America (Part 4)

If Murray is right about the problem, then the solution demands something from every one of us.

The United States has undergone a significant and perhaps unprecedented shift over the last half century. Since 1960, a new upper class has emerged, more isolated than any other in our history, especially from an increasingly desperate lower class. In order to avoid the usual caveats and hesitations about race that accompany discussions of economic inequality, Charles Murray focuses almost exclusively on the recent history of white America in his latest book Coming Apart: the State of White America, 1960-2010.

A few of us have shared our thoughts on Murray’s analysis, believing that a discussion about where we are as a culture and how we got here is the first step to redeeming a culture from the alarming conditions highlighted in Coming Apart. This is the fourth and final entry in this series, though the conversation on Murray’s challenging thesis will likely continue for some time.

Miriel Thomas: Roll Up Your Sleeves

Charles Murray’s Coming Apart is an engaging account of a troublesome reality: the ever-widening, ever-calcifying gap between the Americans with the most education, income, and influence and the Americans who have the least of those things. Murray marshals armies of statistics to show a vast divergence in social practices between the groups at the extremes of the education-income continua, and a corresponding divergence in the (self-proclaimed) happiness of the two groups. The way of life of the new lower class is distressing not just because of its effects on personal quality of life, but because it threatens the American project, which—as Murray demonstrates—was only ever expected to work for a people possessing certain kinds of civic and social virtues. Marriage, industriousness, community involvement, religiosity: these are precisely the elements of American life that the founders thought were essential to its preservation, and they are also precisely what the new lower class isn’t doing.

If you accept Murray’s diagnosis, the question becomes: how to solve the problem? This is where things get tricky. Murray posits the possibility of an emerging national consensus, based on developments in the natural sciences, that the outcomes of certain social practices are objectively better than the outcomes of others. The difficulty with this possibility, as I see it, is promulgation. Murray points out, for instance, the broad cultural unwillingness to acknowledge that enduring marriage between biological parents produces consistently superior outcomes for children compared to other family structures, despite overwhelming evidence to that effect in the social sciences (p.158). It’s hard for me to understand why unpopular conclusions drawn by evolutionary psychologists and geneticists would be any more acceptable than unpopular conclusions drawn by sociologists.

Ultimately, though, my real hesitation (not to say pessimism) about Murray’s portrait of the revival of the American project comes from my own observations. My score on the book’s quiz was a 42, which puts me somewhere in the middle: I come from a strong family and I’m working toward a Ph.D. at a private university, but I didn’t grow up in a privileged enclave; I’ve seen some of the streets of Fishtown in my life. And my instinct from those experiences is that the integration process would be much more difficult than Murray’s proposed solution seems to suggest. Grant Murray his scientific conclusions and their broad popular acceptance; grant him too the courage the members of the new upper class need “to start preaching what they practice.” It’s not hard to see as a possible outcome an even wider chasm (and an increased level of resentment) between the two classes; not even unwed mothers really like to be preached at. But set aside that problem for the sake of argument: best case scenario, you’re still left with a lower class able to see the goodness of the social practices it has abandoned, but without many of the requisite resources to do anything about it. (In fairness to Murray, he acknowledges and engages this very question in a column in yesterday’s New York Times.)

This is the real conundrum: growing up in an atmosphere rife with broken or nonexistent families, idleness (as distinguished from industriousness), and drug and crime problems—as children in the real Fishtown do—is not simply a socioeconomic disadvantage. It also deprives those kids of the social and familial support structures they need to develop the kinds of habits and character traits that will empower them to change their lives. David Brooks presents extensive research on this topic in The Social Animal: Erica, one of the book’s central characters, starts her life in a Fishtown situation. Erica ultimately overcomes her disadvantages and achieves great successes, but only with the help of a revolutionary kind of educational environment, a supportive mother, and cognitive therapy to teach her how to harness her anger issues. Her success is unimaginable without those resources, and those resources are unavailable to the average Fishtown child.

What does this mean from a social policy perspective? I think a radically different approach to education—something very much like the Academy that Erica attends—is something to start thinking about. Maybe kids with serious socioeconomic disadvantages don’t just need snub-nosed Yalies waltzing into their inner-city schools to teach “for America;” they need well-educated, selfless teachers and school administrators dedicated to teaching them. And maybe they need those teachers to teach them something new: not just academic subjects, but goal-setting and integrity and discipline and an appreciation for education as a key to a new kind of life. A broad revival of a new, real kind of civic education would require significant commitments from a lot of people, but it seems like it could be worthwhile. And it would be expensive, but maybe the education of its young people is a good place for America to start investing.

Another problem spot from a policy perspective is the criminal justice system. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a vehement proponent of the rule of law. I just think it’s possible that we need to rethink our response to crime from the perspective of families and children. In Coming Apart, Murray presents truly shocking statistics documenting the incarceration of an ever-increasing proportion of Fishtown men. Now, maybe I’ve just listened to “The Fields of Athenry” one too many times, but it seems to me that imprisoning their fathers is not necessarily a sensible way to help the American children who are at the greatest disadvantage learn how to lead lives of industrious integrity. Brian Brown has written before about alternative approaches to criminal justice, highlighting the work of scholar Peter Moskos and proposing some of his own solutions. I think this is an area ripe for creative work on the part of people like Brown and Moskos, especially if such scholars work from within the understanding of American society developed in Murray’s work.

At the end of the day, though, I’m not convinced that the real solution to the problems Murray poses lies primarily in public policy decisions. It seems to me (as it has seemed to Miss Snyder and Mr. Yarbrough) that the American project will stand or fall by the decisions that Americans—each of us and all of us—make on a daily basis.

One of my favorite lines in Coming Apart is right near the beginning: “The people who read a book on American socioeconomic classes are self-selected for certain traits that put most of you in a position to have observed the new upper class at close hand. Judge for yourself whether my generalizations correspond to your experience.” I love it because it’s funny, and it’s funny because it’s true. In the same vein, people who read a website dedicated to discussions of culture, religion, and politics are self-selected to probably not be living right in the midst of the new lower class. Sure, not all of us fit neatly into Murray’s new upper class: we don’t all have degrees from elite institutions or incomes that fall in the top few tax brackets. But most of us probably do have some resources we could be putting at the service of those Americans who have the fewest advantages. So if you have time, or education, or influence, or access to influential people, or a voice to raise important questions in the public square, ask yourself the question that Murray asks at the end of Coming Apart: How much does America mean to you, and what are you willing to do to save it?


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    March 12, 2012


    What does Murray take “the American project” to be?

    Also, “the American project will stand or fall by the decisions that Americans—each of us and all of us—make on a daily basis.” What decisions do you mean? This isn’t transparent to me, and (unlike my earlier question) wouldn’t be obvious had I read the Murray text.

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