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Departments: Book Reviews

The great divide

Charles Murray spotlights an important gap, but goes looking in all the wrong places to explain it

BY: Ralph Whitehead Jr.
Issue: Spring 2012


Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 - 2010
By Charles Murray
New York, Crown Forum, 407 pages

Reviewed by Ralph Whitehead, Jr

in the america of 1960, writes Charles Murray in Coming Apart, the lives of white people with a bachelor’s degree or better and the lives of white people with a high school diploma or less were similar in several important respects. Almost all of the prime-age college men worked full-time, as did almost all of the prime-age high school men. Marriage was widespread among college whites —and also among high school whites. Single parents were rare in both groups. The rates of crime and of imprisonment were low for both. Rates of attendance at religious services were fairly similar for both.

Since then, however, writes Murray, the groups have diverged. It’s not because there have been notable changes among college whites. The patterns that hold for them today are close to the ones that held for them in 1960. It is chiefly because of changes among high school whites. Today, almost 40 percent of the prime-age men with no more than a high school diploma either work only part-time or are jobless or are outside the labor force altogether. Marriage isn’t widespread among this group. Single parenthood has become much more common. Rates of crime and of imprisonment are higher. Religious observance is off. It is this divergence that is the coming apart of the book’s title.

As for its subtitle, Murray has chosen to focus solely on how white America has been coming apart, he says, the better to avoid creating the impression that this divergence “can be remedied by attacking the legacy of racism.” (Avoiding race is something that Murray didn’t do as coauthor of the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve. It argued that some races are genetically disposed to be more intelligent than other races, and it turned Murray into something of a lightning rod.)

To some degree, of course, Murray’s story so far is a familiar one. Ever since the 1980s, economists,  journalists, and elected officials have paid heed to the growing earnings gap between those with a bachelor’s degree or better and those with a high school diploma or less. This gap has variously been called the education gap, the skills gap, or the college gap.

The size of this gap expanded on both sides. The earnings of white high school workers fell after the late 1970s, and the earnings of white college workers rose. White high school workers lost ground for the familiar reason: Because of automation and offshoring and the decline of union representation in the private sector, high school workers suffered a loss of their bargaining power in the labor market. White college workers gained bargaining power because the supply of such workers in the US didn’t grow as quickly as the demand for them.

Thus, Murray isn’t breaking news by reporting that white college men are more likely to be working than are white high school men. Nor is he breaking news about marriage. It has been clear for some time that the decline in marriage is much less pronounced among college whites than among high school whites, and that the same is true of single parenthood. He adds to this data on crime and imprisonment and his claim (more about this later) about the trend in religious observance.

What is new in all this is how he explains the origin of the plight of the high school whites.

The conventional view of its origin goes something like this: The decline in the earnings of white male high school workers made these men less acceptable to women as marriage partners, and made the men more wary of entering into a marriage contract and thus taking on economic responsibilities that they couldn’t be sure of fulfilling. As marriage became less common, single parenthood became more so. As architects of the GI Bill knew, men who don’t have the moorings of a decent-paying job and a set of family responsibilities can be more likely to get into trouble than the men who do, and trouble can lead to jail. (As for a decline in religious observance, the conventional view doesn’t account for it, but Murray’s own figures on a growing “God gap” are not particularly persuasive: a 16 percent decline in religious observance among college whites and an only slightly larger 18 percent decline among high school whites.)   

Murray rejects the conventional view. In its place, he argues that the plight exists because too few of today’s high school whites adhere to what he calls the founding virtues. He calls them founding virtues because, he contends, the Founding Fathers believed that the new republic wouldn’t thrive unless almost all of its citizens practiced them. He identifies four such virtues: industriousness, marriage, honesty, and religiosity. (Some might classify marriage as an institution; Murray deems it a virtue.)  

For a very long time, says Murray, virtually all Ameri­cans practiced the virtues, and did so because the effort to inculcate them was so intense and widespread. “Until well into the twentieth century, all four of the founding virtues were seen much as they were in the first half century of the nation’s existence,” he writes. “In effect, Ameri­can children were taught a civil religion consisting largely of the virtues… The main vehicle for nineteenth- century socialization was the reading textbook used in elementary school, the variants of which were modeled on the overwhelmingly most popular series, the McGuffey Readers.”

But, shortly after 1960, argues Murray, efforts to transmit the founding virtues broke down. “[T]he belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kinds of ways, and that the nation itself relied upon a certain kind of people in order to succeed, had begun to fade and has not revived,” he writes. As a result, says Murray, the practice of these virtues by the high school whites is much spottier today than it was back in 1960.

In Murray’s view, the breakdown in the transmission of the virtue of industriousness is why fewer white high school men work full-time. Yes, he notes, the jobs that exist for such men today don’t offer as much in pay, benefits, and job security as the jobs that existed for their fathers. But there are jobs, he states, or at least there were before the Great Recession, and these men should have embraced them. To the extent that they didn’t, it’s a sign not of the state of the job market, he says, but that these men haven’t been inculcated with the virtue of industriousness.

In his view, the breakdown in the transmission of the virtue of marriage is why high school whites are abandoning marriage and thus why single parenthood is rising. The breakdown in the transmission of the virtue of honesty is why the rates of crime and imprisonment have increased for the high school whites, and a similar breakdown in the transmission of the virtue of religiosity is why the 50-year decline in religious observance by high school whites has exceeded the decline among college whites.

In drawing contrasts with college whites, however, Murray takes the flaw in his explanation and makes it even more obvious than it otherwise might be. The flaw is that Murray doesn’t provide even a hypothesis, let alone evidence, for why, if transmission of the virtues has broken down, college whites still follow them while high school whites do not.

Is it because the part of the transmission belt that used to reach the high school whites no longer works, but the part that reaches the college whites still does? Perhaps high schools have ceased to inculcate these values but four-year colleges continue to do so. Or, if the transmission belt no longer exists at all, perhaps college whites acquire these virtues in a way that high school whites don’t. If so, Murray doesn’t identify what that way might be. If he wants to overturn the conventional explanation of the plight of high school whites, he needs a more solid alternative to it than what he comes up with here.

Murray has been criticized for failing to offer a solution to the problem that he describes in this book. If the problem is the plight of high school whites, the criticism is unfair. He does offer a solution to it. What he doesn’t do, however, is spell out how his solution might be implemented. His solution involves a particular group of college whites, the ones who form what Murray calls the new upper class. It consists, he estimates, of 2.4 million adults. In a book of 17 chapters, Murray devotes five of them to describing it.

He wants us to know that it consists of the smartest white people in the country. They stand at the pinnacles of their respective professions. He also wants us to know that they are isolated from the rest of the country. They tend to be products of only a small number of highly-selective schools. They are geographically concentrated in just a few zip codes. They are wealthy, and their wealth forms a barrier between them and the rest of America. Though some of them help to create the popular culture of the rest of white America, few of them are versed in it themselves.

He also wants us to know that a majority of them, though by no means all, are liberal in their politics. (Murray includes himself in the new upper class, and he is a conservative, of course, and proud of it.) Even though many of the liberal members of the new upper class practice the founding virtues, he says, they refuse to preach them. Because, he says, they prefer what he calls nonjudgmentalism.

“The members of the new upper class are industrious to the point of obsession, but there are no derogatory labels for adults who are not industrious,” he writes. “The young women of the new upper class hardly ever have babies out of wedlock, but it is impermissible to use a derogatory label for nonmarital births. You will probably raise a few eyebrows even if you use a derogatory label for criminals.”  

He continues: “The new upper class doesn’t want to push its own way of living onto the less fortunate, for who are they to say that their way of living is really better? It works for them, but who is to say that it will work for others? Who are they to say that their way of behaving is virtuous and others’ ways of behaving are not?”

His solution is to revive the effort to provide the intensive and far-reaching transmission of the founding virtues. And he wants the members of the new upper class to initiate this revival and commit themselves to making a large contribution to it. However, he doesn’t describe what form the revival might take. It will be interesting to see if Murray ever supplies a detailed description of what he envisions, so that we can decide if it seems sound or merely silly.

Ralph Whitehead is a professor of journalism at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

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