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The Bell Curve’s Toll

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray, Crown Forum, 416 pages

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray, Crown Forum, 416 pages

In 1950 my wife’s uncle, the son of a West Side of Chicago ditch digger, won a scholarship to MIT. Back then it was unusual enough for anybody from Chicago to go all the way to Massachusetts for college that the local newspaper printed a picture of him boarding the train for Cambridge. By the 1960s, however, the spread of standardized testing had helped make it customary for elite universities to vacuum up larger and larger fractions of the country’s cognitive talent. The long-term implications of this momentous change are quantified in Charles Murray’s new book on the evolving American class system, Coming Apart.

The book pulls together strands of his thought going back three decades, a period during which Murray has been the model of a public intellectual. Striving to reconcile contrasting virtues, Murray has displayed a dazzling gift for sophisticated data analysis while remaining devoted to making his books as broadly comprehensible as possible. He’s a social-scientific elitist and a civic egalitarian; a libertarian and a communitarian; a truth-teller and a thinker of the utmost judiciousness.

Not surprisingly, none of these strengths have made the co-author of The Bell Curve terribly popular, especially because in the 18 years since the publication of that infinitely denounced book about the growing stratification of America by intelligence not much has happened to prove it in error. In 2012, it looks like it’s Charles Murray’s world and we’re just living in it.

Murray isn’t hated for being wrong but instead for authoritatively documenting the kinds of things that everybody uncomfortably senses are true. But Murray has never been complacent about how Americans are increasingly sorted by college admissions. Is an I.Q.-driven meritocracy compatible with the old middle-class republic that he cherishes? Part of the creative tension behind The Bell Curve was that co-authors Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the Harvard psychologist, could never quite agree on whether the growing cartelization of smart young people by elite colleges was, on the whole, good or bad for America. Herrnstein, a native New Yorker, tended to view the Ivy League’s lock on native talent favorably, while Murray, a Midwestern boy who went to Harvard in 1961, worried that a Jeffersonian republic requires more geographic and cultural diversity.

The subtitle of Murray’s new analysis of the deepening class chasm, The State of White America, 1960–2010, is likely to give the commentariat another case of the vapors. The term “white America” is only to be used these days with obviously hostile intent, and Murray, a loyal son of Newton, Iowa, appears suspiciously objective, even sympathetic.

Yet how can social class be tracked without isolating it from race? Class obsessed intellectuals from before the time of Marx, but interest in it faded after 1960 as race and ethnicity grabbed the spotlight. And yet class still matters. So how do we make apples to apples comparisons over a half-century of rapid demographic change? Murray desnarls the data by focusing solely upon non-Hispanic whites from ages 30–49. He’s scoured the databases to find fair comparisons of the Eisenhower-Kennedy era to the Bush-Obama age.

Ironically, one problem with thinking about class is that the subject suffers from more fundamental vagueness than does race. We’re always being told that race does not exist because races have fuzzy boundaries or because Tiger Woods belongs to more than one race. Yet the federal government collects vast quantities of statistics for use in discrimination lawsuits simply by asking people to check whichever race boxes they feel appropriate on the Census. This system is hardly perfect, but it appears to be good enough for government work.

In contrast, the Census doesn’t bother asking Americans to self-identify their class. Polling shows that large numbers of Americans think of themselves as simply middle-class: too many to be useful to social scientists. So Murray sorts people into classes based on objective markers of education and prestige of occupation. He defines the working class as no degree above a high-school diploma and a blue-collar, service, or low-level white-collar job. The upper middle class has college degrees and professional or managerial jobs. (An intellectual himself, less interested in money than in behavior, Murray largely leaves income and assets out of his class categorizations, but there’s little evidence that would much change things.)

One potential issue is that the working class has been shrinking and the upper middle class growing over time, so Murray alternatively compares the top 20 percent in education and occupation to the bottom 30 percent. Strikingly, this doesn’t make much difference.

The first paradox he’s uncovered is that the upper middle class tends to Talk Sixties but Live Fifties. In terms of not screwing up their lives, “the people who run the country are doing just fine.” For example, among white women with college degrees, the illegitimacy rate remains below 5 percent. Murray notes, “The new upper class still does a good job of practicing some of the virtues, but it no longer preaches them.”

One pattern that leaps out from Murray’s dozens of time series graphs is how beneficial the preachy culture of mid-century America was for the less educated. My mother, for instance, was born into a deeply dysfunctional working class family in 1920 and never went to college. But she had no trouble picking up from society the right lessons about what was required to attain a respectable middle-class life.

Since then, however, the message has gotten muddled. The out-of-wedlock birth rate, which was negligible in 1960, has broken 40 percent for white women with just high-school diplomas and 60 percent for high-school dropouts.

Similarly, among the top 20 percent of whites, the fraction of children not living with both biological parents is only about one out of ten. Among the bottom 30 percent of whites, however, this rate had grown since the 1960s from single figures to over half.

Among the upper middle class, other symptoms of malaise remain minor. Arrests for violent crime have declined from 17 per 100,000 in 1960 to 16 in 2009. Among the white working class, however, arrests are up from 125 to 592. And the percentage of theoretically working-class men who have declared themselves “disabled and unable to work” has grown from 2 percent in 1970 to 10 percent in 2010, versus only 0.2 percent among the well off.

Interestingly, despite all the complaints you read from commentators about how they are being inundated by Tim Tebow-worshipping Christian zealots, religion has declined more severely among the working class. The percentage of upper middle class folks who are “de facto seculars”—those who profess no religion or attend church no more than once per year—has grown from 27 percent to 40 percent since the early 1970s. But among the working class, secular lifestyles have grown from 35 percent to 59 percent.

Murray concludes, “a significant and growing proportion of the American population is losing the virtues required to be functioning members of a free society.” This slow erosion is seldom discussed, however, because on the other side of the class chasm, the upper reaches “have become so isolated that they are often oblivious to the nature of the problems that exist elsewhere.” Murray has ranked every zip code in the country by class, and one of his more informative findings is that vast swathes of the greater Washington D.C. area, which increasingly monopolizes public discourse, rank at the 95th percentile or higher.

To illustrate the degree of social insulation that the people who read serious nonfiction books like Coming Apart have engineered for themselves, Murray has crafted an amusing survey on “How Thick Is Your Bubble?” Questions include “During the last month, have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes?” “Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform,” and “During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge?”

That last one stumped me since I buy Anheuser-Busch Natural Light, a cheap sub-mass-market product aimed at college kids—on campus, Natty Lights are known as “frat water”—and solitary imbibers who like their modest amount of alcohol without all that tiresome beer flavor. I emailed the author to learn how I should score my answer, but after a lengthy exchange, we concluded that anybody whose first reaction is to contact Charles Murray to discuss one’s taste (or lack thereof) in beer was kind of missing the point of his survey.

Murray put an early draft of this test online last year, which elicited some catcalls, but the final version in Coming Apart is much improved. I scored 31 out of 100 on “access to the rest of America,” which accurately defines me as “A first-generation upper-middle class person with middle-class parents.” My wife scored 56, which also seems insightful: both her parents had advanced degrees, but she grew up in a working class neighborhood of Chicago and then moved to a farm.

Continuing an argument put forward by Herrnstein in a landmark 1971 Atlantic article, “I.Q.,” Murray argues that the main engine of class segregation has been “homogamy” or assortative mating driven by increased education. In 1960, Murray reports, only among 3 percent of married couples did both spouses have a college degree. By 2010, that was up to 25 percent.

It’s revealing that the elite education system has succeeded in fulfilling the dream of “positive eugenicists” such as Sir Francis Galton, who called for society to develop institutions to bring together the smartest and hardest-working young people for romance. Among the last three couples in the White House, for example, the Clintons met at Yale Law School and the Obamas were assigned each other because both were Harvard Law students.

Another reason for the growing class segregation is the decline in the economic importance of natural resources. In a farming and mining economy, smart people tended to spread out over the landscape. In an information economy, they cluster with other smart people. Theoretically, they could now live anywhere and work together over the Internet, but instead they seem to crowd into their industry’s dominant metropolitan area. For example, Boston’s once-booming Route 128 technology district has been badly surpassed by Silicon Valley.

At the other end of the class spectrum, however, there’s less huddling. In 1993, Murray penned an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal called “The Coming White Underclass” in which he predicted the rise of white slum neighborhoods. In Coming Apart, Murray defines the new white underclass as men who don’t make enough money in a year to lift two people above the poverty line, single mothers, or “social isolates”—people who don’t belong to any sort of organized group and don’t attend church more than annually.

By his calculations, only 8 percent of whites were underclass in the late 1960s, but that grew to 17 percent by prosperous 2007, and then over 19 percent during the current downturn. This trend is depressing, but the slope of white working class decay doesn’t seem quite as precipitous as in Britain, where illegitimacy, property crime, and drunken brawling are more pervasive.

Moreover, the growth of distinctive white underclass neighborhoods hasn’t really come to pass over the last 19 years. The white underclass seems either to be dispersed among more functional family members, to dissipate into the hinterlands, or to get absorbed into demographically vibrant Hispanic neighborhoods.

Yet if this trend continues, the underclass would comprise a dystopian 40 percent of the white population by mid-century—which might be enough to notice even in Georgetown.

Steve Sailer is TAC’s film critic and VDARE.com’s Monday morning columnist.