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Tuesday, February 21, 2012 8:00 am
Could Coming Apart Pull Together Social Policy on Poor?
Posted by: Vanessa Bush

I’ve been listening with keen interest to interviews with Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. In the last few weeks, he’s been interviewed by Robert Siegel of All Things Considered and Tom Ashbrook of On Point, both on NPR.

In Coming Apart, Murray observes that the current generation of the white lower class don’t go to church, marry and raise their children in two-parent households, or work hard at jobs and careers. That is the very profile that many social scientists have long seen among black Americans. 

Murray is co-author of the controversial book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (1994), which argued that IQ is destiny and noted the lower achievement of blacks on IQ and standardized tests. He very deliberately left out race in Coming Apart and so is raising hackles this time by shifting his focus to an unflattering portrait of lower-income whites (one-third of the white population) whose life prospects are not as promising as earlier generations because of very different lifestyles and perspectives.

His overarching focus is on the growing cultural divide between the classes among whites, with those in the elite who actually make economic and social policies having little contact with people of lower income. Whatever readers might think of Murray’s portrait of the lower-income classes, the Tea Party and Occupy movements have demonstrated well a widespread concern about the disconnect between the elites and the rest of America.

The On Point interview included listener call-ins and a counterpoint by Joan Walsh, Salon.com editor-at-large. Walsh criticized Murray for the social Darwinism embedded in his book and the ideals of conservatives and libertarians. (Murray is a libertarian). Murray’s defense is that the book is a statement of the facts – however grim they might be – with no analysis of the underlying causes of the decline of the lower-income class.

I have not read The Bell Curve, the book that sparked so much suspicion of Murray among African Americans, but there are traces of socio-economic – if not racial – determinism through Coming Apart that is at the heart of that suspicion. Still, given that Murray has turned so much attention to the troubling social trends among white Americans, perhaps more attention will be paid to the causes and development of some solutions that will benefit economic struggling people of all races.

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