Pseudoscience in the service of the status quo

Coming Apart:

The State of White America, 1960-2010

IN 1994, as Newt Gingrich led the Republican charge to “take back Congress” from Clinton Democrats, a weighty 800-page book called The Bell Curve set off a media frenzy over the question of race and intelligence by making the incendiary and utterly false argument that African Americans were genetically less intelligent than whites. The Bell Curve was embraced by the right wing, which used its arguments to justify attacks on people of color, social welfare programs, and the poor. The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould debunked the book’s pseudoscience and logical fallacies thoroughly, arguing that its media success reflected “the depressing temper of our time—a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be so abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be aided due to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low IQ scores."

The book was the high-water mark of Gingrich-era racism. Coauthor Richard Herrnstein died before its publication; Charles Murray enjoyed brief popularity on the right-wing media circuit, but his star faded after he was rightly condemned as a racist.

Fast-forward to 2012, when presidential candidate Newt Gingrich refers to African-American president Barack Obama as a “food stamp president” and argues that “really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working…unless it’s illegal.” Today racist arguments are carefully coded; when politicians are caught openly blaming Black people, they issue public pseudo-apologies. (After candidate Rick Santorum said he didn’t want “to make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money,” he backpedaled by claiming that he’d really been referring to “blah people.”) But even while the right wing steps up its racist attacks on the working class, the Occupy movement and a wave of global protest are making it increasingly difficult for them to blame the poor for the follies of the ultra-rich.

Enter Charles Murray, ready for redemption after a decade hiding out in the far-right American Enterprise Institute think tank. This time, he’s determined not to be called a racist—and so his new attack on the poor, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, focuses entirely on whites. This extraordinary book argues that the rise of the “welfare state,” the concentration of wealth, and the decline of marriage and religiosity in the past fifty years have led to rising crime, lower IQs, and general laziness on the part of poor whites. In doing so, he makes some bizarre choices about how to present his data that undermine whatever credibility he still has. For example, he leaves people of color out of his analysis entirely because their presence is a “distraction.”

Murray uses the JFK assassination in 1962 as his dividing line for social class as we know it in the United States today. His opening chapters make it clear that he pines for the era when “getting pregnant without being married was wrong, and if a girl did get pregnant then she and the boyfriend. . .were supposed to get married” no matter what their class background; in this vision of the past, everyone shared the same basic moral compass, which kept American society prosperous and upstanding. Modern America, on the other hand, is “coming apart at the seams” of class, divided into what Murray calls the “new upper class” and the “new lower class.”

These divisions neatly mirror two well-worn Republican talking points: the new upper class are mostly liberal, “overeducated elitist snobs,” what Rush Limbaugh likes to call “latte liberals.” (He offers a quiz to determine whether the reader, whom he assumes is part of the new upper class, is living in a “bubble” of privilege.) Because the educated elite only interbreed with one another, because only the highly educated have high IQs, and because neighborhoods are now more concentrated by income than they were in 1960, Murray argues, rich neighborhoods are hogging all of the cognitive power. Nowhere does Murray bother to justify his reliance on the widely discredited theory of IQ.

The new lower class, on the other hand, embodies the “lazy welfare queen” stereotype: unemployed men who, Murray charges with barely a shred of evidence, mostly cheat on disability claims; single mothers; and people with credit-card debt and bankruptcies (whom he classifies as “dishonest”), all with lower IQs. He tells us that most members of the new lower class “don’t have anything obviously wrong with them”; they are “people who have never quite gotten their acts together and are the despair of the parents and siblings, even though they seem perfectly pleasant when you meet them. . . . Individually, they’re not much of a problem. Collectively, they can destroy the kind of civil society that America requires.” Specifically, he singles out unemployed men, single mothers, and “isolates” who are not engaged with their communities as driving the problems of the new lower class.

Coming Apart illustrates these classes by pointing to two white neighborhoods. Belmont, a wealthy suburb of Boston, exemplifies the new upper class. Fishtown, a working-class neighborhood in urban Philadelphia, exemplifies the new lower class. (It has also been this writer’s home since 2006.) While it’s common for demographers to remove outliers from their samples, Murray goes quite a bit further; he actually takes general census statistics for the populations he wants to talk about (white people with specific occupations in specific age groups), eliminates everyone who does not belong in those groups, calls the results “fictional Fishtown” and “fictional Belmont,” and then extrapolates from these samples the “trends” that underlie the book’s analysis. His omnipresent statistical references to “Fishtown” and “Belmont” have nothing to do, except in the broadest conceptual sense, with the actual Fishtown and Belmont. The tour de force of meaningless number-crunching that follows showcases Murray’s declining “four virtues” of marriage, faith, honesty, and industriousness with an endless parade of charts and graphs that makes a few points over and over: people just aren’t taking responsibility for themselves; poor people are poor either because they’re lazy or they simply don’t have the cognitive ability to better themselves; welfare perpetuates laziness and immorality; the problem with poor men is that they’re just not willing to be manly and responsible.

Though Murray does discuss the “real Fishtown,” it’s clear that he spent little if any time there; the chapter relies on an interview with a local historian and a couple of dated books and studies of the area. In the early 1900s Fishtown was an industrial Irish Catholic immigrant neighborhood; as industry declined in the 1970s and 1980s, unemployment spiked, the drug trade moved in, and the area was devastated by crime and poverty. Today it is rapidly gentrifying (a trend Murray chooses to ignore), and hipster artists buy expensive rehabbed rowhouses next door to working-class Fishtowners. There are indeed many unemployed men who smoke pot on the corners, and many young single mothers, and alongside the thousands of hardworking people Murray ignores, there may be some who just “don’t want to work.” But blaming them—and the welfare system that Murray argues created them—misses the point entirely.

Indeed, Coming Apart fails in precisely the way Republican candidates’ talking points fail: little surprise, since the book reads like the product of a whiskey-fueled brainstorming session between Murray and GOP strategists desperate for some “sciency” facts to back up their faltering arguments. It takes a certain kind of audacity to write a study of the declining conditions of white working-class neighborhoods that blithely ignores deindustrialization, attacks on unions, four wars, and several major economic downturns. It takes an even sketchier kind of audacity to simply leave people of color out of the picture entirely. Murray’s book should be laughable. But in an era when bankers rake in billions with credit default scams that rob working people of their homes and retirement savings, and politicians’ answer to rising unemployment and a desperate health care crisis is to deny women birth control, fudging the numbers to blame the poor is simply criminal.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story