After I saw Dylan Ratigan heap praise on Charles Murray for his new book, Coming Apart: The State of America, 1960-2010, I rushed to buy it. Ratigan seems determined to project his own independent voice in the debate over egalitarianism in American life, and I respect his opinions. Although I had read Murray’s poorly-researched The Bell Curve back in my graduate school days and ripped up his fragile arguments, I figured that Ratigan’s full-throated endorsement ought to be heeded. I was looking forward to hearing Murray’s viewpoints with an open mind, because it is very important these days to carefully sift through diverse perspectives in order to stay optimally informed.
Not surprisingly, I was roundly disappointed. Flimsy logic, weak data sources and Murray’s unfortunate inability to resist partisan attacks on what he terms “doctrinaire liberals” roll up to produce a wrong-headed, confusing story that ultimately adds less light and more heat to an important topic, the state of our American society in the early twenty-first century.
Murray’s decision to try to excise all “non-white” Americans from his analyses raises the obvious question of what is the definition of “white” and in what way does it retain the same meaning that it may have had in 1960, the starting point for his commentary. If there ever was a valid reason to utilize the concept of “whiteness” as anything more than a U.S. Census report, in today’s America, it has increasingly less value as an explanatory device. The underlying assumption is that somehow, “whites” in your community are going to behave in ways that are qualitatively different than others. The definition of whether or not I am “white” relies on how I mark that census form, which these days we typically complete in the privacy of our homes and not face-to-face with a real-life census taker at our front door. I know of many people who purposely define themselves on these forms as “Other” because of their disdain for the very idea of racial classification. The independent validation of this data no longer takes place, as the process has become virtual.
To naively assume that one can undertake the kind of analysis that Murray attempts without presenting a more nuanced discussion of the validity of his selected demographic categories begs the reader’s indulgence in a way that is unseemly in a work that claims to be social science. Murray’s failure to probe into the concept of “whiteness” is a major obstacle in his logical argument, particularly if he is indeed writing on “the state of white America”. How do I understand the growing percentage of “white” Americans who are married to “non-white” spouses, for instance, to cite just one example of where we should begin to suspect the validity of Murray’s sociology. In a mixed marriage of a “white” and a “non-white”, for instance, would Murray be able to determine whether the decision to buy a home in a SuperZip code be made by the “white” spouse or the “non-white” spouse. Murray’s admitted defensiveness over his earlier stated writings on race seems to have contaminated his research design by attempting to refrain from making comments on race and education and achievement.
Then there is the question of the data sets on which Murray rests his principal argument, the connection between the social class origins of whites and their ultimate destination; for what he chooses to describe as “the New Upper Class”, at one point he makes mention of the “SuperZips” (affluent zip codes) where the “Overeducated Elitist Snobs” reside. He states that the primary database he used for this exercise were the home zip codes for graduates of Harvard, Yale and Princeton from the classes of 1989 through 2010.
His secondary database consisted of the graduates of Wesleyan University during the 1970s. The original source he used for his analysis of Wesleyan alumni is Wesleyan’s 1996 alumni directory. As I am a member of this Wesleyan cohort myself, I happen to own this particular alumni directory. Comparing where members of my own class year from the 1970s reside now, as opposed to where they lived in 1996, reveals massive changes. We turned out to be a very mobile group of people. In addition, many of the zip codes listed for my classmates are actually their parents’ home addresses and not where they were in 1996, because the Alumni Office did not have contact with about twenty percent of them. Leaving aside Murray’s snide depiction of us as “Overeducated Elitist Snobs”, aside from the emotionally-charged language he is using there is also the empirical fact that while at Wesleyan, 50% of us received financial aid. In my case, 75% of my college expenses were paid by Wesleyan scholarships. I come from the family of a machinist and a “homemaker” (Murray’s term), I do not live in a SuperZip, and while I do have a Ph.D. in a social science, as does Murray, my employer does not consider me “overeducated”, as it was the expected degree for my current position.
Finally, one should read Murray’s magnum opus with a few grains of sea salt. As he did back in 1984 with The Bell Curve, he weaves a political argument throughout these pages. He describes himself as a “libertarian”, and one would have to say he is a liberal-hating one who frames his arguments in ways that are currently being used by GOP presidential candidates. His “solutions” to the “new kind of segregation” driven by the choice of home town by “overeducated elitist snobs” includes his discussion of “the American project versus the European model”. The implication is that well-educated liberals are somehow anti-American or perhaps Euro-wannabes.
While Murray attempts to describe himself as a "libertarian", his real agenda seems to be to become a GOP thought leader. Pat Buchanan and Newt Gingrich would relish his treatise. Romney oddly and awkwardly tries to talk about the "European model". Rick Santorum can use it as the raw material for his campaign speeches and even cite this as "solid science" to bolster his dogmatic and intolerant religious and cultural arguments. Murray’s hidden agenda to use his “research” as a tool to slam those who he opposes on the political front exposes his book as, sadly, something more akin to a political diatribe. No impartial, refereed social science journal could accept this work as legitimate scientific research. Caveat emptor!