Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.

Author:Wax, Amy L.
Position:Book review

COMING APART: THE STATE OF WHITE AMERICA, 1960-2010. By Charles Murray. New York: Crown Forum. 2012. Pp. viii, 306. Cloth, $27; paper, $16.


A close friend from your selective college or graduate school, perhaps with a young family, moves to your major American city. Where should he live? Elite professionals know the drill. The search almost always comes down to the handful of familiar places. For Washington, D.C., there's Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Arlington, Georgetown, or Northwest D.C. For Boston, it's Cambridge, Belmont, or Newton. In Fos Angeles, the preferred neighborhoods are Westwood, Beverly Hills, Pacific Palisades, or Santa Monica. Philadelphia is no different. My recent "where to live" conversation with a newly hired colleague yielded an unsurprising list of "possibles": selected blocks of Mount Airy and Germantown, plus the Main Line towns of Bryn Mawr, Ardmore, Haverford, Villanova, Gladwyne, and so forth. Despite my colleague's professed open mind about potential neighborhoods, Jenkintown--my own somewhat obscure and distinctly unfashionable (but much more affordable) suburb--drew a blank stare, as did a dozen other solidly middleclass areas I mentioned.

By my calculation, there are over 400 zip codes within a thirty-mile radius of Rittenhouse Square, which is in the center of downtown Philadelphia. (1) The places at the top of my colleague's list comprised eleven zip code locations--a little more than 2 percent of the total. These are among the whitest, wealthiest, and most educated residential areas in and around Philadelphia. (2) Somehow my colleague knew where people like him live and are supposed to live.

My colleague's choice of neighborhoods lined up almost perfectly with the precincts Charles Murray (3) dubs the "SuperZips." In Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray's magisterial look at inequality in white America, the SuperZips play a central role in the drama of social and economic fragmentation that has unfolded in our country in the past few decades. To set the stage for his cultural and geographical portrait of American non-Hispanic whites, Murray lists four of what he calls the "Founding Virtues," or quintessential attributes he claims that our society must possess to preserve a cohesive and distinctly "American" way of life: marriage, honesty, industriousness, and religiosity (p. 130). Murray argues that on all of these dimensions, and regardless of class, education, location, or background, Americans used to be remarkably similar in outlook, with the vast majority endorsing the basic elements of a "respectable" life to include strong families, respect for law, honesty, probity, hard work, and faith (pp. 140-41). Most people were remarkably successful in maintaining these ideals in their daily lives.

A considerable degree of geographical mixing accompanied this consensus, with persons from all income levels living in close proximity and even on the same streets. According to Murray, these conditions no longer prevail (p. 100). In practice, if not always in professed ideals, the American consensus has broken down on many fronts, with American society bifurcating into distinct cultures of upper and lower. In Coming Apart, Murray provides an anatomy of this divergence. His book reviews a range of social, economic, and behavioral developments and explores their implications for our nation. In Murray's view, our greatness depends on our shared fundamental values surrounding work, family, honesty, and faith (p. 143). Our unity on these key issues is already compromised, and there is every reason to believe that things will only get worse (pp. 251-53). Murray's book presents a vision of the future that is deeply unsettling and far from optimistic. This Review critically examines his observations and assesses his pessimistic vision.


    Although known more widely as a conservative provocateur, Murray is in fact a thoughtful and shrewd demographer. In looking at what has happened to this country's non-Hispanic white population (and thereby sidestepping the distortions and passions surrounding race), Murray marshals compelling evidence for some alarming and relatively little-known developments. On multiple dimensions, an important divide has emerged between whites with a four-year college degree and those with less education. Crime, idleness, family breakdown, and alienation from religious institutions are steadily accelerating for those without an advanced education. People in this group are less able and less willing to maintain "respectability" in their work and private lives, resulting in a gulf with the most educated members of society, whose lives, neighborhoods, and families remain remarkably well organized, hardworking, conventional, and crime free.

    A growing geographical separation reinforces the gaps between these populations. The affluent occupy rarefied neighborhoods, attend different schools, enjoy distinct and relatively refined leisure pursuits, and operate in separate social spheres from those with fewer advantages. As a result of all these trends, the privileged rarely mix with the working class. Chapter Four of Murray's book, "How Thick Is Your Bubble," illustrates these divides. Murray invites his readers (who inevitably hail disproportionately from the educated elite) to complete a test of their social and cultural insularity, as well as their knowledge and understanding of lower-class existence. The quiz includes questions such as, "Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or a meeting at a union local?"; "Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?"; "Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights? ; and Have you ever walked on a factory floor?" (pp. 103-07). Murray's goal is to show privileged readers how ignorant they are of the lives of the less educated. One can only guess that he largely succeeds.

    What has fueled the changes Murray identifies? Chief among them is one Murray confronts in his very first chapter: the growth of a new upper class" or "new cognitive elite." Although there have always been rich people in the United States, Murray claims that the emerging privileged class is larger, and more inward looking and culturally cohesive, than society's top echelon in the past (pp. 33-34). The new elite is also vigilantly self-aggrandizing and strongly self-reinforcing. The key to this cohort's creation is the sharp rise in college attendance over the past few decades, which has "occurred extraordinarily fast" (p. 54). The increase in the portion of the population seeking higher education, and the adoption by many prominent universities of a meritocratic approach to admissions, has created a new hierarchy of educated individuals based on talent and drive. Competition for top places has increased sharply, as academically smart and ambitious young people now flock from all over the country to selective and rigorous institutions.

    Although students at elite colleges were always more affluent than average, the new, meritocratic Ivy League brought together affluence and striving. In analyzing this development, Murray parts company with those who insist that elite colleges unfairly favor the rich. (4) Affluence does not buy good grades or test scores, he insists. Rather, smart people tend to rise to lucrative and influential positions. The offspring of the successful in turn excel academically, both for reasons of nature (that is, high inherited IQ) and nurture (superior upbringing). They win the college admissions race, receive a superior education, and, in turn, attain power and influence. The new upper class thus perpetuates itself, but its achievements are (mostly) genuine and earned.

    According to Murray, most members of this new class share a common core of attitudes and preferences, which are decisively shaped by their shared experiences growing up in elite surroundings (or in upwardly mobile households) and at the institutions of higher learning they attend (pp. 64-65). It is not surprising, therefore, that members of this class tend to seek out one another, intermarry at high rates (a phenomenon known as "assortative mating"), and cluster together in the same neighborhoods. One of Murray's original contributions is to document the growing tendency of the new cognitive elite to live in a small number of select locations. He achieves this through a series of striking graphs and charts that distill the relevant statistics. The zip codes that receive the most attention are the ones "in the 95th through 99th centiles," which Murray dubs "[t]he SuperZips" (p. 78). These are the precincts where "most of the people ... are affluent and well educated (p. 79). He divides those living in SuperZips into members of the "broad elite" (persons possessing a four-year college degree) and the more rarefied "narrow elite" (persons graduating from top Ivy League and other highly selective colleges).

    Murray's data on the concentration of top Ivy League graduates are especially striking, with a few upscale places emerging as the locations of choice (pp. 86-87). Murray shows that almost 50 percent of persons graduating from Harvard, Yale, or Princeton after 1989 live in the wealthiest 5 percent of neighborhoods (pp. 86-87). Thus the so-called overeducated elitist snobs increasingly self-segregate and stick together. Moreover, the SuperZip neighborhoods--which Murray dubs the "elite bubbles" to highlight their insularity--are disproportionately arrayed around large or coastal cities like Boston, Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York (pp. 88-94). New York City and its surrounding suburbs, which are among the most expensive locales in the country, are home to a quarter of the elite Ivy League graduates that Murray surveyed (p. 86). Finally, the SuperZips are notably nondiverse. Murray observes that the demographic profile of...

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