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Caryl Rivers

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Charles Murray's Unreal Towns

Posted: 02/29/2012 6:01 pm

In his controversial book The Bell Curve ( with Richard Herrnstein), Charles Murray said that blacks are inherently dumber than whites.

In his new book, Coming Apart, Murray says that working-class whites are getting dumber and losing traditional values such as marriage, hard work and church-going.

Murray has always been the kind of guy who constructs a spine of ideology and then wraps statistics around it, like flowers on a maypole.

In his new book, he invents two fictional communities, One is "Belmont," an enclave of affluent whites, who he says, have abandoned the values of the 60's counter-culture and who stay married, work hard, earn money and spend a lot of time ensuring that their kids get good educations.

In "Fishtown," home to working class whites, men don't marry, women are having more and more illegitimate kids, and nobody goes to church anymore. This is unlike middle class neighborhoods of the past, where marriage, church-going and hard work, he says, were part of the ethos.

"Fishtown" sounds suspiciously like a poor black urban neighborhood and it illustrates a long standing narrative of the right: that if white people don't uphold strict conservative values, especially sexual ones, they will descend to the ghetto, with its range of social pathologies.

This is the subtext of Murray's argument, though he doesn't say it explicitly. Race got him into so much trouble last tine out that he's gun-shy. Serious scholars tore apart the "science " of "The Bell Curve" and accused Murray of massaging his stats to match his ideology -- which is what he's doing again.

Fishtown is a statistical construct -- but anyone who lives in or near a real blue-collar town may not recognize the portrait.

For one thing, Murray pictures working class women as falling into a deep swamp of immorality, with illegitimate pregnancies rising. Indeed, while out-of-wedlock pregnancies among these women are increasing, the numbers do not rival those of the poor inner city. Among blacks, rates of unwed motherhood are 73 percent. The total for white women as a whole is 29 percent. For white women with only a high school education, it's 44 percent.

Murray chides white working class men for not being married by age 30, but its probably women who are making the choices. With the disappearance of relatively stable and high-paying manufacturing jobs, working class women may have greater opportunities than working class men. As a result, they have also become pickier about marriage.

And working class men are not staying single because they have embraced some 60's style counter-culture hedonism. and a lack of "virtue," as Murray implies. Family scholars June Carbone of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Naomi Cahn of George Washington University Law School roll their eyes at virtue arguments. They write:

The new data confirms that the Great Recession has slowed marriage rates and earlier studies show that financial stress greatly increases the divorce rates of young and working class couples with the most traditional attitudes toward gender roles. In today's economy, these couples have become less likely to marry.

Being out of work is lethal for working class guys, the pair note.

Studies further show that while unemployed women spend more time on the home and the children, unemployed men spend more time moping, drinking, watching TV, and lashing out at those around them.

Not exactly great marriage candidates. But if you brought back the high wage blue-collar jobs of the 1950s, it's clear that marriage stability would quickly increase. "Virtue" has little to do with it.

And as for working class whites being lazy, I'd refer you to Barbara Ehrenreich's "Nickle and Dimed," where people work long hours at two or three jobs just to get by. I know many families where grandparents, parents and kids now live together and everybody works -- and nobody's into hedonism. They're too tired.

And many working-class areas are doing OK, despite the economic stress. East Boston, virtually around the corner from where I live, has been a haven for immigrants since the early 1900s, as waves of Jews, irish and then Italians swept in. It's a blue-collar neighborhood, one of the places that should be Murray's "Fishtown." But a new wave of Hispanic immigrants is revitalizing the place, with people from El Salvador, Brazil, Puerto Rico, Colombia and Brazil now living -- mostly amicably -- alongside the Italians who were the predominant group until fairly recently. Mexican, Brazilian, and Peruvian restaurants and Latin American bakeries are springing up all over and the neighborhood is becoming a Latino cultural center. You can't just talk about whites when you look at working-class neighborhoods.

So don't buy Belmont or Fishtown. They are about as real as Brigadoon, which, you may recall, appeared only once every hundred years.

Too bad Murray's books don't come out at the same rate.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Rosalind C. Barnett of "The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About our Children." (Columbia University Press.)