Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Diverging Destinies Redux

Academic journal article Michigan Law Review

Diverging Destinies Redux

Article excerpt


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 Los 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 Murray3 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.

I. "Coming Apart"-A Summary

Although known more widely as a conservative provocateur, Murray is in fact a thoughtful and shrewd demographer. …

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