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Will This Be the First Election Where Class Trumps Race?

As stirring as Occupy Wall Street's exhortations about the 99 percent were, it's important to realize that they were the symptom, not the cause, of a wider trend. Inequality, of course, has recently become a much more integral part of the American conversation. But it's more than that: There is now an unprecedentedly widespread understanding of economic class as the primary dividing factor in the nation. Indeed, this year seems to mark a historic tipping point for the United States: the year that our primary concerns about inequality went from being about race to being about class.  

Take Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, for example. Something insufficiently noted in the plentiful coverage of it last week is that the underclass emergency that he has identified is white. Those who haven’t read the book may not know that Murray barely discusses black inner cities at all. Nor, however, is his purpose to call special attention to the fact that white people can be very poor as well, a la Nicholas Kristof’s take on the book. Murray treats this white version of the underclass as ordinary and old news, almost as if the term “underclass” had never essentially been shorthand for black ghetto.

One might suppose that Murray chose this in part to avoid reanimating the contempt he elicited in his conclusions about black America in his prior work, including Losing Ground and The Bell Curve. However, it’s notable that no one of consequence has derided Murray for not putting a black face on poverty. Rather, the book is being received in all quarters as a notable, if flawed, statement about inequality.

Other recent news, as unconnected to Murray’s book as Murray’s book is to OWS, tell the same story. We have learned in a report by the Manhattan Institute’s Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor that black people are living under less segregation today than since 1920, and that the drop since just 2000 has been quite extraordinary, even in big cities classically supposed to be hotbeds of racial tension. Glaeser and Vigdor, well aware that plenty of black people are still much too poor in America, conclude that desegregation can no longer be seen as a key item on American’s agenda, compared to—again—inequality in general.

Then last week came news about the achievement gap. The use of that term always used to signal a conversation about race, but the news this time was about class. The achievement gap between the poor and the wealthy has become much greater than that between blacks and whites over the past several decades. Stanford sociologist Sean Reardon has shown that from 1960 to 2007, the gap between rich and poor in standardized test scores grew by 40 percent, while the one between black and white narrowed. A study by University of Michigan researchers has shown that the rich-poor gap in college completion has grown by 50 percent just since the 1980s. 

Meanwhile, our discussions about racist rhetoric increasingly turn on the theme of accusing people of exaggerating racial discrepancies, rather than not paying them enough attention. Newt Gingrich has been reminded that more white people are on food stamps than black, and that housing project adults work at robust rates. We deride Ron Paul’s newsletters for warning of a race war, with the implication that black America, unlike in 1965, is not in such a bad way as to be on the verge of an uprising. 

The easy take on these episodes is “racism as usual.” But actually, what’s going on is that speaking up for black people is no longer mired in defensiveness; we are increasingly comfortable with admitting that black people aren't the country's perpetual poster children. It’s a sign of the times that Tavis Smiley and Cornel West are barnstorming the country deriding poverty rather than racism. It’s highly unlikely that what animates either of these men when they wake up in the morning is the coal miner’s daughter’s problems. However, both sense that calling on the President to “save Black America” would fall on deaf ears in 2012.

If we are, indeed, moving past a focus on racial inequality and toward a fight against class inequality, we should at least be informed by the failures of that previous struggle. Indeed, if there is anything we learned after the Great Society era, it is that simply giving people more money rarely turns lives around. Occupy Wall Street, unfortunately, exemplifies that potential pitfall, in implying that the main issue is income. Surely the fact that wealth is so imbalanced in the country is a problem to be addressed. But the nasty truth is that generations of poverty can leave people unprepared to take advantage of opportunity.

Back in the day, if one termed this a “culture of poverty,” as did writers deeply sympathetic to the plight of the poor like Oscar Lewis, one was accused of all manner of grisly insensitivity. In the same fashion, the typical response to Murray’s book is to deride him for inattention to economic reasons for underclass America’s low level of participation in the workforce. However, this perspective, too, neglects the poor. Columnists accusing Murray of a small and polemical moralism are misportraying a careful argument, including rather detailed ethnographic research. Coming Apart is a flawed book, as I have argued in The Daily. However, it is also required reading as we move into an honest discussion of class over race.

Murray, as he always has, argues that welfare policies of the 1960s through the 1990s destroyed the incentive to work. Perhaps the wording is unfortunate, as it implies that people consciously decided to go on the dole instead of working. The wording also has a way of implying, for many, that welfare was somehow plush. A better way of putting it is that when welfare was made easier to get and easier to stay on in the 1960s, with no concern for recipients’ job training, it was now possible to not work indefinitely. This “possible” was all it took to create a new kind of underclass; few understand, because it was so long ago now, how much less possible it was to live on welfare indefinitely before the mid-1960s.

Murray is also being criticized for focusing on culture over the disappearance of low-skill manufacturing jobs. “Working class whites are different from the cognitive elite in at least one way: They have less money,” as Nicholas Confessore has it in his review. However, the equation between cultural breakdown and deindustrialization is notoriously oversimplified. For one, it is rarely noted that the same inner city cultural breakdown happened in cities where factory jobs did not leave in significant numbers after the sixties: in my own work, I have shown this to be the case in Indianapolis. Second, we rarely consider that men who have a hard time finding jobs as solid as their fathers' could nevertheless work lower-paying jobs as a best resort. No one would consider this societal state anywhere near ideal, but the question must be asked—especially as immigrants to inner-city communities so clearly do exactly this so often.

As such, Murray is not unfeeling or ignorant to see that cultural shifts played as large a role in these changes as factories moving away—and that the former was not a mere result of the latter. Coming Apart highlights a sensitive ethnography of a representative white “ghetto,” Philadelphia’s Fishtown. “The people of Fishtown lamented the loss of high-paying factory jobs, but they did not say there were no jobs to be had anymore. They talked about men who just couldn’t seem to cope with the process of getting and holding a job,” the ethnography by Patricia Smallacombe notes. Fishtown men of 30 to 49 claimed physical disability in 2010 at five times the rate they had in 1968. Murray notes that these changes have occurred independently of the state of the economy; NYU political scientist Lawrence Mead has highlighted more specifically that these changes occur regardless of the availability of jobs.

These men are not monsters. They have simply grown up in a culture where, from about 1966 to 1996, beneficently intended post-Great Society welfare policies made it possible for people to not work, ever. Generations have gone by; too many innocent people never knew anything different. You speak the language you grow up around. 

The question, then, is how to address not just economics but culture—even if the culture is due to discrimination, racism, or other mistakes in the past. David Brooks got this right in a recent column, stressing how difficult it is to pin down how we would, for example, discourage alienated 14-year-old girls from allowing themselves to get pregnant in a quest for attachment. Adjusting income inequality would have a decidedly marginal impact on that girl’s decision in the here and now.

In the same way, the college graduation gap between rich and poor will have to be addressed, in part, by changing specifically cultural aspects of poverty, such as exposure to reading. Economist James Heckman at the University of Chicago notes this, warning that “the danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a mistake.”

A prediction: About six months from now, an articulate and concerned black writer will complain in a prominent venue that the focus on class since OWS is a conspiracy to distract America from its moral duty to think about racism. Ironically, this will be a sign of progress. It will mean that to be black is no longer to likely be one of America’s most utterly disadvantaged people, and that a conversation about class addresses a greater volume and variety of human miseries than an outdated one focusing on skin color.  

John McWhorter is a contributing editor for The New Republic.