Charles Murray and shiftless, lazy whites

Courtland Milloy
Columnist April 24, 2011

In a recent lecture titled “The State of White America,” libertarian scholar Charles Murray spotlighted a series of self-destructive behaviors that he thinks are rapidly destroying the social fabric of the nation.

“The percent of births to working-class single women in 1960 was around 6 percent; now it’s closing in on 50 percent,” Murray said at a gathering at the American Enterprise Institute. “I’m not talking about inner-city blacks or all the other populations that have been the topic of so much discussion over the past decades.”

No, he was talking about white people — a group that has long managed to deny the extent of its character flaws by projecting the worst of them onto black people.

Now, the cat was out the bag: White people can be shiftless and lazy, too.

“Go to any working-class community, and you’ll find a variety of people who are making life difficult for their fellow citizens,” Murray said. “It’s not just the nice guys who can’t seem to hold a job, but there are also growing numbers of men who have no intention of working if they can help it and who convince girlfriends to help them but also bankrupt them. They leave the girlfriend as soon as they find out the woman is pregnant, mothers who use their 3-year-old to babysit their infant while they go out for the night, plus the common outright cases of physical and emotional abuse by the live-in boyfriend.”

And you probably thought that such pathology only existed in predominantly black Southeast Washington.

Using social and economic data from 1960 to last year, Murray found that working-class whites have experienced steep declines in marriage, church attendance and work ethic.

Among the upper middle class, life is good, he said. Marriages are relatively stable, work is plentiful, and strong connections to religious institutions are being maintained.

But the income gap among whites is expanding at an alarming rate, leading to the emergence of a new-breed white elite: offspring of the Ivy League set who could spend a lifetime cocooned with their own kind, oblivious to what is happening on the other side of the economic divide.

Murray, who is white and has degrees from Harvard and MIT, did not aim his talk at making comparisons between blacks and whites; rather, his observations were part of what he called a “work in progress” that focuses on white people because they are the reference point for measuring the progress of other groups in this country.

He just wanted to see how the measuring stick had held up through the years. Of course, anytime Murray starts measuring anything having to do with race, watch out. Back in 1994 he co-authored, along with Richard J. Herrnstein, “The Bell Curve,” a controversial (many would say offensive) study of intelligence and class structure in American life.

Nevertheless, his lecture at the AEI this month offered a snapshot of white people that contrasts sharply with the version of white America that exists in the popular imagination.

During this recession, for instance, you hardly ever hear white people being blamed for their economic woes — the way black people have been, even though many of them have been suffering through a depression.

A story in a recent issue of Newsweek, titled “Beached White Males,” portrayed unemployed white professional men as being down but not out, as struggling mightily to get back on their feet.

And if they are angry and depressed, not always sure how to get another job, it’s because unemployment can be emotionally and economically devastating.

The black unemployed are rarely treated with such sympathy. Whites in poverty are seen as penny-pinching their way out of an economic hole created by forces beyond their control; poor blacks are seen as having dug their own hole by being undisciplined spendthrifts.

Along comes Murray to crack the white stereotype of inherent virtue and industry.

“In the 1990s, why would you have larger numbers of white males leaving the workforce when jobs were everywhere?” Murray asked. “A different attitude towards work, a fundamental change in the norm, that’s what I have identified.”

My point is not that whites are worse than blacks but that we are more alike than different. The trend lines from Murray’s study are remarkably similar to those that run through black America — particularly the widening income gap as the recession drives more of the working class into poverty.

“In the quest for truly one nation, this is a threat,” Murray said of the increased separation of the social classes.

And, judging from the state of white America, the root of the problem has less to do with the usual scapegoats — such as black and brown people or President Obama — than with white people themselves.

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