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For decades, trends in American life have usually been analyzed through the prism of race, with white Americans serving as the reference point — comparing black unemployment with white unemployment, for instance, or the percentage of Latino high school students who go on to college compared with white students. Those comparisons are illuminating, but they neglect how that reference point itself is changing. Our understanding of white America is subject to a number of outdated assumptions that need rethinking.
1. Working-class whites are more religious than upper-class whites.
This is a pervasive misconception encouraged by liberals who conflate the religious right with the working class, and by conservative evangelicals who inveigh against the godless ruling class.
Certainly, white intellectual elites have become extremely secular. However, as a whole, the white upper middle class has long displayed higher attendance at worship services and stronger allegiance to their religious faith than the white working class — going all the way back to the first data collected in the 1920s and continuing today.
Since the early 1970s, white America has become more secular overall, but the drop has been much greater in the working classes.As of the 2000s, the General Social Survey indicates, nearly 32 percent of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 attended church regularly, compared with 17 percent of the white working class in the same age group.
2. Elite colleges are bastions of white upper-middle-class privilege.
It’s common to assume that upper-middle-class white kids win more slots in top universities than middle-class or working-class students not because they’re smarter, but because their parents can afford to send them to the best grade schools and high schools, pay for SAT prep courses, or make hefty donations to colleges.
There are two problems with this logic. First, ever since the landmark Coleman Report on educational equality back in 1966, scholars have had a hard time demonstrating that attending fancy elementary and secondary schools raises students’ academic performance. And on average, those highly touted test-preparation courses boost students’ SAT scores by only a few dozen points — a finding consistent across rigorous studies of test-prep programs.
Second, educational attainment is correlated with intelligence. (The mean IQ of white Americans with just a high school diploma is about 99; the mean IQ of whites with a professional degree is about 125.) And children’s IQ is tied to that of their parents. How genes and environment conspire to produce these relationships is irrelevant; the relationships have been stable for decades. As a result, white parents with advanced educations — who are also generally affluent — inevitably account for a disproportionate number of the white kids with the highest SAT scores, best grades and other evidence of academic excellence.
“Marriage now constitutes a cultural fault line dividing the socioeconomic classes among white Americans.” - Charles MurrayIf college admission were purely meritocratic — eliminating favoritism for the children of alumni, celebrities and big donors — upper-middle-class children would still be overrepresented. That’s because the applicants who would be accepted instead would also hail overwhelmingly from the upper middle class.
3. Marriage is breaking down throughout white America.
Overall marriage rates are indeed declining in the United States: Just over half of American adults are married, compared with 72 percent in 1960. However, among white Americans, there is a sharp class divide on marriage.
The share of upper-middle-class whites ages 30 to 49 who are married has been steady since 1984, hovering around 84 percent. During that same period, marriage for working-class whites in the same age group has fallen from 70 percent to 48 percent. This is not a statistical artifact that can be explained by class differences in the age of marriage or the frequency of remarriage, nor by hard economic times for the working class. Marriage now constitutes a cultural fault line dividing the socioeconomic classes among white Americans.
4. White working-class men have a strong work ethic.
They used to, but not so much anymore. In 1968, 97 percent of white males ages 30 to 49 who had at most a high school diploma were in the labor force — meaning they either had a job or were actively seeking work. By March 2008 (before the Great Recession), that number had dropped to 88 percent. That means almost one out of eight white working-class men in the prime of life is not even looking for a job. This is not just an issue of “discouraged workers”; this rate of labor force dropouts rose in the boom years of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s as rapidly as it did in years of recession.
Among white males ages 30 to 49 who do have blue-collar or low-level service jobs, fewer work full time. The percentage of them who worked less than than 40 hours a week increased from 10 percent in 1960 to 20 percent in 2008, rising in good and bad economic times alike.
“At least for now, the rhetoric about the fading role of whites in American life outruns reality.” -Charles Murray
Time-use surveys have further documented shifting behavior among unemployed men. In the early 2000s, compared with 1985, such men spent less time on job searches, education and training, household work, or civic and religious activities — and more time watching TV and sleeping.
5. White Americans are yesterday’s news.
You don’t need to see a young black family in the White House to understand that American demographics are changing. In the 2010 census, non-Latino whites made up 64 percent of the population, down from 69 percent in 2000, 76 percent in 1990 and 80 percent in 1980. In 2011, non-Latino whites for the first time constituted a minority of children under age 2 — the harbinger of a nation in which whites will be a minority. That’s no myth.
Yet, 45 of 50 governors and 96 of 100 U.S. senators were still non-Latino whites in 2010. Whites also were 92 percent of the directors nominated for Academy Awards between 2000 and 2011. They were 96 percent of Fortune 500 chief executives in 2011. The numbers are similar for other influential positions in U.S. society. At least for now, the rhetoric about the fading role of whites in American life outruns reality.
Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady scholar at AEI.
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