The Myth of Past Cultural Integration

Virginia Postrel had the same reaction to Charles Murray's recent book that I had -- it's a myth to think that there was some sort of greater cultural integration in the 1950's than there is today.  Because, you know, Wally and the Beav had so many black kids at their school.


  1. Sean:

    I read Virginia Postrel's article at Bloomberg and two things struck me. It seems that as time has gone on, parents have gotten very selective about education. Just look at how much more people will spend on a house in subdivision with very good schools than they will spend on a similar house in one where the school district doesn't measure up. In the former there are no poor families as they cannot afford to live there while in the latter, the upper middle class and rich kids are in private schools while the middle and lower class kids are in the low performing school districts. The stratification of school performance seems to have gotten worse over the years.
    The second thing that came to mind was reading the NY Times the day after George Bush was elected to a second term. The blogs there were filled with posting from readers that were absolutely astonished this could happen since their guy, John Kerry, was clearly the smarter candidate. It didn't occur to them that both went to the same school (Yale) at nearly the same time and their academic records were not that distinct from one another. But Kerry carried himself with the sort of intellectual elitism you'd expect someone to have when you're a member of the most august deliberative body in the world while Bush seemed quite happy to be portrayed as a country bumpkin. I guess Bush was smart enough to realized there are a lot more bumpkins than Brahmins in the world.

  2. Aaron:

    I'm not sure either you or Ms. Postrel really understood the book. In truth, I think your criticism makes less sense than hers, as the subtitle of the book makes it clear we are dealing with white America only. In other words, the social data Murray describes are controlled for race. Unless your argument is that greater racial integration in schools has had some effect on social cohesion among *whites only*, then I'm not sure what point you are trying to make in reference to Murray's book.

    Secondly, I think Ms. Postrel simply glosses over the point of the book, which is not to suggest that elites and non-elites used to like the same TV shows, the same music, the same beer brands, etc. The point of the book was that *despite* those cultural differences, elites and non-elites shared similar attitudes toward fundamental lifestyle issues such as marriage, religiosity, and criminal behavior. Over time it is those attitudes that have diverged, and that is what Murray claims is threatening to the character of the republic.

    I'm not here to dogmatically defend that claim per se. I think Murray does make some persuasive arguments, but I'm sure there are other sides to the story. My point is just that if you are going to debate the conclusions of the book, you should debate them on the grounds Murray makes them.

  3. Goober:

    There is a confusion about 1950's society that it had some sort of cultural integration and that everyone got along because people were better back then, but it is, sadly, a myth.

    The fact is that there was greater intra-cultural harmony, not inter-cultural intergration, because the disparate cultures in America didn't really intermingle much. Everybody stayed on their own side of the railroad tracks, and so on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis, everything went swimmingly as long as folks within the community didn't decide to start being dicks to each other.

    Once real integration started to happen, things like social differences, and percieved and real cultural, social, and economic disparities started to cause problems and shake up the status quo - which I think was a good thing, and still is.

  4. Ted Rado:

    When I was a boy in the 30's, there were all sorts of ethnic neighborhoods. Each ethnic group had their distinctive pejorative names. This was accepted as the norm. Over the years, the ethnic neighborhoods have largely disappeared and names like Kowalski and Romano are accepted as being just as American as Smith and Jones. All tis is to the good.

    A more recent phenomenon is racial integration in the South. In many cases, because of the low quality of black schools, the standards have neen dumbed down to accomodate the poorly trained black kids rather than flunk them. This could be an explanation for the poor performance of schools today. In areas that never suffered segragated schools, I have no idea why the schools are doing so poorly.

    Despite all this, people will always tend to keep company with their own social, educational, and cultural equals. All my friends are elderly engineers, chemists, and similar professionals. This is natural selection, not any sort of bigotry.
    I can't afford to run around with millionaires, and poor folks can't afford to run around with me. Common interests are of course a major factor as well.

  5. Foxfier:

    On my father's side, a guy who came over here as a dirt poor 16 year old Scotsman became the richest man in the county and married a socialite, producing my grandmother; she married the grandson of a criminal immigrant, the son of a preacher that married a half-blood that went to KKK meetings because they had amazing food. (Apparently, someone forgot to notice that his sort of immigrant was on their shit list.) Banker and newspaper reporter.
    On my mother's side, socialite lady married a freaking CRIMINAL, got divorced, he became part of a biker gang at 16, found a rich farmer's daughter who'd moved across the entire blanking COUNTRY to get some fresh air. Total pillars of the community, taking over the graveyard for 40+ years, court stenographer, the jack of all trades, etc.
    My Godfather was a Basque-- which was much WORSE than a former slave-- back when his dad was killed in Cali's last Indian raid. There were blacks all over the place when he was young, and by the time he was old there weren't. They had been held in higher standing than the local Indians-- not having any family to hold against them-- but for some unknown reason they headed for the cities by the time my parents were old enough to work on farms and ranches.

    I am sick to DEATH of people dragging in being black as the end-all for cultural integration.. A really sweet kid I worked with in the Navy just found out last month that his biological father identified-- and looked-- "black." He looks Italian, and his mother's last name is generic. He's now expected by half of the folks he knows to totally re-write who he is because his dad's hair was SLIGHTLY more curly than his is.

    Cultural integration is and was a fact of life in every place but the dead city, and outside of the dirt ignorant areas it's a freaking fact of life. Culture doesn't give a crud what you look like, it's about what you believe reflexively. Want an example? Look at orthodox Catholics vs. the "cultural Catholics" who don't give a shit what the binding teachings are and expect to show up for baptisms, weddings and funerals.

  6. Foxfier:

    Actually, a little regional fragmentation might work in favor of Murray’s ideal culture, because his real worry is that it’s gotten way too easy for smart people to meet one another.

    It's just so GREAT that college educated gals like my grandmothers will marry college guys, instead of the dropout and the nothing-special guys that they did marry....

    Yeah, total myth, there.

  7. John Moore:

    Having grown up in the 50's, I have to say that the times were radically different. There was a stronger social consensus among whites - to the point that it was assumed. Yes, elites were elites and had their own opinion, but for the rest of us, Leave It to Beaver was pretty much the norm.

    Today's society is radically different. People of the white middle class are much more polarized, with political correctness making any of the rigidities of the '50s seem trivial in comparison.

    I think much of the loss of cultural cohesiveness was a result of the cultural revolution of the '60s, which introduced a lot of poisonous ideas (mostly from leftist elites) that have plagued us ever since. Yes, there was some good stuff - racial integration, ending the persecution of homosexuals, equality for women. But along with this came a destruction of middle class values for much of society - encouraged by the elite and resulting in our intrusive government, our high divorce rate, and many other catastrophic social trends.

  8. Craig:

    Aaron is right, the book is not about racial integration, it is about cross-class similarities, and the current lack therof. Nicolas Kristof wrote an article on the book claiming that income inequality has caused drug use, divorce, out-of-wedlock marriage, etc ( But I think he has it backwards. Like Walter E Williams often says, the keys to avoiding poverty are 1) graduate high school, 2) don't have children before marriage, 3) get a job, any job, and keep it. There might be 1-2 more, but those are the basics. The lower-class whites Murray writes about have abandoned these principles, as did the black underclass in the wake of the Great Society.