Diverging Destinies Redux

33 Pages Posted: 11 Apr 2016

See all articles by Amy L. Wax

Amy L. Wax

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: 2014


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 middle-class 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. 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. 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 Murray 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.

Keywords: Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, social geography, demographics, class, residential segregation, virtue, cognitive elite, education, meritocracy, culture

Suggested Citation

Wax, Amy L., Diverging Destinies Redux (2014). Michigan Law Review, Vol. 112, P. 925, 2014, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-14, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2761009

Amy L. Wax (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

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