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.