Why ‘More Than Just Race’ Matters

William Julius Wilson’s latest book offers important new ideas about confronting entrenched poverty—if only the average reader could find them.

Instead, Wilson depicts a complex mixture in which impersonal structural forces, like the decline in low-skilled manufacturing jobs, combined with government policies, the lingering effects of segregation and self-defeating cultural patterns to doom the prospects of the poor.

Though he does not mention the comic by name, Wilson makes it clear that Bill Cosby’s rants on the dysfunctional behavior of ghetto youth miss the point. Though poor people obviously have a responsibility to try to improve their circumstances, he writes, “If one attempts to explain rapid changes in social and economic outcomes in the inner city, there is little evidence that cultural forces have the power that changes in the economy had.”

That is a key point, because it suggests that ghetto poverty can be alleviated if we, as a people, can summon the political will to expand programs such as the Harlem Children’s Zone, a comprehensive program that provides educational, health and social services to 10,000 young people and 500 adults. This past spring, more than 97 percent of the third graders enrolled in two elementary schools run by Harlem Children’s Zone scored at or above grade level in statewide math tests, comparable to the performances in many suburban districts.

In other words, “Yes, we can,” fix ghetto poverty if we really want to—and that means facing the inescapable and thorny issues still tethered to race in our society.

That’s the important and inspiring message Wilson wants to convey and we need to hear it. But More Than Just Race will not move its readers to take action in the way that earlier books about economic injustice such as Michael Harrington’s The Other America did during the 1960s. We still need books that weld Wilson’s abstractions to the flesh-and-blood stories of the poor and make people care.

Jack White is a regular contributor to The Root.