I wish William Julius Wilson were as evocative a writer as he is a thinker. Over the past 30 years, the legendary Harvard sociologist has done more than any other social scientist to illuminate the desperate plight of the poor. But he buries his brilliantly nuanced analysis in such flat, academic prose that his insights are often missed—even by those who agree with him.
That’s why his new book, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (part of W.W. Norton’s series, Issues of Our Times, edited by The Root’s editor-in-chief Henry Louis Gates Jr.) is as disappointing as it is important. The themes and positions in the book are still hot-button issues that ought to provoke a much-needed debate about the undeniable links between race and persistent poverty in the country’s inner cities.
Instead, even after some favorable reviews, it is destined to be ignored outside a cozy circle of social scientists and policy wonks. Written at a high level of abstraction, its bloodless pages give readers little sense of the real lives of the poor people Wilson theorizes about. The book appeals to the intellect, but it does not touch the heart.
That’s a real shame, because More Than Just Race contains an important and hopeful shift in Wilson's thinking about how Americans can be persuaded to rally behind a new war on ghetto poverty. In the past, Wilson believed that what social scientists call “laissez-faire racism” was so pervasive that the only way to help the black poor was by downplaying the racial aspect of inner-city poverty and adopting a colorblind agenda that “would directly benefit all groups, not just people of color.” That was the fundamental argument in his previous books such as The Declining Significance of Race and When Work Disappears.
Barack Obama, apparently, has changed his mind. Noting that Obama’s famous campaign speech on race was hailed by voters black and white, Wilson has concluded that we’ve finally got a president who can not only explain the undeniable links between race and poverty to the public, but also make voters believe “that our country would be better off if these problems were seriously addressed and eradicated.” That’s a major swing in thinking, both for academics and for the country. For everyone’s sake, I hope Wilson is right.
The record, sadly, suggests otherwise. Ever since the "Moynihan Report”—that infamous 1965 government study that attributed the desperate plight of the ghetto poor to a breakdown in the black family —set off a firestorm in the racially explosive atmosphere of the ‘60s, liberal scholars have been leery of examining dysfunctional ghetto behavior. Their withdrawal from the field allowed right-wing charlatans like Charles Murray and Richard J. Herrnstein to fill the vacuum with pseudo-scientific claptrap like The Bell Curve, which argues that blacks are genetically less intelligent than whites.
Even among African Americans, the idea that the plight of the urban poor is largely their own fault has morphed into deeply entrenched conventional wisdom. After the passage of welfare reform in 1996, the issue of inner-city poverty dropped off the nation’s radar screen. Nobody outside the ghetto seemed to really care about what was happening inside it, unless some horrific event like Hurricane Katrina briefly illuminated the shocking conditions in impoverished black neighborhoods.
Now, with the nation in the throes of the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, the need for a new debate about poverty is painfully clear. As Wilson writes, with typical understatement, the problem of ghetto poverty will not be solved "if we are not able to have an honest and open discussion of race in America, including a discussion of why poverty and unequal opportunity so stubbornly persist in the lives of so many African Americans."
The negative trends that the Moynihan Report prophesied in 1965 have all become much, much worse than he ever imagined. Back then, one-quarter of all black families were headed by unmarried women; by 2006, the proportion was 45 percent. Similarly, when the 1965 report was released, one-fourth of black children were born to unwed mothers; by 2005, the rate had nearly tripled to 69 percent. AIDS and HIV infections, which no one had ever heard of in 1965, have become an epidemic in black America on the scale of some African countries. Alarming as these developments are, they are bound to get even worse as the recession strikes home, adding to the 13.4 percent black unemployment rate, nearly double the rate for whites.
Wilson’s analysis of how we got into this mess is extremely persuasive, but it’s difficult to summarize without distortion. He disagrees with liberals who, out of fear of being castigated for “blaming the victim,” absolve the poor of responsibility for their plight and simplistically put the finger on racism and structural factors alone for the ghetto’s stagnation. But he is equally critical of right-leaning advocates of the so-called “culture of poverty” who contend that the poor stay poor because they inherit self-defeating modes of thinking and behavior from their dysfunctional ancestors.
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.
is a former columnist for TIME magazine and a regular contributor to The Root.