21 October 2014

More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City
by William Julius Wilson

It has been decades since it was fashionable to talk about the poor in the United States, especially if they are black. The last political candidate who was a champion of the disadvantaged was the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy. He truly identified with them, and during his run for the presidency in 1968, he was often heard exhorting America about their plight: “We can do better.”

Former Senator John Edwards spoke passionately about poverty during his run for the presidency in 2004; he even announced his presidential candidacy in 2008 from the yard of a home in New Orleans, already a desperately downtrodden area further devastated by Hurricane Katrina. Now that he has been discredited as a political candidate, who will speak for America’s poor? We will all be very fortunate if it is the sociologist William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. And Linda L. Geyer University Professor at Harvard University. Wilson has written a series of timely and influential books about the black poor in the United States, and his most recent, More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, cements his reputation as the go-to public intellectual on this issue.

Wilson warns readers that his book may be somewhat controversial–especially among African Americans–because “. . .I dare to take culture seriously as one of the explanatory variables in the study of race and urban poverty. . .” Indeed, he repeatedly returns to culture as one of the most important variables that have an impact on why people are poor and why they have such difficulty pulling themselves out of poverty. He makes it very clear, however, that he thinks the causes of poverty are primarily structural in nature: the changing labor market, and institutions such as the family, and the statuses and roles people in those institutions have. Yet according to Wilson, cultural forces, which he defines as common outlooks and ways of behavior shared by people who are in similar circumstances, are also important and worthy of study.

Wilson divides his slim but compelling volume into several chapters. The first explains the structural and cultural of racial inequality; chapters two through four look at forces that perpetuate poverty across generations, the economic plight of black males in the inner city, and the collapse of the black family. His concluding chapter makes suggestions on how public policies to fight poverty might be drafted, and he points to President Obama’s 2008 speech on race as a framework from which we might proceed.

In what may be a surprise to black Americans and those on the left, Wilson agrees with the basic premise of the much maligned Moynihan report, written in 1965 and entitled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, calling it correct and prescient. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an assistant secretary of the United States Department of Labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. It was during his service under Johnson that he was charged with helping design the War on Poverty. Pouring over labor statistics, Moynihan made the discovery that welfare roles and the number of black children born outside marriage were increasing even as black male unemployment was decreasing. He posited that cultural forces in the black community were creating a dependency on welfare that had little if anything to do with hard economic times, and a culture of poverty was destroying the black family.

Wilson recognizes how the initial criticism of the report–many saw it as racist and blaming the victims–and Moynihan’s subsequent comment that the problems of black Americans could benefit from some “benign neglect” made African Americans, the academic community and government officials skittish about studying the role culture plays in poor black neighborhoods. He also recognizes that part of the reaction to The Negro Family was a function of the times and circumstances under which it was produced. However, Wilson also notes that the resistance to studying such an important variable has been somewhat detrimental to the ability to fight the persistent poverty black urban communities suffer. He is not afraid to discuss the role that cultural forces have played, and he freely acknowledges that the absence of fathers in so many black families has been quite detrimental to the race.

Wilson, who spent years at the University of Chicago studying the African American poor in that city before joining the “African American Dream Team” of scholars at Harvard, has once again written a timely and thought provoking treatise on black poverty in America. He has a wonderful knack of making statistics both understandable and interesting. Although all of his books are scholarly, they are highly accessible to those who are not academics.

In these harsh economic times when millions are running out of unemployment benefits and food banks across the country are turning people away, Wilson aims to put the issue of inner city poverty back in the limelight. More Than Just Race serves as a clarion call to action on behalf of the least fortunate among us in what is still a land of plenty.

--------------- -------------- Dr. Marilyn K. Howard has joined the staff of the Free Press as our book critic. Dr. Howard earned a BA in criminal Justice from Ohio Dominican College; an MA in political science from The Ohio State University (Thesis: The Entrance of Black Voters Into the Mississippi Electorate) and her PhD in American history from The Ohio State University (Dissertation: Black Lynching in the Promised Land: Mob Violence in Ohio 1876 - 1916). She was an associate professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Columbus State Community College, where she now holds the same position in the Department of Humanities. Dr. Howard has twice received the Distinguished Teaching Award from Columbus State, and was twice recognized as an outstanding staff member by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development. She was also named a top educator by Ohio magazine. Dr. Howard has served as an editor of the Southern Historian, a freelance book critic for the Columbus Dispatch and Ohioana Library. She has published essays in a number of anthologies, including the Encyclopedia of Racial Violence in America and the Encyclopedia of Jim Crow. She continues to conduct research on the lynching of black men by white mobs in Ohio.