Book Recap: More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (Issues of Our Time) by William Julius Wilson

I am reviewing/recapping some of the books that I read in my last Doctoral of Ministry class. If you are someone who is concerned about issues revolving around race, poverty, reconciliaiton and justice, then these books are all worth reading.

Up next is “More than Just Race,” by Dr. Julius Wilson.  Dr. Wilson is a sociologist who was a professor at University of Chicago and is now at Harvard.

Below is a collection of quotes throughout the book:

Although we have made considerable progress since the days of Jim Crow segregation, it is clear that we still have a long way to go.

These problems will not be addressed however, if we are not willing 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

Social structure refers to the way social positions, social roles, and networks of social relationships are arranged in our institutions, such as the economy, polity, education, and organization of the family.

Culture, on the other hand, refers to the sharing of outlooks and modes of behavior among individuals who face similar place-based circumstances (such as poor segregated neighborhoods) or have the same social networks (as when members of particular racial or ethnic groups share a particular way of understanding social life and cultural scripts that guide their behavior).

The strength of American cultural sentiment that individuals are primarily responsible for poverty presents a dilemma for anyone who seeks the most comprehensive explanation of outcomes for poor black Americans. Why? Simply because cultural arguments that focus on individual traits and behavior invariably draw more attention than do structural explanations in the United States. Accordingly, I feel that a social scientist has an obligation to try to make sure that the explanatory power of his or her structural argument is not lost to the reader and to provide a context for understanding cultural responses to chronic economic and racial subordination.

Hundreds of studies have been published on the effects of concentrated poverty in neighborhood environments since the late 1980s. The research suggests that concentrated poverty increases the likelihood of social isolation (from mainstream institutions), joblessness, dropping out of school, lower educational achievement, involvement in crime, unsuccessful behavioral development and delinquency among adolescents, nonmarital childbirth, and unsuccessful family management. In general, the research reveals that concentrated poverty adversely affects one’s chances in life, beginning in early childhood and adolescence.

Children living in households headed by single mothers are America’s poorest demographic group. This fact is not surprising, since low-skilled single mothers who work seldom earn enough to bring their families out of poverty and most cannot get child support, medical benefits, housing subsidies, or cheap child care.

In considering this change of frame—indeed, a change of mind-set on race and poverty—I am drawn to then-Senator Barack Obama’s speech on race given March 18, 2008. His oratory provides a model for the type of framing I have in mind. In taking on the tough topic of race in America, Obama spoke to the issue of structure and culture, as well as their interaction. He drew America’s attention to the many disparities that exist between the “African-American community and the larger American community today”—disparities that “can be traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.” He also discussed the lack of economic opportunity among black men, and how “the shame and frustration that came from not being able to provide for one’s family contributed to the erosion of black families.” Obama called on whites to acknowledge that the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination—and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past—are real and must be addressed, not just with words, but with deeds, by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize that your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper. However, Obama did not restrict his speech to addressing structural inequities; he also focused on problematic cultural and behavioral responses to these inequities, men and a “legacy of defeat” that has been passed on to future generations. And he urged those in the African American community to take full responsibility for their lives by demanding more from their fathers, and by spending more time with their children “reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

By combining a powerful discussion of structural inequities with an emphasis on personal responsibility, Obama did not isolate the latter from the former, as is so often the case in the remarks of talk show hosts, journalists, and conservative politicians and commentators. His speech gave an honest appraisal of structural racial inequality as he called for all Americans to support blacks in their struggle to help themselves. As I think back on my discussion of white support for opportunity-enhancing affirmative action programs and the congressional support for programs to help the working poor during the first term of the George W. Bush administration, I feel that the perspective offered in Obama’s speech is exactly the type of framing that can result in broad support to address the problems of race and poverty.

2 responses to “Book Recap: More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (Issues of Our Time) by William Julius Wilson”

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