Déjà Vu on Race

by Stephen Steinberg on April 30, 2009

As with his previous books, trouble with William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City begins with its title: Is there anybody on the planet, in academic or popular discourses, who believes that black disadvantage is “just race”? Is Wilson merely shadow boxing? Has he set up a straw argument, making a caricature of his opponent, all the better to demonstrate the rectitude of his position? Is the book an answer to critics who pummeled him for undercutting the black protest movement at its apex by proclaiming that race was of “declining significance”?

The fierce debate that followed the 1978 publication of The Declining Significance of Race was a repetition of a longstanding debate on the Left. On the one hand, there are those in the Marxist tradition who subsume race to class and contend that the problem of race is primarily one of economic inequality. On the other hand, there are those in the black radical tradition who insist that it is not “just class,” not only because of the legacy of slavery, but also because of a system of occupational apartheid that continues down to the present. On this position, the problems of African Americans are fundamentally different from those of other exploited and oppressed people, requiring different policy remedies.

But neither side of the race/class debate is so simplistic or obtuse as to assert that either race or class operates to the exclusion of the other. Indeed, over the past twenty years a consensus has emerged concerning the “intersectionality” of race and class (a problem W. E. B. Du Bois wrestled with throughout his long life). Hence, Wilson’s epiphany, that race and class, are “entwined,” has long been accepted as axiomatic by both sides of the race/class debate, and one wonders whether his book, with its dubious title, was even necessary.

Another problem with Wilson’s title is that it doesn’t quite match the thrust of his book, which is preoccupied with another academic squabble: the structure/culture debate. On the one hand, there are those who emphasize the role that structure — that is, major societal institutions — play in throwing blacks into poverty and limiting their avenues of escape. Others, however, explain black disadvantage in terms of culture, and locate the sources of black disadvantage in an aberrant ghetto culture that, or so they claim, perpetuates poverty from one generation to the next. Wilson steps into this breach, methodically reviews the knowledge claims of both sides, and alas, concludes that structure and culture are “entwined.”

Had he been faithful to his argument, Wilson would have titled his book, More Than Just Structure.

In his review of More Than Just Race in the New York Times Book Review, Richard Thompson Ford echoes Wilson’s claim that “the vitriolic condemnation of the Moynihan Report effectively closed off a serious academic focus on the culture of poverty for decades, robbing policy makers of a complete and nuanced account of the causes of ghetto poverty.” Now, it is undeniable that Moynihan was pummeled, but not for bringing to light compromising details concerning black families. Rather Moynihan came under fire for inverting cause and effect: Instead of blaming poverty and joblessness for the fracture of black families, Moynihan blamed the “weak black family,” going back to slavery, for the litany of problems that beset the black poor.

Remember this was 1965, the year that marked the climax of the legislative phase of the black protest movement with the passage of landmark civil rights legislation that restored African Americans to full citizenship. There were already rumblings about a next phase in the movement that would entail compensatory programs in education and employment. In this context, the Moynihan Report was a calculated attempt to draw a line in the political sands, marking how far the Johnson administration would go in supporting the escalating demands of the protest movement. Future progress would have to depend on blacks getting their own house in order.

Moreover, it is preposterous for Wilson and Ford to suggest that reaction to the Moynihan Report short-circuited a full vetting of the culture of poverty thesis since this has been the reigning precept behind public policy over several decades, culminating in the passage of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (i.e., the Welfare Bill) that abolished entitlements for poor people that had been in place since the Depression. Indeed, Wilson should reflect on what the obsession with ghetto culture has wrought.

The publication of Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race in 1979 came at a time when the nation had grown weary of black protest, of urban revolts, and of a black militancy that evolved into a black power movement demanding restitution as well as rights. In the context of this racial backlash, Wilson’s declaration in the opening sentence that “now the life chances of individual blacks have more to do with their economic class position than with their day-to-day encounters with whites” resonated with white liberals and political elites, especially in the Democratic Party, who were eager to take race and racism off the national agenda.

In declaring that it was not “just race,” Wilson provided them with just the ideological cover that they needed for a broad-scale retreat from anti-racist public policy.

Here we are, thirty years later, and Wilson is still flogging the same line. Needless to say, much has changed in the interim, culminating with the election of Barack Obama. However, the black poor are arguably worse off than ever, given the gutting of affirmative action, the state-supported gentrification of the inner city that has displaced hundreds of thousands of black families, and the dismantling of AFDC that provided a safety net for poor children and their mothers. Yet none of these calamitous policy reversals receive more than passing mention, despite Wilson’s subtitle: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City.

On the contrary, in declaring that we must consider “more than just race,” Wilson deliberately shifts the focus away from racism and anti-racist public policy to a myopic examination of the cultural aberrations that putatively keep poor blacks from following in the footsteps of their middle-class cousins (never mind that they probably got a leg up through affirmative action!). Wilson may imagine that he is saying something new, but his book only recapitulates the tired debate that began in the 1960s over Oscar Lewis’s concept of a “culture of poverty,” that was reignited in the 1980s with the underclass discourse, and that reverberates in a current scholarship that blames the persistent problems of the black poor on everything from fractured families to hip hop culture.

To repeat, nobody denies that there are cultural dimensions of racism and poverty, or that oppression has cultural consequences, or that the black poor, entrapped in ghettos, develop cultural defenses to cope with their dire situation. The only question is whether culture “takes on a life of its own,” as the cultural theorists claim. In his 1967 study, Tally’s Corner, Elliot Liebow provided an eloquent rebuttal to this position: “…many similarities between the lower-class Negro father and son (or mother and daughter) do not result from ‘cultural transmission’ but from the fact that the son goes out and independently experiences the same failures, in the same areas, and for much the same reasons as his father.” Liebow did not deny ghetto culture, but he forcefully rejected the idea that it was an independent and self-sustaining culture.

This is what is overlooked or disputed by ethnographers who descend from their ivory towers and venture into the “dark ghetto,” as Kenneth Clark called it. These ethnographers inevitably turn up evidence that is unflattering and sometimes incriminating of their subjects who develop cultural defenses and strategies for coping with a situation that practically predestines them to failure. As with Moynihan, the question is one of cause and effect, and whether these “adaptations” take on a life of their own. In principle, Wilson acknowledges the primacy of structure. As he writes:

Although cultural forces play a role in inner-city outcomes, evidence suggests that they are secondary to the larger economic and political forces, both racial and nonracial, that move American society. Indeed, as I will attempt to demonstrate in the next two chapters, structural conditions provide the context within which cultural responses to chronic economic and racial subordination are developed.

The problem is that Wilson contradicts his own tenet. He treats the structural basis of “economic and racial subordination” as a regrettable fact of life, and then rivets attention on those “cultural responses” that not only play a mediating role in reproducing poverty, but also nourish those structures that keep the vicious cycle spinning out of control.

The end result is not only reactionary but ludicrous. In Wilson’s explanatory schema, all of the immense power and vast resources vested in political and economic institutions that could provide restitution and remedy for the descendants of slaves, still mired in poverty, are trumped by kids strutting around in a “cool pose” and black men who are in need of “fathering classes” to instruct them in the obligations and craft of fathering.

This illogic is evident in Wilson’s chapter on “The Economic Plight of Inner-City Black Males.” Wilson begins by noting that “the economic predicament of low-skilled black men in the inner city has reached catastrophic proportions.” Does he provide any space to the massive discrimination that black men routinely confront in job markets? No, instead he reviews a canon of recent studies of “employer preferences” that find that employers regard black males as “uneducated, uncooperative, unstable, or dishonest.”

Wilson invokes the concept of “statistical discrimination” whereby “employers make generalizations about inner-city, black male workers and reach decisions based on those assumptions without reviewing the qualifications of an individual applicant.” Incredibly, it escapes Wilson that this is the very definition of racial discrimination! Wilson cannot cough up the “r” word. All he can do is to concede ambiguously that this is “clearly a racially motivated practice.” Racially motivated but not racist? What does that mean exactly?

Whenever this issue arises, I reach for Gordon Allport’s 1954 classic, The Nature of Prejudice. Allport writes:

Ethnic prejudice is an antipathy based upon a fault and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group as a whole, or toward an individual because he is a member of that group. The net effect of prejudice, thus defined, is to place the object of prejudice at some disadvantage not merited by his own misconduct.

Not merited by his own misconduct. These employers are engaged in acts of discrimination, pure and simple. Like the scholars he cites to make his case, Wilson has defined racism out of existence. Small wonder they are unable to see the racism before their eyes, and instead blame these hapless black men for the patently discriminatory acts of employers.

Having evaded any reckoning of rampant discrimination in labor markets, including low-wage job sectors, Wilson goes on to dissect another ghetto pathology in a chapter on “The Fragmentation of the Poor Black Family.” True, the rates of black families headed by a single mother have nearly doubled since 1965. But like Moynihan, Wilson inverts cause and effect, citing findings that children of female-headed households are more likely to drop out of school, to become teenage parents, and to be inflicted with a gamut of cognitive, emotional, and social maladies.

As far as I know, nobody has demonstrated that having a jobless male in an indigent household protects impoverished children from these outcomes. Besides, it is joblessness and poverty that undermines the formation of families in the first place. In other words, as Liebow argued, the root cause of family instability has to do with the inability of the fathers — and mothers! — of these children to find jobs that pay a living wage.

This is the fundamental problem that cries for policy intervention, and despite his claims to the contrary, Wilson’s attempt to factor out the role that culture plays invariably ends up with a cultural blaming of the victim. Think about it: the brute reality is that another generation of black youth are being raised in poverty and encircled by racist barriers in housing, schools, and jobs, and destined for prison, premature death, or a pitiful life on the fringes of our society. Of what consequence is Wilson’s pedantic parsing of race, class, and culture? What solutions does Wilson propose to avert this calamity?

This is where More Than Just Race is most maddening. In his concluding chapter, Wilson proposes no agenda for change. Rather, he has become enamored with the idea that the way we “frame” issues is of crucial importance for the way political leaders and “we as a nation” talk about and address issues of race and poverty. He tells us that Obama’s 2008 speech on race “is a model for this type of framing,” and adds pontifically: “I conclude now with a strong call for similar hopeful and positive, candid and critical national framings for our discussions of race and poverty in America. I believe that such framing is necessary to generate and sustain broad political support for comprehensive programs to address both the structural and cultural forces of inequality.”

Readers are left to read between these ambiguous lines to discern their implications for public policy. According to Wilson’s prize student, Sudhir Venkatesh, who wrote a glowing review of More Than Just Race in Slate, “Wilson advised the Obama campaign, and it is likely that his combination of race-neutral social policies and ‘jobs-first’ agenda will be attractive to our president.” Here we confront the dire consequences that lurk behind Wilson’s ambiguities and contradictions. By “race-neutral,” Venkatesh means policies and programs that are aimed at stimulating economic growth or job creation, but are not targeted for blacks in the inner city.

To quote a memorable adage of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, this amounts to feeding the crows by feeding the horses. Furthermore, “race-neutral” scrubs affirmative action from the policy agenda of “the first Black president.” This is another replay of history. Whenever Bill Clinton was asked about his policy for the inner-city (code, of course, for poor blacks), he would cite William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged, which advocated race-neutral policies for economic growth. One wonders whether Wilson’s More Than Just Race will provide the same cover for Barack Obama, whose reelection hinges, as did his first electoral triumph, on the denial of any association with the black inner-city poor.

There are even more insidious policy implications behind Wilson’s pedantry. Wilson devotes an entire chapter to “The Forces Shaping Concentrated Poverty.” According to the concept of “concentrated poverty,” which Wilson is widely credited as pioneering, when poverty is concentrated, it metastasizes, thus magnifying the effects of poverty and those “cultural” pathologies that are assumed to perpetuate poverty. Mind you, none of this has been proved. Even Wilson acknowledges that the evidence that de-concentrating poverty has beneficial effects is inconsistent at best. Yet the concept of concentrated poverty has been deployed under the HOPE VI program to justify the demolition of public housing in cities across the nation.

In effect, Wilson has come up with a policy for poor blacks in the inner city: to demolish their homes and scatter them into the suburban wilderness! Never mind that they invariably end up in other densely poor neighborhoods. Never mind that these policies are deployed wherever blacks occupy urban space that is ripe for gentrification. As public housing is dynamited, politicians, developers, and academic boosters of “mobility programs” congratulate themselves with ending the “warehousing” of the poor in soulless high-rise ghettos, which are then replaced with housing that is nominally mixed-race and mixed-income but rarely includes families whose homes were demolished. Perversely, in the name of integration, gentrifying cities are cleansed of the black underclass.

Another ominous policy implication can be found in Wilson’s hand-wringing over “black family fragmentation.” Wilson gives credibility to “two notable empirical studies suggesting that black family fragmentation might be an important legacy of slavery and sub-Saharan African family patterns.” True, Wilson injects a note of skepticism, but hastens to tell the reader that “one of the legacies of these sub-Saharan African patterns is that strong ties and obligations to extended kin have led to a greater acceptance of marital separation,” adding again that this has not yet been addressed “with careful empirical research.”

Alas, we now know where Wilson’s parsing of structure and culture leads us: backwards! Not just back to the specious logic and victim blaming of the Moynihan Report, but back to the racist assumptions of early twentieth-century scholars who believed that Africans and other “backward” races were saddled with cultural systems that explained their inferior positions in society.

When the founders of sociology spoke of “race,” they had in mind, not only Africans and other colonial subjects who would be civilized by their contact with Western culture, but also the “races” of Europe — the wild Irish, the swarthy Italians, the shady Hebrews, and others whose futures depended on their being “assimilated” into mainstream American culture. The lesson of history is that as these groups escaped poverty and were incorporated, economically and politically, into the expansive mainstream of American society, their “racial” features mysteriously disappeared and they merged into a sea of whiteness. This also seems to be the destiny of recent immigrants from Asia and light-skinned Latinos. But in the case of these oldest of Americans, whose fate is “being black and poor in the inner city,” the color line is still impenetrable.

In this latest book William Julius Wilson, against his own intentions, has again done more to ratify the racial status quo than to point to a way out of the racial quagmire. His discovery that there is “more than just race,” though larded with caveats and equivocation, again provides erudite cover for political abdication and a cultural blaming of the victim. Obama withstanding, the results of oppression are still being used to justify oppression.

Stephen Steinberg is author of Race Relations: A Critique, published by Stanford University Press in 2007 (reviewed in Beyond Chron on October 11, 2007). He is grateful to Jeff Maskovsky for his helpful suggestions.

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