Wilson, William Julius. More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009.

William Julius Wilson has been, for many decades, one of America’s most preeminent scholars regarding the causes of the continued impoverishment of inner city African Americans. In his book, More than Just Race, he calls for “an honest and open discussion of race in America, including why poverty and unequal opportunity so stubbornly persist in the lives of so many African Americans.”

Professor Wilson describes how the factors that are responsible for this stubborn persistence generally fall into two categories: structural causes and cultural ones.‎ Professor Wilson states that “The relative importance of cultural or structural explanations in accounting for behaviors and social outcomes is often debatable — though I will argue…that, in terms of major effects on immediate group social outcomes and racial stratification, structure trumps culture. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that to apply these explanations totally separately, without any attempt to show how they interact, is indeed a mistake.”

Professor Wilson concludes that “[T]he available evidence suggests that structural factors are more important than cultural variables in accounting for concentrated poverty in the inner city and the economic and social position of poor black males...[T]he structural evidence for the fragmentation of poor black families is not as compelling [emphasis mine]…Nonetheless the research…provides little reason to conclude that cultural variables have played a greater role than structural factors in black family fragmentation.”

1. Structural Racism

At the risk of oversimplifying a matter that is complicated and on which people have very different views, one may argue that structural racism is discrimination ‎that doesn’t necessarily emanate from the prejudice or ill will of the person or persons discriminating, but rather can emanate from the existing structure of society. So, for example, a homeowner living in a neighborhood where no people of African heritage live might be upset if his next door neighbor plans to sell his or her home to an African-American, even if the selling ‎homeowner is without prejudice. Especially if the homeowner is working class and has been in his or her home for decades, the value of the home is likely to represent the bulk of his or her retirement savings. While it is morally wrong to object to the sale, it is not economically irrational. Regardless, this is structural racism, contributing to the continuation of the historically-restricted access to opportunities that have disadvantaged African-Americans throughout American history. It is also an example of how structural racism impedes the very progress that most Americans hope that most other Americans–of all colors, religions and political views– aspire to; that is, home ownership, safe neighborhoods and good schools for their children.

Professor Wilson notes that structural factors come in many varieties. There are those that reflect explicit racial bias, like discrimination and segregation that intentionally differentiate by race, such as things as simple–but infuriating–as black customers in grocery store checkout lines being asked for ID when they pay after the white customers in front of them are not. And there are structural factors that do not reflect explicit racial bias, but disproportionately harm African Americans, as is the case with America’s comparatively lean social safety net. Consider, for example, African Americans’ overrepresentation in low-wage industries– itself a function of past discrimination [1] that limited African American’s access to high-wage jobs, and that educated African Americans in segregated schools with materially fewer resources. [2]

2. Cultural Factors

Professor Wilson asks, ‎”How much of the framing of racial beliefs at the national level is based on the actual observed cultural traits among the inner-city poor and how much of it is the result of biased media reports and racial stereotypes?” One of the consequences of our media having become so sensationalized is the huge number of stories that perpetuate racial stereotypes. As I began to write this blog entry, an email from one of my favorite online news sources for Chicago news arrived in my inbox. The lead story was about a year-old murder where the victim was beaten to death by a gang over a pita pocket. Last year there were almost eight hundred murders in Chicago. Why was this particular item news now? It’s hard to imagine a reason, other than  its titilation value. Such stories certainly ‎perpetuate racial stereotypes while serving no real purpose.

In discussing cultural factors, Professor Wilson observes how even rational behavior in the communities in which many inner-city African-American youth grow up can impede obtaining a job outside of such communities. He states, “In Elijah Anderson’s research, some groups in the inner city put a high value on ‘street smarts,’ the behaviors and actions that keep them safe in areas of high crime…In this environment, it is wise to avoid eye contact with strangers and keep to yourself…Although such an approach is logical and smart in an unsafe neighborhood, the same behavior can be interpreted as anti-social in another setting [and]may, in some cases, prevent individuals from performing well on job interviews”…As Anderson puts it, “the code of the street is actually a cultural adaptation to a profound lack of faith in the police and the judicial system. [3] Such cultural codes hinder integration into broader society and contribute to the perpetuation of poverty.”

Professor Wilson also describes how history has precluded serious, objective discussion of these issues. “[T]he Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson maintains that there is “a deep-seated dogma that has prevailed in social science and policy circles since the mid-1960’s: the rejection of any explanation that invokes a group’s cultural attributes: it’s distinctive attitudes, values and tendencies, and the resulting behavior of its members–and the relentless preference for relying on structural factors like low incomes, joblessness, poor schools and bad housing…He colorfully contends that ‎it is ‘utterly bogus’ to argue, as do many academics, that cultural explanations necessarily blame the victim for poor social outcomes…” Professor Wilson states, “I agree with Patterson that cultural explanations should be part of any attempt to fully account for such behavior and outcomes. And I think it is equally important to acknowledge that recognizing the important role of cultural influences in creating different racial group outcomes does not require us to ignore or play down the role of structural factors. The relative importance of cultural or structural explanations in accounting for behaviors and social outcomes is often debatable–though I will argue later that…structure trumps culture.”

Professor Wilson also argues that structure and culture interact. He argues, for example, that only when black fathers have a realistic opportunity to adequately care for their children financially will they be able to envision a more family-centered life for themselves and their children. [4]

3. What Can We Do?

Professor Wilson states, “The idea that the federal government ‘has a special obligation to help improve the living standards of blacks because they ‘have been discriminated against for so long’ was supported by only one in five whites in 2001, and has never exceeded support by more than one in four since 1975. Significantly, the lack of white support for this idea is not related to background factors such as level of education and age.”

That said, Wilson states that 68 percent of all whites favored spending more money on the schools in black neighborhoods, especially for early education programs. And 70 percent favored granting special college scholarships to black children who maintain good grades. He concludes, “Accordingly, programs that enable blacks to take advantage of opportunities are less likely to be ‘perceived as challenging the values of individualism and the work ethic.’ The implications for political framing are obvious–opportunity-enhancing affirmative action programs are supported because they reinforce the belief that the allocation of jobs and economic rewards should be based on individual effort, training and talent.”

Professor Wilson also explains how important an impact strong economic growth can have on reducing racial poverty. He states that “[T]here is little evidence that cultural forces have the power that changes in the economy have. We need only consider the impact of the economic boom on the reduction of concentrated racial poverty in the 1990’s…to illustrate this point…From 1996 to 2000, real wage growth–that is, wages adjusted for inflation–was quite impressive, especially for low-wage workers. The ranks of the long-term jobless–defined in the US economy as those in the labor market who have been out of work for more than six months–plummeted from almost 2 million in 1993 to just 637,000 in 2000. The unemployment rate of high school dropouts declined from almost 12 percent in 1992 to less than 7 percent in 2000. The unemployment rate among blacks declined to 7.3 percent, the lowest ever recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began compiling comparable statistics in 1972. More than any other group, low-skilled workers depend on a strong economy, particularly a sustained tight labor market…in a tight labor market the status of all workers–including disadvantaged minorities–improves.” [Emphasis mine] How this fact should affect the appropriate policy mix to alleviating concentrated racial poverty is something on which progressives and conservatives disagree. But its importance should be kept in mind in crafting policy.

Notwithstanding the importance of economic growth in alleviating concentrated racial poverty, Professor Wilson also states, “In my previous writings I called for the framing of issues designed to appeal to broad segments of the population. Key to this framing, I argued, would be an emphasis on policies that would directly benefit all groups, not just people of color. My thinking was that, given American views about poverty and race, a color-blind agenda would be the most realistic way to generate broad political support necessary to enact the required legislation. I no longer hold to this view…The issues of race and poverty should be framed in such a way that not only is a sense of fairness and justice to combat inequality generated, but also people are made aware that our country would be better off if these problems were seriously addressed and eradicated.” [5]

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Imagine structural racism and cultural forces each as circles. There is a lot of disagreement regarding the size of each of these circles relative to each other. But regardless of their relative sizes, most people would agree that there are some places where these circles overlap. Instead of arguing about the relative sizes of the circles (or while we do), we can and should get to work on where they overlap. [6] Concentrated racial poverty is an awful problem in America–morally, politically economically and socially.


1   African-Americans were explicitly excluded from most New Deal programs as the price FDR paid to get various New Deal legislation past Southern Democratic legislators. In their book Grand New Party, Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, two conservative thinkers, discuss this. “All these [New Deal] achievements, though, were built‎ on a foundation of exclusion…[T]he New Deal’s programs tended to exclude African-Americans from benefits…new labor laws excluded agricultural and domestic laborers, both heavily black occupations at the time, from their regulations; so too, until the 1950’s, did Social Security…Over time it became clear that the New Dealers had made a deal with the devil to pass sweeping social legislation, refusing to confront segregation head-on in the interests of keeping the South solidly in the Democratic column.”‎ Racism doesn’t get any more structural than this. See also Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself–The New Deal and the Origins of Our Times, one of whose central themes is that blacks were often excluded from New Deal programs as the price for obtaining Southern politicians’ support.‎

2 Regarding materially fewer resources in schools for poor inner-city minorities, I worked with someone in the 1980’s whose daughter went to a Chicago public school in a poor neighborhood and the textbooks did not even arrive until January. The school year started in September.

See ‎the discussion of Jill Leovy’s book Ghettoside and her interview with Bill Keller elsewhere in the Bibliography With Commentary section [here]

4 In Rethinking Social Policy, Christopher Jencks discusses the extent to which antisocial and self-destructive behavior has increased in inner city neighborhoods as a byproduct of economic and demographic changes over which people living in such communities had almost no control, including the white middle class becoming far more tolerant of “deviant” behavior (including, I would argue, glamorizing it, thanks to mainstream American media).

5 Professor Wilson describes so many of the same facts that Christopher Jencks [here], Isabel Sawhill [here] and other social scientists have described for decades, and how they involve more than just race, especially family structure. Professor Wilson states, “In one study, whereas only slightly more than 5 percent of married-couple families lived in poverty in 2004, nearly 30 percent of female-headed families were poor. According to another study, “children in single-female-headed households account for more than 60% of ‎all children in families living in poverty…The poverty rate of white children in households headed by single females was almost 5 times greater than the poverty rate for those in married-couple families; for black children the rate was 4.5 times greater…black children in single-female-headed families account for more than 85% of all poor black children.” So Professor Wilson’s advocacy for remedies that are not “colorblind” reflect a lifetime of working in this space, and deserve to be afforded great respect.‎

6 Also, regardless of the relative size of the circles, changing structural racism requires major action by society at large while changing cultural norms is much more within the control of the black community.