Black & Poor: Bill Wilson’s Theoretical Muddle

As with his previous books, trouble with William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race 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 assailed him for undercutting the black protest movement by proclaiming that race was of “declining significance”?

The fierce debate that followed the 1978 publication of  The Declining Significance of Race was a reiteration 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 we are left with the legacy of slavery, but also because racial discrimination, especially in the world of work, is still systemic and widespread. On this view, the problems of African Americans are fundamentally different from those of other exploited workers, 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 problematic that 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 major societal institutions play in throwing blacks into poverty and limiting their avenues of escape. Others, however, 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.

morethanjustraceIn his laudatory 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 joblessness and poverty 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.

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 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. Continue reading…

Racism Flourshing Online

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has released its annual report on “digital1936541974_e6e7ba6c9f terrorism and hate” which finds that racism and antisemitism are flourishing online.  Their report asserts that there has been a 25 percent rise in the past year in the number of “problematic” social networking groups on the Internet (Creative Commons License photo credit: rosefirerising).

In assessing the extent of hate online, the SWC casts a wider net than other monitoring organization (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League) to include sites that promote “racial violence, anti-semitism, homophobia, hate music and terrorism.”  And, the report encompasses a variety of forms of online communicatio such as  Web sites, social networking groups, portals, blogs, chat rooms, videos and games that promote hate.

While it’s hard to measure such phenomena with any precision, there are other indications that racism, and other forms of hatred, are flouring online.   For example, there’s been growing attention on the rise of racist groups on social networking sites such as Facebook, where roups with names such as ‘get all the Paki’s out of England’ with hundreds of members, are common.   People in the U.S. take racism online (and off) much less seriously than people in Europe and other industrialized Western nations for a variety of reasons that I discuss at length in Cyber Racism.  Typical of the European attitudes is indicated by a British MP (Labour) Denis MacShane, who told The Daily Telegraph recently:

“The way you defeat extremism, intolerance, prejudice and racism is to atomise it and make people feel that even if they think racist thoughts they can’t say it openly. But websites like Facebook have unfortunately allowed people to come together in one space and say, ‘there are people out there like me’. That is something that worries me greatly. For all the good social networking sites do, they also allow people to express prejudice that in a civilised society should be kept under lock and key.”

Although I certainly agree that racism online is flourishing, I take issue with the way that this typically gets reported.   For instance, this Reuters story about the SWC report that’s being widely quoted in a variety of other news sources, starts this way:

“Militants and hate groups increasingly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as propaganda tools to recruit new members….” [emphasis added]

Calling what happens with the growth of hate online “recruiting” is to misunderstand the way the Internet works.   People are not recruited into hate groups online any more than paying customers are recruited by sex workers (aka, prostitutes) on Craigslist.    This sort of discourse (“recruit”) is often used alongside words like “lure,” and this is often used when describing the oddly coupled threat of white supremacists and child pornography online.    When reporters and others talk about using the Internet to “recruit” or “lure” unsuspecting innocents online, they misperceive a fundamental feature of the Internet: the search engine.   People go online and search for information.  The reason online racism (and other forms of hate) are flourishing is because lots of people are searching for that sort of content, and a smaller group of people is creating racist content.

If we really want to do something collectively to address the growth of racism online, then we need to address the underlying appeal of racist content by those who create it and those who seek it out.