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.

The publication of The Declining Significance of Race came at a time when the nation had grown weary of black protest, of urban revolts, and of a black power movement demanding restitution as well as rights. In the context of this racial backlash, Wilson’s declaration in his 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 antiracist 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 repeal of welfare entitlements that provided a safety net for poor families, the gutting of affirmative action programs, and the ravages of the neoliberal city, including the displacement of hundreds of thousands of black families in order to abet the gentrification of inner-city neighborhoods. 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 antiracist 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 “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 culture-of-poverty 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.” 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:

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.

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, he claims, play a mediating role in reproducing poverty. Indeed, Wilson goes a step further and contends that culture reinforces and reproduces the very structures that engender racial inequality, thus creating a situation of racism feeding upon itself.

The end result is not only reactionary but ludicrous. In Wilson’s explanatory schema, all of the immense power and 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 by black men who are in need of fathering classes.

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 pervasive discrimination these men routinely confront in job markets? No, instead he reviews studies of “employer preferences” that find that employers regard black males as “uneducated, uncooperative, unstable, or dishonest.” Wilson then invokes the concept of “statistical discrimination,” according to which “employers make generalizations about inner-city, black male workers and reach decisions based on those assumptions without reviewing the qualifications of an individual applicant.” But 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 these race experts are unable to see the racism before their eyes, and instead blame these hapless black men for the patently discriminatory acts of employers.

The same spurious reasoning pervades Wilson’s 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 children from these outcomes. Besides, it is joblessness and poverty that undermines the formation of families in the first place. This is the fundamental problem that cries for policy intervention, and despite his claims to the contrary, Wilson 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 jobs, housing, and schools, 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 aimed at stimulating economic growth or job creation, rather than specifically targeted for blacks. But this is nothing more than a liberal variant of trickle-down economics: jobs under Obama’s stimulus plan will reach blacks last and least. Furthermore, “race-neutral” implies that affirmative action will have little or no place on 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 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 poor.

There are even more insidious policy implications behind Wilson’s pedantry. Wilson devotes an entire chapter to “The Forces Shaping Concentrated Poverty.” Wilson is widely credited with pioneering the concept of “concentrated poverty.” Its chief contention is that when poverty is concentrated, it metastasizes, thus magnifying the effects of poverty and the cultural pathologies that are assumed to perpetuate poverty. Mind you, none of this has been proved. Even Wilson acknowledges that the evidence that deconcentrating 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.” 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.

Once again, William Julius Wilson has 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, 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. An earlier version of this essay was published in Beyond Chron, San Francisco’s alternative online daily (April 30, 2009). I am grateful to Jeff Maskovsky for his helpful suggestions.


  1. Stephen Steinberg Author

    Joe: It was tempting to say that this is a problem of the “white” liberal media, but then again, one can see elements of WJW’s cultural blaming of the victim running through even Obama’s Father’s Day oration! As Richard Wright wrote half-a-century ago: “American whites and blacks both possess deep-seated resistance against ‘the Negro problem’ being presented, even verbally, in all of its hideous fullness, in all of the totality of its meaning.” Liberals, for their part, engage in a lot of hand-wringing, but stop short of placing blame on major political and economic institutions. Isn’t that the mark of the liberal, after all?

  2. Seattle in Texas

    Okay. I’m just going to ramble for a moment. Now, with relation to a paragraph that was being critical of WJW—Teenage pregnancy to begin with—may I ask what the average age was the families began for women, say 100-200 years ago? Were they pathological? Bad parents? Socially unacceptable? I laugh at this because anytime the marginal groups are measured against “white virtue” (best conception I have come across is presented by Karen Brodkin, whom I have to say “fucking rocks”—highest compliments), they are going to be deemed as defective. Stigmatize, treat them as “pathological” and remove social support? Well. Considering nearly 50% percent of families in the US are divorced, how is it that it is the divorced that are defective? Might it not be possible that a family could be healthier if the dysfunction is minimized and the children can see their parents during lack of conflict, etc.? Versus the alternative outcome that likely would result in the reproduction of negative cycles, and so on (in families of conflict). Considering a very large proportion of parents are single, never married and with no father, why is it that their families are considered inadequate because there is no “man” in the home? Why is that if men are in the home and cannot find a job and the female is essentially the breadwinner, why are their families deemed as deficient? Why can’t fathers be the mothers and vice versa? Our society has no place to elevate stay home fathers to valued social positions. Well, we might be able to make exceptions for the wealthier white families…they would be the “progressive” folks? Get praise, the “awwww” etc. But Black stay home fathers, particularly whose living in the lower SES and especially in poverty? Anything that exists in contrast to the white virtue is by default pathological in the USA… The solutions are to always create more jobs (nevermind the pay…minimum wage is good enough even though two parents working full time at minimum wage barely make enough to get by) and uphold the capitalist structure rather than breaking that down and creating a new structure that forbids anybody from being poor, homeless, and going out minimal necessities, and even further, removes stigmatization of folks in more unfortunate situations, etc. The reality is, there are always people unemployed for what ever reason (as a collective they are reduced to a percentage and when low, we don’t worry about them). And we ignore those who may be working and living in poverty altogether, or stigmatize them. Oh my god—let me not talk about the criminalization of the poor, especially African American poor…. What kind of society is this? It’s a pathological white supremacist society that is best pacified through $$$ and materialism. The racial apartheid has always been in place and always will be as long as we remain under this capitalistic order—which necessarily relies on people being at the bottom, always. And who are and will those people disproportionately be? As far as I am concerned, Jim Crow is not gone and never has ceased to exist for far too many—all people of African descent should be able to say it’s gone, history. This society has a long way to go and the solutions cannot be found in the frame of white virtue or within the capitalist structure. Stop here cuz I gotta go anyway.

  3. Chris Diaz

    These white dudes will not give up domination easily, that’s for sure. They have no desire to be equals, they want to be the oligarchs.

    The academic racists are some that need to be watched the closest. They try, weakly, to conceal their racism with a “Hey, I was just looking at the data” charade.

  4. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To Seattle in Texas:

    Good point: none of us would be on the planet if our forebears had to pass a means test before they had children (or sex for that matter). And these meanspirited critics have managed to pathologize what Moynihan, in the convention of his time, called “illegitimate births.” Now they have adopted a slightly more sanitary term–“out-of-wedlock births,” as though, as you point out, “wedlock” is a ticket to bliss! But in terms of Wilson’s treatment of “being black and poor in the inner city,” he errs when he treats single parenting as a problem of culture and morality. And even though he acknowledges that these “cultural” patterns are rooted in poverty and racial isolation, his race-neutral approach proscribes targeting of jobs to these inner-city communities, which he sees as the incubus of cultural pathology. Which leaves him in hopeless self-contradiction.

  5. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To Chris Diaz:

    Right, those “white dudes” will not give up power easily, but not without the help of a particular “black dude,” “Latino/a dudes,” “Asian dudes,” etc. The question is whether domination and hierarchy now has a multicultural face!

    Yes, beware of “academic racists.” That’s a harsh term, but what else is it when academics put their stamp of legitimacy on the racial order, or read the data –say on single parenting or on mass incarceration–to conclude that the subaltern participate in their own victimization.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    Thank you Stephan,

    I haven’t read the book…though am, I don’t know how else to put it, but am academically related to WJW. That said, his thinking is very much in line with the higher SES of where I come from. Annoying to say the least. But, thanks to them we got the grunge scene for a short time. On a serious note, I haven’t read that book, though much appreciated the critique, nonetheless. I wonder when the last time WJW spent time in an inner city or in any poor black community…. I don’t keep up with him. A great post.

    I see where Chris Diaz is coming from, well where both points come from. And agree with both. The biggest lesson I learned from my statistics course is that with stats, combined with theory and careful wording, etc., (equally applicable to qualitative work) you can make the world or your phenomena under observation at hand, appear in most any way you wish. Perhaps a stretch, but not too far from that. That combined with not having a universal educational system, only some are privileged to speak and present their intrepretations of the world–in contrast to the rest of the society, particularly those they often speak about. Even if our higher education went universal, it would still be stratified and highly privileged…. The culture of academia is one that has puzzled me many times…. Yet, there are without question, some very good scholars too–and they need to be supported.

  7. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To Seattle in Texas:

    Well, if you inflect the second part of your message on the first, we can say that if WJW spent time in the inner city or a poor black community, he (like the rest of us) would view it through the prism of his ideology and his assumptions. The problem is that his that his his prism is defective (it is what Charles Mills, in his book THE RACIAL CONTRACT, calls an “epistemology of ignorance.”) In other words, instead of being forced to rethink his assumptions and knowledge claims by what he saw, WJW would “see” the reality consistent with his assumptions and knowledge claims.

  8. adia

    Stephen, what an insightful, interesting analysis! I really appreciated this. I will be including this post in my graduate seminar when I cover intersections of race & class. While I have not read the book you critique, I would only add that based on your description, even Wilson’s basic premise of the analysis of the structure/culture/agency tangle is not new. Bourdieu also questions the overlap between these three, as does Giddens, though w/o the overt attention to race. One question: could you also point me to specific studies that show that class-only policies do not work? I think Dee Royster’s “Race and the Invisible Hand” is one example, as is Katznelson’s “When Affirmative Action was White,” but I would like to know of others because it’s useful to have documented studies to refute people’s commonsense assumptions. (In this vein, re: your point about Wilson’s statements about black fathers, Lorman & Sorensen’s (2000) article “Father Involvement with Nonmarital Children,” in Marriage & Family Review, shows that black nonresident fathers are actually MORE likely than nonresident fathers of other racial groups to see their children on a regular basis.) And last thing, to Joe’s question about why Wilson’s point of view is popular in the liberal media–it’s much easier to talk about and address solutions oriented towards class than to race. I think people can sympathize, “see,” and strive to correct the ills that result from poverty more readily than they can those that result from racism. Wilson’s ideas speak directly to liberals who are more comfortable downplaying race for class (which, as he argued in Truly Disadvantaged, was part of the appeal of class-based remedies). Given the pressure on Obama not to appear “too black” in a way that will alienate whites, I *guarantee* you that he too will institute class-based solutions rather than taking the more courageous–and politically risky–step of addressing racism head on and instituting policies to eradicate it.

  9. I agree with everything that has been said. I found the critique refreshing. I especially liked Seattle’s point about the average age of parents centuries ago, and comparing one group to the “standard” group.
    What occurs to me, though, is that I haven’t heard of any books discussing the pathologies of the white poor. I think the focus on the black poor is itself due to racism. All blacks confront racism; but racism’s apologists always point to the black poor. Why? How does that really solve anything? It only serves to alleviate racists of their responsibility to stop being racist. It occurs to me as the ultimate irony of racism, the intersection of racism and class, and the operation of racism that the black middle/upper class has to answer for the black poor; while, the white middle/upper class get to call their poor white trash and move on. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not helpful or moral to ignore the poor whatever their color. I just think that this obsession with the black poor is racist itself.
    And as for white liberals, sometimes you have to wonder if they really want things to change. I think they’re just as afraid as conservatives of what they may lose if racism truly ended. It would be helpful if they would acknowledge this fear so we can all start undoing racism.

  10. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To Adia: I agree, of course, that it is important to document my claim that race-neutral programs to stimulate the economy and create jobs will reach blacks “last and least.” The simple reason for this pertains to pervasive racism in the world of work, and the colossal failure to enforce Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Dee Royster’s study of a trade school in Baltimore is a case in point. These were black students who heeded the advice that has been issued from Booker T. Washington to William Julius Wilson: Get a trade. Compared to white students in this trade school, black students had better attendance records, higher grades, and were willing to travel further for less pay. Yet they were closed out of hiring networks that existed among employers, teachers and administrators, and white families and students.

    I object to the term “employment discrimination” b/c it does not capture the magnitude or systemic nature of racial discrimination in the world of work. “Occupational apartheid” does just that, and the whole point of affirmative action was to drive a wedge into the wall of occupational apartheid that has existed since slavery. And it succeeded, not only in opening up jobs not only in the professions and corporate management, but in major blue-collar occupations as well. Thus, the gutting of affirmative action will surely erode many of the ballyhooed gains of the post-civil rights era.

    Employers discriminate, but so do unions and workers, including immigrant workers who, as Toni Morrison said bluntly, get ahead “on the backs of blacks.” Devah Pager provided shocking proof that blacks without a prison record have less of a chance of being hired than whites with a prison record. The adage that blacks are the “last hired and first fired” is still a fact of life.

    Now take Obama’s Stimulus Plan, which funnels stimulus money through states and localities, and which, at best, will generate jobs in major industries and job sectors where blacks have little of no representation. Look at the sorry case of New Orleans, where blacks suffered the brunt of Hurricane Katrina but got few of the clean-up jobs or construction because contractors relied on immigrant workers. One can imagine policies that would target jobs for jobless inner-city communities, but so far Obama has made no such gesture, and WJW is on record, as in the past, of favoring race-neutral programs that will not arouse the antagonism of whites.

    Myrdal’s original definition of the “underclass” was that these workers were so far “below” the class system that they did not reap benefits even during periods of economic growth. This is true even in booming cities like Atlanta governed by black mayors. So isn’t it obvious from everything we know about race and occupations that blacks, already hard hit from the recession, will gain little from the recovery without the implementation of race-targeted policies and programs?

    Of course, the same state power that refuses to target jobs to unemployed black youth will commit funds to go after deadbeat dads or to fund “fathering classes.” Or to target black males for drug arrests and long prison sentences. So thanks for your interesting finding about black nonresident fathers. How much of prevailing race-think is based on such stereotypes and misconceptions?

  11. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To No1KState: You raise some tantalizing questions here. Is the obsession with the black poor itself racist? There are those who champion the class paradigm who contend that the more important half of the construction “the black poor” is their poverty, not their race,” and that we divert ourselves from addressing the larger questions of class power and wage polarization by focussing narrowly on race and racism. They have a point, but yet again, racism is a force to be reckoned with, and class-based strategies notoriously fail to address the distinctive souces of black disadvantage. Clearly, we need both.
    Certainly, the canon of whiteness studies have made the point that when Irish, Italians, Jews, and others were poor, they had the same litany of “pathologies,” including crime, prostitution, family instability–you name it. The difference is that even in poverty, these groups had access to jobs in the industrial sector that blacks were denied, and with class mobility they were gradually absorbed into the expanding circle of whiteness.
    Don’t forget, for a long time poverty had theoretical ascendancy over race, and this was true in the policy arena as well. We waged a “war on poverty,” however much this provided rhetorical cover for race. And even today, there is no dearth of studies of povery and inequality that treat race as a subset of poverty, if even that.
    For studies of the white poor, check out Matt Wray’s fascinating NOT QUITE WHITE. Eugenicists had a field day explaining away white poverty in terms of defective genes, while medical scientists thought they had discovered the cause of white poverty in the hookworm. In AIN’T NO MAKING IT, Jay McLoed shows how white and black kids born into poverty confront the same adversities in an economy that spews out primarily low-wage, dead-end jobs. Yes, it is a reminder that we have to deal with “more than just race.”
    Finally, you make a great point that the white upper classes do not have to answer for the errant behavior of their class underlings. To the consternation of the researchers who conduct the annual surveys of drug use among American youth (Monitoring the Future), they consistently find that black youth are not only less likely to use drugs, but are also less likely to use cigarettes and alcohol. Do they ask what is wrong with “white families” and “white culture”? They are left speechless!

  12. Thanks for this great post Stephen. It’s very helpful in critiquing the move towards a disturbingly colorblind public policy consensus, being pushed by liberals (white and of color, including Obama). It’s also very timely for me, because I just received an initial commitment from City Lights for my next book, which will examine (and refute) the notion that such race-averse analysis and colorblind policy/universalism can address the obstacles faced by folks of color, or close racial gaps in terms of well-being. This “post-racial liberalism,” which was evinced by Obama in his “rising tide lifts all boats” answer to the race-specific question at his first press conference, (and was on full display yesterday in the editorial by Richard Thompson Ford in the Boston Globe) is clearly in ascendance (again), and risks completely eclipsing the importance of race-specific and targeted efforts to address racial stratification. Thanks for this post, and for all your work over the years!

  13. Stephen Steinberg Author

    It’s a pleasure to meet Tim Wise here in cyberspace! Through his books and public lectures, especially on college campuses, Tim has been in the forefront of the struggle against racism, and his uncompromising voice is needed now more than ever. There was a job crisis in black communities even before the current economic meltdown. And according to a report by United for a Fair Economy, the foreclosure crisis has erased between 71 and 122 billion of black assets. The figure for Hispanics is between 76 and 129 billion. With the gutting of affirmative action and the repeal of welfare, we are witnesses the erosion of many of the gains of the post-civil rights era. And with state-support of gentrification in cities across the nation, blacks and other poor people are being pushed out of neighborhoods that at least placed them in proximity to transportation and jobs. Tim Wise is right: the idea of post-racial liberalism puts a dangerous gloss over the tragic policy reversals of the past 25 years, and race-neutral public policy turns a blind eye to the crisis in minority communities.

  14. adia

    Stephen, you will find no argument with me re: your logical and reasoned response about why class-based programs don’t alleviate racial inequality. (Seems to me it’s also a basic case of mismatching–why would *class* solutions solve *racial* problems, given that the two things aren’t synonymous?) But I like to point people to specific studies they can read on their own that provide empirical analyses to buttress the logical arguments. I know Pager’s, Royster’s & Katznelson’s work, but would like to be able to reference others that specifically show how class policies fail to alleviate racial disparities. Please post here if you think of any others that fall in this category.

  15. Hi, Tim! I’m a big fan!

    I absolutely agree with your points about post-racial liberalism. I think it should be a sign to folks that the only people promoting this are white folks, black conservatives, and Obama, who, though he is a person of color, heads a racist state apparatus.

  16. Seattle in Texas

    I appreciate all the points noted above—and very informative, thank you. The point noted on #8 seems to be a problem that goes back before WJW and beyond him currently, as well as being reproduced in many ways. He’s certainly no Du Bois…. Point well taken, thank you.

    And yes, No1KState, I personally would agree that studying poor Black communities definitely can be racist. To add informal thoughts on the poor white communities, I think they are largely invisible because of the overwhelming focus of the communities of color, which perhaps serves to amplify and perpetuate negative stereotypes and irrational fears strongly associated with communities of color…and associating poor whites with? Are there none? Maybe white society would like to think so, so as to protect them further from their collective image from being “tainted” in any way and to further deny any further responsibility of the poor in general. In many ways they are invisible. Nonetheless, poor whites still have their light skin color, which gives them still some privilege. For example, maybe even if it comes to the murder of prostitutes—find white bodies, there’s a dangerous person out there. Find Black bodies? Sorry for the horrid example. But I am sure together we can all think of numerous examples to illustrate the various privileges even poor white people might have over poor Black people—even in the worse of circumstances. And perhaps there may be exceptions.

    And at times I am not sure what studying the poor even does to be honest. And at times thinking about it makes me just about angry. As if those problems can be solved by studying “them” of course. No, the problems lie in the people who possess power and within this inherently white supremacist capitalist structure. And trying to suggest the problems can be solved while operating out of a framework that works within the capitalist structure? Too often it is the “default lens”, perhaps? How many billions of dollars are spent annually to fund research? Yeah, it’s great to talk about these issues, but every single moment there are people starving, hurting, violated, homeless, and whatever else going on in this nation. And what about the pain and suffering this nation has caused and continues to do so in other nations throughout the world? What does the research honestly do? I know it benefits the researcher directly. If it brings in grant money, it further benefits the university and so on. I am thinking of a scholar who went to a country in Africa to study a third world community. The university paid his whole way, put him up in an expensive hotel with 5 star meals. I’ve heard other similar stories. I fail to understand how this helps poverty and how his work will directly benefit the (thanks to colonization—created dire issues) circumstances the people are currently enduring or even their future generations to come. Too often it seems to do a better job at reinforcing the white supremacist capitalist structure, further exploitation, etc., than alleviate the problems that inflict those who are suffering the most. And it seems that only it is when the lower sectors revolt is when change comes. Even a little. It is very difficult to not be cynical. Let me stop….

    And again, thank you,

  17. Joe

    Great discussion, folks. Thanks to all of you. This is probably the best discussion I have yet seen of the many nuanced and deep structural issues the race/class debate stirs up. One can see how the mainstream scholars (of any color) are there to close off debate and discussion with a truncated language from the old white racist framing, not really to enlighten and change. New ideas require a new language, for starters.

  18. Joe – How do we generate this “new language?”
    Seattle – You’re right that the white poor at least have the benefit of their skin color and receive numerous “benefits of doubt.” They have a higher rate of being accepted to receive welfare. Even a poor white couple is more likely to own a home than a middle-class black couple. (A few things I learned by reading Tim Wise’s blogs and essays. I was also able to verify. )
    I agree the white poor is definitely invisible. The focus on the black poor not only perpetuates negative stereotypes of blacks in general; it also serves as a political weapon of sorts that prevents all poor from receiving the help they deserve. I’ll be honest. I think as far as economic systems go, capitalism is ok. It just needs some socialist moderation to make sure people have a safety net. I like the Sweden model myself. That said, there are 2 notions of capitalism, especially American capitalism, that I’ve never been able to reconcile. 1 – There will always be the poor. 2 – It’s their own fault. I’ve just never been able to get those two ideas to agree. I mean, I understand that there will always be lazy people. And that in a system where you can supposedly work you way into some wealth, they’ll be poor. I understand that theory. But the idea that proverty is the fault of the poor? If you always have proverty as just a law of economics/capitalism, how can it be that it’s the fault of the poor when the dynamics of proverty and economics are beyond their control?
    Another thing that really bothers me about American capitalism is the demonization of unions. If labor is a form of capital, shouldn’t it have all the benefits and protections of other forms of capital?
    Lastly, what’s with this whole bad-mouthing of the “generational” aspect of proverty? Doesn’t it stand to reason that in a capitalist society where the quality of govt instruments with which to “pull one’s self up by the boot straps” depends on the local govt revenue, that the children of poor people receive a substandard education? And doesn’t this “generational” aspect of proverty cross all races, including whites?

  19. Stephen Steinberg Author

    Right, but where would we be without this new venue? We’re all grateful to Joe Feagin and Jesse Daniels for launching this website and kickstarting it with their own thoughtful and provocative posts.

  20. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To No1Kstate: Just to weigh in briefly on your question about generating a “new language” that sheds the embedded assumptions of the prevailing lexicon on race. This is a challenging project, but we can begin by recognizing all that is wrong with the prevaling language on race. Consider the term “race relations” itself, which reduces the problem of race to how well people get along, thereby shifting attention away from the role that major societal institutions play in generating the racial inequalities. You know a field is in trouble when its very title is an obfuscation! Here is a link to an article that I wrote for New Politics under the title: RACE RELATIONS: THE PROBLEM WITH THE WRONG NAME (playing on Betty Friedan’s coinage, “the problem that has no name”).

  21. Stephen Steinberg Author

    To Adia: I think you’re asking for empirical studies that provide ironclad proof that class-based public policies are less effective than policies specifically targeted for racial minorities. I’m not sure that such studies, or for that matter, how one would go about designing such a study. That’s why I tried to argue historically and conceptually about why affirmative action and other such race-targeted policies are necessary.
    Perhaps the research that comes closest to what you’re asking for are studies that have shown how robust economic growth fails to reach poor blacks. Indeed, as we know, it often has a negative impact, as when blacks are displaced or public housing blown up to make way for gentrification, supported by government incentives and policymakers. But two studies that come to mind that show that a rising tide does not reach everyone are Gary Orfield & Carole Ashkinaze’s 1997study of Atlanta: THE CLOSING DOOR: CONSERVATIVE POLICY AND BLACK OPPORTUNITY, and Barry Bluestone & Mary Huff Stevenson’s 2000 study, THE BOSTON RENAISSANCE.
    Finally, I think the debate over whether affirmative action should be based on class or race is relevant to your question. Here is a link to a piece that I wrote some years ago taking on Richard Kahlenberg and others, including William Julius Wilson, who declared that affirmative action should be based on class, not race:
    Finally, let’s beware of a false dichotomy. To argue for race-targeted programs is not to say that we don’t need universal programs as well. Obviously everybody stands to benefit from universal health insurance, to take one example, and as some have argued, poor minorities who are currently uninsured stand to benefit disproportionately. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge the limits and pitfalls of policies that do not address the urgent needs–the job crisis, in particular–of poor minority communities.

  22. Seattle in Texas

    No1KState, I hear you on the blaming the poor and the problems with problems of trying to reconcile the two notions of capitalism…. I also have trouble with unions being demonized. Though, have to say to a point I can understand after being down here. No it’s not that the right is rubbing off on me (believe me), it’s that I have seen a major union fail it’s workers in many respects. These union workers get paid LESS than the local non-union competitors doing the same jobs. Unbelievable. I still cannot believe it. They don’t educate their workers on how to use their unions, and so on. In addition, when there was a threat to strike, it did not prepare all folks associated across the state to strike, it was one store. The workers at the stores further away received notice that they are allowed to strike if they wanted to, but they weren’t organizing or preparing the workers in any way. Then those workers WERE AFRAID to strike because they were afraid of losing their jobs! Just couldn’t believe it. I still can’t. Honestly. It is as if the union is working on behalf of the corporation rather than the workers. The workers are paying dues for what? And for whom? Then certainly the racist history of unions most generally. So on that end, at least from the workers standpoint, particulary workers of color who have dealt with this union or one of the like, I think I can understand? But on the otherhand, I understand the positive sides of unions and their philosophy (a good union anyway….), they can be very powerful and an excellent way to help protect workers and combat racism and other types of inequalities. I am heavily biased though. There are some good unions. No doubt. I’m very much pro-union…at least in support of good unions.

    On the last part, I wasn’t sure if you were referring to me? If so, I’m not quite sure what it was you were thinking of? I’m no Libertarian and I know there were a couple of areas I was being a bit sarcastic. But no, I would never blame the poor for being poor. I think the reasons there are poor is because of capitalism and to help eliminate poverty would be to bring forth a different economic structure. Though, I would never that alone would eliminate racism. I think the example I had used was with reference to folks in particular African area and a U.S. scholar/official going into study their area, coming back to the U.S. and? I am not clear on how research helps those folks and areas under study all the time. Some research clearly has been very good and important. But when talking about poverty in particular, among any people and anywhere in the world, I sometimes have serious concerns. And it is frustrating that the most valuable and important research is ignored by the politicians all too often, while the wrongheaded, I would argue at times deceptive, and often inherently racist (whether it be from the “right” or “left”) is given some attention. I’m not always clear on many things, including scholarly works and whose interests they are there to serve. I sometimes don’t see how investing in research serves to help the situations and circumstances of the people or groups–particulalry the poor. And sometimes, it seems the poor are a great way to help make others wealthy and build incredible careers for some. I am not okay with that. And I don’t agree that some people should have substandard education. All people should have the right to get a college education and one that is free of discrimination. Good god could I run on, let me stop here. But I hope that makes sense? If you disagree, that’s okay too. Thanks!

    And ditto on #20.

    And I think that’s all–except thanks for a wonderful discussion!

  23. Stephen Steinberg Author

    A footnote to Adia #15. I learned today that in Chicago stimulus funds are being used to subsidize further demolition of public housing and to prepare the way for big-box development on the edge of the Loop. So much for the contention of Wilson and others that race-neutral policies will benefit blacks!
    So what we have here is a situation where the state cannot implement policies that help blacks, but there are no judicial restraints on policies that amount to an “ethnic cleansing” of the black poor. Yes, I know, this is pasted over by constructing housing that is nominally mixed-race and mixed-class, but this provides another answer to Wilson’s question query about “being black and poor in the inner city.” It is to be denied all rights.

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