Week 7

“The Environment of the Negro” [W.E.B. Du Bois]

In Du Bois’ “The Environment of the Negro” approximately 40,000 African-Americans living in inner city Philadelphia (175) were observed, or studied. African-Americans themselves were not just observed, but as the title suggests, special attention was paid to the environments in which they lived. More specifically, great detail was paid to the daily exposure, and key aspects of the inner city environment of Philadelphia in which this particular group of African-Americans lived; observations such as “paying comparatively high rents (176)” for substandard living conditions, “closets of tenements [that are] used by the public (176)” and by paying renters are noted and compared to both their white, and more economically better off counterparts. The significance of these most basic observations are two-fold: Du Bois Recognized that Philadelphia is simply representative—whether living conditions in Philadelphia be slightly better or worse– of the living conditions of most other inner cities, and that the environmental, or physical, living conditions of working-class African-Americans in the city was an ‘abomination’ and in need of reform (176).

Observations on social class, living communities, and moral judgments were made as well on the African-Americans studied. Specifically, it was found that African-Americans were less likely to move to areas with better living conditions if that move resulted in social isolation—or if other African-Americans did not live there as well. Du Bois explained that this factor, and others, determined how African-Americans moved (together, or in groups it was observed) and where: “Consequently emigration from the ward has gone in groups and centered itself about some church, and individual initiative is thus checked. At the same time color prejudice makes it difficult for groups to find suitable places to move to—one Negro family would be tolerated where six would be objected to; thus we have here a very decisive hindrance to emigration to the suburbs (177).”

Similarly, there was a “better class (177)” of African-Americans observed; in fact, Du Bois engaged in a small lecture on the danger of not acknowledging the social and economic diversity within the African-American community: “There is always a strong tendency on the part of the community to consider the Negroes as composing one practically homogenous mass….and there is no surer was of misunderstanding the Negro or being misunderstood by him than by ignoring manifest differences of condition and power in the 40,000 black people of Philadelphia (177).” This ‘better class’ of African-Americans lived themselves in isolation and associated with neither whites nor the majority of African-Americans it seemed. Du Bois observed, however, that stronger associations between this class and the wider African-American community could result in a stronger community as a whole.

“The Cost of Racial and Class Exclusion in the Inner City” [Loic J.D. Wacquant & William J. Wilson]

In “The Cost of Racial Class Exclusion in the Inner City” Wacquant and Wilson refer to today’s inner cities, or ghettos, as “closed opportunity structure[s] (184).” They recognize that while inner cities have notoriously been sub-par places to live for their residents, that living in the modern day city has become even more precarious due to the involvement of neoliberal politics and ideology on city planning and development: “Social conditions in the ghettos of Northern metropolises have never been enviable, but today they are scaling new heights in deprivation, oppression, and hardship (184).” A very important distinction is made between “low- and extreme-poverty areas (186)” and who lives in them.

Wacquant and Wilson found that simply living in a ghetto does not necessarily determine your class, and/or living circumstances, rather there appeared to be a pattern of inherited circumstances and environmental factors that determined whether one lived in extreme poverty versus low poverty conditions.
Education, the concentration of joblessness of residents in the area, and whether a parent received public assistance [when the current resident was a child] seemed to contribute to the likelihood of living in extreme poverty areas. It is worth noting that Wilson and Wacquant state the importance of just having a high school degree on one’s circumstances: “…a high school degree is a conditio sine qua non for blacks for entering the world of work, let alone that of the middle class. Not finishing secondary education is synonymous with economic redundancy (188).”

It was also found that social networks were depressed in extreme poverty, as compared to low poverty conditions, where many residents could not even claim having a best friend, giving the complete picture of those living in extreme poverty as being left to ‘fend for themselves’ (190). They state that living in extreme poverty areas, compared to low poverty areas, also means that you are less likely to know many of your neighbors (191). Ultimately they conclude that these circumstances of extreme poverty are not necessarily moral, or social judgments, on residents but a reflection of failed political agendas and ideologies: “It is the cumulative structural entrapment and forcible socioeconomic marginalization resulting from the historically evolving interplay of class, racial, and gender domination, together with the sea changes in the organization of American capitalism and failed urban and social policies not a “welfare ethos”, that explain the plight of today’s ghetto blacks (191).”

Lin, Jan and Mele, Christopher (Eds.) (2013). The Urban Sociology Reader (2nd ed).

One thought on “Week 7”

  1. Katrina,
    Good post and summary. In regards to DuBois many of the stereotypes are still true today in regards to Blacks being seen as a homogeneous group versus heterogeneous. Also, studies continue to show that many whites don’t want to live in an area with lots of Blacks because some believe Blacks bring the property values down. Also, studies show some banks continuously deny minorities loans for homes or they loan them money at a higher interest rate than one of their white peers, redlining continues and steering by real estate agents of blacks to certain areas.

    “The Cost of Racial and Class Exclusion in the Inner City” [Loic J.D. Wacquant & William J. Wilson]

    Those living in hyper segregated (high poverty) areas also lack social capital hence they don’t have friends who can provide them a network to work opportunities. They also discuss the movement of the Black middle class out of urban areas due to the opening of the housing market and the outlawing of housing covenants, redlining and racial steering by realtors. While manufacturing has relocated to the suburbs or overseas many urban workers don’t have adequate transportation to get out to where the jobs are (spatial mismatch theory).

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