In William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, Wilson—a prominent African American Sociologist, examines the structural and cultural factors involved in the patterned, or consistent, state of being black and impoverished in the United States. He addresses the culture of racism, and the culture of African-Americans alongside the structure of racism in the United States. His aim appears to be to put the discussion of the disproportionate effects of racism and thus poverty on the African-American community into a policy making, and/or a structural context. More specifically, he argues that structural racism is essentially to fault for the disproportionate effects of poverty on the African-American community. Through a concentrated examination of policy studies, city and neighborhood planning, and longitudinal economic analysis Wilson argues—rather effectively—that the common American ideology of the fate of Americans, more specifically African-Americans, being essentially in the hands of the individual is a false ideology—or, at least a misleading one.
A primary focus of Wilson’s was not only on the culture of African-Americans, but also on the culture of racism in the United States as well—albeit indirectly. Wilson is not as direct about the influence, and effects, of a racist ideology on the creation of policies that not only shape neighborhoods, but suppress economic aid, and withhold employment from specific groups, as he is on the effects of the culture created within the impoverished communities of some African-Americans. For example, when Wilson references major studies such as the MTO—the Moving to Opportunity Experiment, a HUD sponsored program conducted between 1994 to 1998, that followed families over time who had successfully moved out of impoverished neighborhoods with their help (to either suburban or city dwellings) to families who had not—he carefully dissects the weaknesses and strengths of the study, and tacitly acknowledges the racist policies that not only heralded the need for the study, but also influenced the factors in the study (48). To be fair, Wilson approaches these studies and experiments as a sociologist should—methodology, numbers, facts are the rule, leaving the racism that decides the parameters and limitations of a study as a factor that could only be surmised—weaknesses of the study due to racist policies, practices, and ideologies could only really be inferred.
Interestingly enough Wilson’s examination of the culture created within impoverished African-American communities struck me as much more profound and integral. At one point in his examination he notes a developmental deficit that is so important but also almost categorically ignored that it boggles the mind: “…’residing in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood cumulatively impedes the development of academically relevant verbal ability in children’—so much so that the effects linger even if the children leave these neighborhoods….young African-American children who had earlier lived in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood had fallen behind their counterparts or peers who had not presided previously in disadvantaged areas by up to 6 “IQ” points—a magnitude estimated to be equivalent to “missing a year or more of schooling”….(54)” Why is this deficit not examined to its teeth? The structural component here is obvious: these environments are not conducive to optimal childhood development. Structural forces did have a hand in shaping this neighborhood and the circumstances involved in the negative effects on the development of the children residing in these neighborhoods—but what of the culture? Not just African-American culture—which Wilson does address as being a complex mixture of psychological and social factors—but American culture as well. The creation of public education in America was a cultural phenomenon that resulted in policy. It could also be argued that the degradation of public education has also endured the same fate. Wilson even begins this very work by acknowledging that American culture influences these policy decisions that are at their core racist and disempowering. What is our culture saying about this failure to protect one of the most vulnerable groups in our society? This disturbing fact is just given a nod; it’s used as a point to highlight what is seemingly a more important point: if policies do not enact change earlier, if they’re not focused on the inherited circumstances for particular groups, then irreparable damage may be done. My argument: change the culture, change the policy. Wilson’s point: policy change is powerful change— “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 (61).” Agreed.
Wilson, William J. (2009). More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. W.W. Norton & Company.