Reflections: Hard to ignore

Thursday, April 16, 2009 at 1:43am

Thoughtful, nuanced discussion about controversial topics like race and poverty seldom gets the same coverage or response as overheated, uninformed rants and rambling.

So it’s a good bet distinguished author and professor William Julius Wilson’s new volume <i>More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (W.W. Norton), one of the most important books on this topic written in decades, will be ignored in many quarters of the cultural sphere.

Wilson, a Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University, prides himself on careful research and judicious statements. He doesn’t give short answers to questions and he won’t take comfortable positions to curry favor with anyone.

As with past works like The Declining Significance of Race, The Truly Disadvantaged, or When Work Disappears, Wilson’s books approach thorny subjects without pre-conceived notions or agendas, and his findings are so carefully worded they frustrate anyone seeking simple talking points or ‘sound bite’ material.

A prime example is his view on the question of whether current economic conditions in many communities are more a reflection of personal choice and morality or the result of governmental neglect and policy. Wilson writes, “If one attempts to explain rapid changes in social and economic outcomes in the inner city, there is little evidence that cultural forces have the power that changes in the economy had.”

Yet, he is equally critical of the contention residents of these neighborhoods have no power or control over their lives, and that such factors as the lack of male role models, the impact of substance abuse or the criminal behavior of a select minority haven’t also taken their toll.

And he gets pot shots from both sides. He’s been miscast in some circles on the left as a ‘blame-the-victim’ type and dismissed by others on the right as another misguided academic calling for more government intervention into the lives of its citizens. Neither characterization comes close to being accurate, but Wilson’s work takes time and effort to appreciate.

Plus, he’s unafraid to cite the need for further study and consideration of an issue, something detractors deem being overly cautious and too dependent on statistical findings in making assessments.

Even some supporters have problems with Wilson’s approach. Journalist Jack White, writing in the online magazine The Root, calls  More Than Race both vital and disappointing, because “the book appeals to the intellect, but it does not reach the heart.” White also says it is “destined to be ignored outside a cozy circle of social scientists and policy wonks. Written at a high level of abstraction, its bloodless pages give readers little sense of the real lives of the poor people Wilson theories about.”

On that score White has a point. Unlike a similar pioneering figure, sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, Wilson’s prose is always presented in a scholastic rather than emotional manner. Where Frazier might indulge in hyperbole or use street lexicon to make a point, Wilson prefers charts and diagrams plus footnotes and references to other journals and writings.

Even when he gives extended interviews as he did with commentator Ben Wattenberg when his book The Bridge over the Racial Divide was released, Wilson never gets fiery or strident, even when discussing personal heroes like A. Philip Randolph or talking about the Great Migration, one of his favorite subjects.

Still, it shouldn’t be necessary for everyone to invoke the style of a Baptist minister in order to be recognized and accepted. Like Gwen Ifill’s The Breakthrough – Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, William Julius Wilson’s More Than Just Race is mandatory reading for those interested in critical discussion and cogent analysis of historical events and social policy rather than reflexive ideological warfare.


Filed under: City Voices