William Julius Wilson is
a University Professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.
He is a past president of American Sociological Association and recipient of the National Medal of Science.
He is the author of Power, Racism, and Privilege; The Declining Significance of Race; The Truly Disadvantaged; and When Work Disappears. His most recent book, The Bridge over the Racial Divide is a call for inter-racial coalition-building to effect social change.
New River Media Interview with William Julius Wilson
QUESTION: How did African Americans fare during the Great Depression and under the New Deal?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: During the Great Depression, African Americans were faced with problems that were not unlike those experienced by the most disadvantaged groups in society. The Great Depression had a leveling effect, and all groups really experienced hard times: poor whites, poor blacks. Now, it's true that blacks also faced the problem of discrimination, even during the Depression, but for the most part, blacks felt that they were in the same boat as everybody else. They didn't experience that sense of real relative deprivation as if they were being singled out. And it was clear that it had a psychological uplifting, believe it or not for some blacks to know that others were experiencing similar problems.
There is some evidence that some New Deal programs in some of the states discriminated against blacks. But I have been sort of - I've been impressed overall with the relatively fair treatment that blacks received during the New Deal. And if you talk to black leaders like A. Philip Randolph, who also mentioned that blacks in many respects did better during the recession in terms of relative treatment than in other times.
QUESTION: Could you talk about the importance of A. Philip Randolph and his threatened march during World War II?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, for the first time, A. Philip Randolph demonstrated that blacks really have the power to put pressure on the government to move in directions that would enhance the status of blacks. The very idea of having a march on Washington during a war, which would embarrass the United States as they attempt to deal with the, with the enemy, was really a very important symbolic change in the way that blacks were addressing the problems of race in America.
QUESTION: What did the advent of World War II mean for African Americans?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, for one thing it meant that blacks could say that they have contributed to the war effort, even though they were in segregated units. But more important, it opened up job opportunities in factories because of the labor shortage, and blacks experienced fairly rapid mobility during that time. And it also, I think, hastened their entry into blue-collar positions, particularly following the war. I'm talking about factory jobs in urban areas, even in Southern cities blacks were working, particularly in those factories in the South and urban areas that were producing war machinery. Blacks were working in those areas as well. You know, there was a gradual movement of blacks to Northern areas throughout the first half of the twentieth century. And as jobs opened up in Northern industries, there was a fairly rapid increase during the 1940s, so much so that the population of blacks in certain cities quadrupled.
QUESTION: What did this migration mean for the economic and political status of African Americans?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: What it meant was that blacks gradually developed a working class population. Prior to this time, they were overwhelmingly impoverished. You're talking about well over three-quarters, over 80 percent of the black population characterized as being very poor. But after World War II, you saw the gradual development of a black working class, and eventually a black middle class. So, the entry into these goods-producing industries was a stepping stone into higher status and the development of a fairly sizable black working class.
QUESTION: How did African Americans feel about fighting a fascist regime that persecuted Jews while they themselves faced racial discrimination at home?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: There were some black nationalists who argued that blacks should not be fighting in a white man's war, that Hitler didn't do anything to blacks, so why should blacks be involved in this war? But that was a minority view among a small group of black nationalists. Overwhelmingly, blacks identified with the war effort, and they felt that black Americans, white Americans, other Americans, were in real danger if they didn't get involved in this war in a meaningful way.
To the extent that there was emphasis on fighting racism abroad, some blacks, a small number of blacks, of black leaders, that said why are we spending so much time addressing the issue of racism abroad, you know, fighting racism in Germany, when racism is still very strong in the United States. But to say that this was representative of the black view would be a misstatement. Blacks overwhelmingly supported the war back them, overwhelmingly supported the idea of fighting the kind of racism that the Nazis typified.
QUESTION: I want to talk a little bit about the Moynihan Report, the 1965 report on the Negro family. Could you summarize what Moynihan said in his report?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, the Moynihan Report highlighted the fact that the Negro family was weakening as reflected in the growth of female-headed households, and that the growth of female-headed households would have profound negative implications for the black family, because female-headed families are much more vulnerable to problems in the larger society, much more likely to be impoverished, and much more likely to experience difficulty in socializing children to compete in the broader society. With the absence of a father, the pressures on the mother are all the, all the greater. So, Moynihan was concerned about that, and felt that much more attention should be given to the family structure in the black community.
QUESTION: What kind of a reaction did the Moynihan Report engender?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: It's interesting that when people talk about the controversies surrounding the Moynihan Report, they fail to realize that he wrote a speech for President Johnson, which was presented at Howard University, a commencement speech, two months before the Moynihan Report was released. And that speech included many of the main arguments of the Moynihan Report. And it's interesting to note that black leaders praised that speech because it highlighted the problems of the black family and associated the problems of the black family with lack of opportunity in the broader society, and that if you improved the conditions in the broader society you would also improve the conditions of the black family. So it was a call to recognize that the black family is suffering and the way to address these problems is to open up opportunities for blacks so that the families can be strengthened.
But, when the Moynihan Report was released, the controversy that was generated was associated not so much with what the report actually said, but the interpretation of the report. And there were some people who claimed that Moynihan was arguing that the black family was pathological and that the problems in the black community can be traced to the pathological black family. That's not what the report said. The report said that the black family is growing weaker and that this is something that we should be concerned about, that the growth of female-headed households was becoming, or has become fairly rapid, and therefore we need to pay more attention to these folks. And that if we are going to address the problems with the black family, we need to look at the lack of opportunities facing black Americans and how the lack of opportunities creates strains and stresses that are reflected in family break-ups.
QUESTION: Why is family break-up a problem?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Single-parent families, family break-ups in the black community are problematic because of the impact on children, and that's the main thing. Single-parent families, female-headed families are overwhelmingly impoverished families. There is an association between female-headed families and poverty. They talk about the feminization of poverty. So, children growing up in these poor, female-headed families are at a disadvantage, and there's research that shows that poor, female-headed families are much more likely to have kids who don't reach the level of achievement in terms of social outcome that we associate with children in married couple families. So there is an association, I think, between poor social outcomes and female-headed families.
The reason that the large proportion of female-headed families in the black community is a problem is not because they're headed by women, but because these families are overwhelmingly impoverished families. In the United States, there's an association between poverty and family structure - some people call it the feminization of poverty. But this is quite different from Sweden, where the female-headed family rate is about equal to that of the United States, but poverty is not associated with family structure because Sweden you have a stronger family supports. You have family allowances that provide income. You have comprehensive child care programs. You have wage subsidies for mothers who are working in the labor market. And so the poverty rate of female-headed families is relatively equal to that of married couple families. That is quite different from the United States. And for that reason, I'm concerned about the growth of single-parent families in the black community. And in fact, I'm concerned about the growth of single-parent families across the country, as long as these families are struggling financially.
QUESTION: What exactly did Moynihan say about the relationship between employment, welfare, and family breakdown?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: What Moynihan talked about back then is, I think is true today, and that is joblessness creates problem streams in the family. It leads to family break-ups resulting in an increasing number of families going on welfare. And so if you want to strengthen families, you should provide, the logical conclusion, following his arguments, would be to provide employment opportunities for males, not to mention females. But the lack of jobs increases family tensions, leading to marital break-up, leading the growth of female-headed families, which oftentimes results in greater use of welfare.
[In my own research], what we found was a strong relationship between black male joblessness and single-parent families. We found that employed fathers were two-and-a-half times more likely to marry the mother of their first child than jobless fathers. This is especially true of men under the age of thirty-five. So, in the inner city we found a very strong relationship between male joblessness and female-headed families. And this led us to develop what we call our male marriageable poll index, that is, the sharp decrease in the proportion of males, particularly young males, who are marriageable, that is, who have jobs. And the lack of jobs among males is definitely associated with the growth of single-parent families. There are other factors involved too, but that's one of the key factors.
QUESTION: Why are jobs so scarce in the inner city?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, they're scarce for a number of reasons. One is that a lot of industries have relocated to the suburbs and to other areas around the country. Another reason is that the inner cities have experienced a sharp out-migration of working and middle class families, and as they've left, a lot of the jobs have, have followed them. Many of these people were involved in businesses and so on. So, I think it's due to the exodus of higher income families associated with the exodus of jobs and other resources that flow out of the inner city.
QUESTION: Can you talk specifically about the impact of black suburbanization, blacks in the past ten, twenty years leaving the city and going out to the suburbs?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, what you have had is a gradual movement of blacks in the inner city neighborhoods to suburban neighborhoods, and oftentimes these end up as black suburbs. But as the higher income blacks withdraw from inner city neighborhoods, it removes what I call an important social buffer that's especially important during periods of an economic downturn, because you have, during the economic downturn you have these hard income families who have the resources to keep a lot of the institutions going, like stores and businesses and so on. But the exodus of these families also remove important role models for the kids. A lot of these kids grow up in neighborhoods where a significant proportion of the adults are not working and therefore you, over time, develop a casual or non-work environment, which is significantly different from a, from a working environment, because kids develops the norms and the expectations that are associated with casual or infrequent work, and therefore they are at a disadvantage when they have to compete with kids who grow up in environments where there are many steady breadwinners.
QUESTION: Has there been a problem since the early 1970s of growing income inequality?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Yes, there has been a really steady increase in income inequality since the early 1970s. And this is in sharp contrast with the period from the mid-1940s to early 1970s. In that previous period, the period after World War II, a rising tide did indeed lift all boats, so much so that the poor were becoming less poor, not only in relative terms, but in absolute terms as well. And it was a really remarkable period. There was no income inequality as such, or I should say during this period the increases in income were fairly comparable, so you had a pattern of very broad economic progress, family economic progress. After 1970, that all changed. The higher income groups continued to experience the increases in income whereas the lower income groups - particularly the bottom 40 percent - were experiencing stagnating or declining incomes. And this inequality increased up through the mid-1990s.
Now, since about 1997, you could argue that the inequality is in remission because of the strong economy, and may remain in remission if the economy remains strong. But there were other factors that contributed to the rising inequality, not just simply economic factors, not just simply a slow-down in productivity growth and economic growth, not just in personal economic forces. But there were social and political factors that contributed to the rising inequality. In the previous period, you had strong unions that ensured that workers got adequate pay increases. You had basic supports for workers, including non-wage benefits. You had steady increases in the minimum wage. You had a thoroughly progressive tax structure. You had a macroeconomic policy that emphasized full employment, and a strong economy. All of these things contributed to the broadly equal pattern of family income progress.
After the 1970s, that all changed. The unions experienced a downward spiral, and therefore workers' wages suffered as a result. There were very few increases in the minimum wage. The economic policy shifted, or monetary policy took over, and whereas in the previous period it took a backseat to basic macroeconomic policy. After 1973, it became much more dominant and emphasized controlling inflation over everything else. And so much so that in certain situations monetary policy led to the creation of recessions. All of these things worked against workers. Then you had the Reagan experiment, which led to a change in the tax structure, which rewarded the wealthy and resulted in the poorer groups paying more taxes. All of these things contributed to the rising inequality.
The basic difference between the period after 1973 and the previous period is that the nation's equalizing institutions - unions, public education, the welfare state broadly defined - were much weaker in the present period. And as I said before, the rising inequality has entered a period of remission. But, how long it will remain in remission will depend on how strong, how long the economy with remain strong, and the extent to which we can reinforce some of the positive developments associated with a strong economy by, you know, basic social supports for ordinary families.
QUESTION: What, and very basically, what is the significance of unequal incomes, and what does that mean for society in general, beyond just the income differences?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: Well, when there is this rising inequality, when there is this expanding gap between the haves and the have-nots, it creates an atmosphere that's not conducive to congenial inter-group relations. The tensions that are associated with the rising inequality are often manifested in racial antagonisms, and ethnic antagonisms, and class antagonisms. I maintain that the period during the first half of the 1990s, the period in which rising inequality reached its peak, was a period in which we came very, very close to a demagogic immobilization of racism in this society. Our leaders, public leaders, were openly demonizing during this period the most vulnerable groups in society - minorities, immigrants, women on welfare - with messages that were resonating with the general population because at that time people were experiencing economic strain, worrying about their future, not fully understanding what is happening to them. And these demagogic messages shifted attention away from the real source of their tensions and problems, shifted away from the real source of the tensions and problems onto minorities, immigrants and welfare poor.
Now, since 1996, the frequency and intensity of these demagogic messages have noticeably declined. People are still worried about their economic future, still concerned about their children's future, still worried about holding on to their jobs, but they feel a lot better about their economic situation today than they did in the first half of the 1990s, when Congress changed and the conservative leaders felt that their messages would resonate with the general population. I think that social tensions have lessened because of the strong economy, and now is a time where people are concerned about promoting equality, racial equality, economic equality, now is the time for them to build in this shift in the public's mood.
QUESTION: The title of one of your book is When Work Disappears. What does happen, especially in inner city neighborhoods, when work disappears?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: When work disappears, that is when a growing number of adults are not working, it has an effect not only on individual life, but on family life and neighborhood life as well. Families suffer because it increases strains and tensions in families and often leads to family break-ups, or results in people not following-up an out-of- wedlock pregnancy, for example, with marriage. Children suffer because the father is often absent, and the father oftentimes feeling not being able to pull his weight because he is not working, does not give the kids the kind of attention and love an affection that they deserve because he is removed from the family, his relationship with the family is tenuous. Neighborhoods suffer because joblessness creates crime, and affects the social organization of the neighborhood.
Neighborhoods in which people are poor and working are entirely different from neighborhoods in which people are poor and jobless. Jobless neighborhoods are troubled neighborhood. They're dangerous neighborhoods that are much more likely to have rates of crime and drug addiction and prostitution - all of the things that are associated with a neighborhood that lacks social organization. When people are working they are much better organized. They're much more likely to have a neighborhood that's viable and stable, and that's why I emphasize that the changing nature of work in the inner city has had a profound affect on life and stability in inner city neighborhoods.
QUESTION: Has there been much economic progress and political progress for blacks, from the Civil War to World War II?
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: The progress of blacks from the Civil War to World War II, in some respects was fairly rapid because in the Civil War, you're talking about the overwhelming majority of black Americans just coming out of slavery. Now, they experienced some progress during the period of Reconstruction. But you really couldn't speak meaningfully of a black class structure. Blacks were just overwhelmingly impoverished. By the time of World War II, however, you saw the beginnings, the crystallization of a black class structure. You had a fair percentage of people who had reached what we call the middle class. You saw the development of a growing working class population, so much so that they probably represented at that time about 25 percent of the black population. And you saw a dwindling number of truly lower class blacks. So, for the first time you could begin to speak meaningfully of the development of a black class structure by World War II. And if you look at the black class structure at World War II, at the beginning of World War II, with the black class structure at the Civil War, the differences are huge.
QUESTION: In The Truly Disadvantaged, you sort of take somewhat of a middle position with regard to the culture of poverty argument.
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON: What I did, you see, in The Truly Disadvantaged, as well as in When Work Disappears, I tried to demonstrate the importance of the environment in black life chances. And you can't capture the importance of the environment unless you recognize the interaction between social conditions and cultural conditions. The two things go together. Sometimes social conditions generate cultural patterns. For example, one social condition is lack of economic opportunity associated with racial discrimination and changes in the economy. And this results in high rates of joblessness. High rates of joblessness over time generate predictable patterns. If you're not working, over time, you're much more likely to develop attitudes and orientations and behavior patterns that are associated with casual or infrequent work. And then when you open up opportunities for people, you notice that these attitudes, orientations, habits and styles also change.
So there's an interaction there between social, structural and cultural. And if you want to fully capture the environment, you have to show how these things interact. If you leave out the cultural dimensions, then you really play into the hands of a lot of people who argue that blacks are somehow biogenetically inferior to whites because they will maintain, well, we control for education and family background and so on, and we still see that blacks score lower on these cognitive tests than whites. This is the argument put forth in The Bell Curve by Richard Hernstein and Charles Murray. But you haven't controlled for the full environment. You haven't captured the cumulative effects of racial subordination and isolation, effects that are played out in both the cultural dimension and in the social dimensions. There are cultural responses to chronic subordination. There are social responses to chronic subordination. And so you have to capture these two dimensions and show how they interact and inter-relate if you really want to demonstrate the impact of the environment on the black population.