GATES: On the day the famous Brown v. Board decision was announced,
Thurgood Marshall turned to now judge, Robert Carter and now judge, Constance
Baker Motley and said, "in five years it will be all over boys" he said.
"Because there won't be a race problem. We will be integrated into American
WILSON: See a lot of people back then felt that we would be free by '93 or
'83 or '73 just by removing racial barriers. But the problem is that a system
of racial discrimination over a long period of time can create racial
inequality, a system of racial inequality that will linger on even after
racial barriers come down. That is because the most disadvantaged blacks
victimized by decades and centuries of racial oppression do not have resources
that allow them to compete effectively with other people. They are at a
So the removal of racial barriers creates the greatest opportunities for
the more trained and educated minority members. People develop resources
because of the advantages associated with family background and the resources
that the parents passed on to the children, financial means, family stability,
and peer groups, so on. All of these things place more advantaged minorities
in a position where they can compete with other individuals of society when
racial barriers are removed. A lot of people back then didn't realize that.
So it was not enough just to talk about equality of freedom of individual
opportunity. You also had to deal with the problem of the accumulation of
disadvantages associated with previous racial oppression. That's why
affirmative action came in. Affirmative action was designed to address that
particular issue. But if the more advantaged minorities benefit
disproportionately from a program that emphasizes the freedom of individual
opportunity. They also benefit disproportionately from affirmative action
programs because they are in the best position to compete with other
individuals or groups for higher paying jobs, college admissions, promotions,
and so on. So affirmative action programs are likely to have a much more
positive impact on the more advantaged minority individuals and on the what I
call the truly disadvantaged.
So since Kenneth Clark recognizes back almost three decades ago in the
speech that he gave -- a commencement address in one of the Southern schools.
He said that the masses of blacks now realize -- this is back about 1967--the
masses of blacks now realize he said back then that they haven't really
benefited significantly from the civil rights movement. The civil rights
movement had benefited
primarily in a relatively small percentage of middle class and educated
I think that we should applaud those people responsible for the creation
of civil rights legislation because it has had some real positive effects on
substantial segment of the black population. At the same time, another
segment has been falling further and further behind because they have not been
reached; they have not benefited to the same degree. For example, I think that
if you did a careful study of affirmative action programs, you would find that
very few inner city blacks or blacks from the inner city ghetto have benefited
GATES: Why do you think the concerns with class--with economic
differentials, structural/economic differentials, and their
implications--eluded the analysts of our racial problems for so long?
WILSON: Well, that's a good question. The analysts are now beginning to
focus on some of these issues. But our discussion of race was so myopic that we
had a tendency to not pay attention to some of these non-racial factors that
impacted significantly on the black community. There were some people -- a
handful of people recognizing the importance of some of these non-racial
factors. For example, the late black economist, Vivian Henderson, stated
years ago just before his death that it's as if racism having put blacks in
their economic place stepped aside to see changes in technology and changes in
the economy destroy that place.
Now that statement is more applicable to the more disadvantaged blacks
than the advantaged blacks. Because I think that the disadvantaged blacks have
really been hard hit by changes in the economy. The computer revolution,
changes in scale-based technology. The internationalization of economic
activity had combined to decrease the demand for low-skilled workers.
Therefore, the gap between low-scale and higher scale workers is widening.
Because of historic racism, they are a disproportionate number of blacks in
the low-scale, poorly educated category, and they are falling further and
Trained and educated blacks are benefiting from changes in the economy in
the same way the trained and educated whites are benefiting. You see it in
many ways: take a look at black income today. If you divide black income into
quintiles, the top quintile has now secured almost 50 percent of the total
black income, which is a record. The top quintile in the white population has
secured about 44 percent of the white income, which is also a record.
Now it is true that the gap that whites have much higher income, overall
wealth, than blacks -- by wealth I mean not only income but assets. But
nonetheless if you just look at the distribution of income, inequality is
growing more rapidly in the black community surprisingly than in the white
community. If you look at the gap between the top quintile and the bottom two
quintiles, it is incredible.
GATES: SO that means that the economic shape of the community, the bell
curve of class, as I like to call it, has become fixed?
WILSON: That's right. It has really crystallized you see. We should
begin to recognize this. Some of our civil rights leaders are beginning to
recognize this. Hugh Price, for example, of the National Urban League invited
me to join the board of the National Urban League because he wanted to make
sure that these issues would be talked about, would be addressed. He
recognized that we have to do more than just pursue race specific policies,
important and necessary. But it is important now for black leaders to
recognize that they need to join forces with other groups in society who are
concerned about the devastating effects of economic trends on a more
disadvantaged segment of the population. I think that we have to become much
more aware of the impact of these changes on the black population in
GATES: Herbert Marcuse in 1958, I believe, wrote an essay in which he was
highly critical of the civil rights movement. And he said the principal effect
of this will be to create a new middle class. From what you are describing, we
have two nations; and they are both black. The black community has been
severed in two in a way
that we could scarcely imagine it in 1960.
WILSON: Actually though, Skip, I would say that you have a kind of
professional middleclass group, and then you have what we call sort of the
underclass. Then you have another group that is sort of a marginal working
class population that is becoming increasingly vulnerable, and I'm worried
about this group. These are the working poor and also the people who are just
above the poverty line but are still working. There is always the possibility
that because of the changes in the economy, the shift in the demand for certain
types of workers, for example, de industrialization has really hurt black
A lot of these marginal working class
folks are going to slip down into the underclass plagued by joblessness or
being forced out of the higher paying industrial jobs into the lower paying
service jobs. I am really concerned about that. As they get forced down into
the low paying service jobs, then they have to compete with the influx of women
who have been in the labor market and immigrants. It's really tough. I think
the one group that we don't have to worry too much about right now -- the
really trained and educated -- those who can enter the computer age...and
compete. That group is going to do fine. But the others I think we have to be
very, very concerned about. I think that the future of the
black masses is something to be worried about.
GATES: So were we better off pre-1965 as a community, to use that
metaphor, than we are today?
WILSON: Again, it all depends on what you look at. If you talk about the
overall socioeconomic status of the black population, we are better off because
we have a higher percentage of blacks in professional positions, more black
homeowners than we had back them, more black college graduates. No question
But on the other hand, if you look at the jobless rate for a certain
segment of the population, we are worse off. I think the inner city
joblessness is much higher today than it was back in 1960. In my book When
Work Disappears, I look at the jobless rate and changes in the jobless
rates in some of these neighborhoods. If you take, for example, the
neighborhoods that represent the historic core of the black belt in Chicago--
Douglas, Grand Boulevard, Washington Park -- in 1950 a substantial majority of
the adults in these neighborhoods were working in a typical week. Nearly 70
percent of all males, 14 and over, held a job in these neighborhoods in 1950.
As late as 1960 about 64 percent of all males held such jobs in a typical week.
But today 37 percent -- in 1990 only 37 percent--of all males 16 and over
in a typical week in these three neighborhoods. If you look both males
and females, in 1990 only one in four in Grand Boulevard was working. One in
three in Washington Park and only 40% of the adults in Douglas were working.
So, for that segment of population things had gotten worse, so we had to
dis-aggregate. On one hand if we just look at the aggregate figures I think
things, overall, are better. But when we dis-aggregate there are certain
segments of the population, particularly the black poor, who are worse off, and
then I think black workers, that is people who may not be poor, but have these
blue collar jobs. I think they're
struggling more today than there were in 1965.
GATES: So what do we do about it?
WILSON: I think, Skip, it's very, very important for black leaders to
broaden their vision and their imagination in the public policy arena. To
continue to push for very specific policies, affirmative action, these things
are necessary and important and we need them. But they're also going to have
to join with other forces and call for some sort of economic reform. And not
only economic reform, but also educational reform. When I say economic reform,
I mean creating situations where we enhance employment. And we could do a lot
of things. I mean, I've very, very concerned about the way in which the
Federal Reserve Board deals with, places much more emphasis on inflation,
and unemployment, and they let unemployment rise in order to lower inflation.
These are policies, I think, that we need to re-examine.
I think we need to pay particular attention to the need to work with
other countries in developing some sort of international policy where we could
coordinate activities to enhance economic growth in the various countries. I
also think that we need to talk about the creation of jobs for people
immediately, who are jobless, and we need to discuss a possibility of public
sector employment and not just try to rely solely on strategies in the private
sector. Because my research clearly reveals that if we want to put inner-city
workers to work immediately, we just can't rely on the private sector. They
don't want to touch them, they don't want to hire them. And they won't hire
them unless there's a real shortage of workers. They won't hire them unless we
create a situation where employers are looking for workers, rather than workers
looking for employers. And how do we do that? If we had a sustained tight
labor market that is what we might call full employment over a long period
time, not just five or six years, but say ten or fifteen years. We'd be
able to draw back into the labor market a lot of those people who dropped out
all together, or have given up looking for work.
And I'm not in the position here to talk about how we do that, how do we
generate tight labor markets, but there are folks out there who recognize there
are certain strategies that we should be talking about, that we need to pay
attention to, to regulating or controlling the labor market. These are things
that had to be done. At some point we're going to face up to the problems and
come to grips with them.
GATES: In 1978 you published the "Declining Significance of Race." People
lined up from here to China within the black community to be upset about that
title. People who hadn't even read the book, because they didn't want race to
be in decline as a significant variable in their oppression. Why is there
reluctance to do exactly what you just said what we have to do, which is to
start thinking about other issues that are not race based?
WILSON: Well, a lot of it has to do with our understanding of the way
that the world works and we still have a lot of educating to do. And I think
that eventually people are going to say, look we're facing a crisis here and
we're going to have to change our approach to public policy. I think
eventually people are going to be talking more about the kinds of issues that I
address in my latest book, and also in the previous book, "The Truly
Disadvantaged." It just takes, it takes time.
It's interesting that when the "Declining Significance of Race" was
published in 1978, and the second edition came out in 1980, people didn't want
to hear this talk about the crystallization of the black class structure. Now,
it's common knowledge and nobody questions that there is a this gap
When I said there was a declining significance of race, what I really
meant was not that racism was declining, in fact, in the book I talk about the
shift of racial antagonisms from the economic order to social political order.
What I was trying to suggest was that beginning in the 1960s, for the first
time middle class blacks could pass on their class status and resources to
their children in the way that whites have always done....
And so what I was trying to show was an accumulation of resources you pass
on to your children, leading to the crystallization of a black class structure,
meaning that class was becoming more important than race in determining
individual black life chances. Now, if people had taken that position
seriously, or had that vision, then when talking about public policy they would
have been paying much more attention, for example, to the
full employment bill rather than the Alan Bakke affirmative action case.
This things were discussed at the same time. No black leader--or I shouldn't
say, 'no,'I don't want to be extreme--but few black leaders were really paying
much attention to the Humphrey/Hawkins bill which really didn't amount to much.
It was much more important, had much greater potential to deal with the
problems of the black workers and black poor.
GATES: I gave a speech once in which I said that it was ridiculous for
anybody to think that racism had an impact on my life in the same way that it
did a 16-year old unwed mother living in the inner city. Somebody stood up and
called me Uncle Tom basically. Is there a kind of nostalgia about the unity of
the black community that we have to deal with?
WILSON: There is a tendency to want to treat blacks as a monolithic
socioeconomic group. The other day in my class I was pointing out if you
control for education, publications, and I had forgotten what the other
variable was. Education, publications, two key ones. Then compare the income
of black professors and white professors. Black professors make more than
white professors. That's because we are in demand. I'll tell you give me two
blacks in institutions of higher learning, one has a Ph.D. from an elite
institution and has a certain publication record. You give me a white scholar
with the same credentials, and
I will take that black scholar. That is predicting the success within the
academy as reflected in income promotions and so on. It's a reality. It's
supply and demand. So to think of our situation as comparable to that of the
inner city black kid who is struggling trying to make ends meet is ridiculous,
and we should recognize that.
GATES: It's almost the fear that if we say things are better for us that
somehow we will lose what we have gained.
WILSON: Right, there is a fear that if we talk about the progress of the
black middle class or the progress of highly trained and educated blacks --
maybe a cutback on affirmative action programs or less emphasis on getting
blacks into key positions and valued positions in society. There is that fear,
and I can understand it.
GATES: You were a pioneer in discussing the dual causes of poverty -- the
structural and the behavioral. How do we solve these problems addressing
both sides of that forum?
WILSON: I think it's very, very important not to put our heads in the
sand and ignore some of these behavioral problems because they are out there.
You talk to any person in the inner city, and they will not hesitate to
describe these behavioral problems because they affect their own lives. But
you get a lot of black academics, and they would rather not describe these
problems. They would rather sweep them under the rug. They would rather
talk about the positive aspects of the black community or the inner city.
There are many positive things to say about the black community. No
question about it. But if you ignore those things that are associated with
chronic subordination and racial restrictions, and you don't explain why the
murder rate is so high in sort of inner city neighborhoods or why the drug
addiction rate is so high or why the school dropout rate is so high or why
individual aberrant behavior
is so high in general. If you don't explain those things, you create a
void, which will be filled by those with the more conservative explanations
ranging from those that blame the victim, only focus on individual shortcomings
to those who say that there are biogenetic differences here that account for
these social pathologies.
So what I try to do in my books is to describe these problems and try to
explain them with the much more comprehensive framework that shows what happens
when people experience chronic subordination over long periods of time and to
develop modes of adaptation that take these aberrant forms that end up
destroying the individual and the family and the community you see and that
these things cannot be treated in isolation. They are related to the structure
of opportunity; they are related to some of the structural factors that I talk
about. There is an interaction between the two.
I see a very strong association between some of these problems like gang
behavior and violent crime and joblessness. For example, if you look at a
recent longitudinal study conducted by my colleague at the University of
Colorado -- we are doing a book together -- Delbert Elliot. He found, for
example, that by the time white males and black males reached the late 20s, the
violent crime ratio is 4 to 1 -- 4 black to 1 white. Much higher violent crime
rate among black males. However, when he controlled for employment, there was
no significant difference in the violent crime rate between white males and
black males. No significant difference.
The reason that they had a much larger rate of violent crime among black
males is because of the very, very high jobless rate. A lot of these people
are concentrated in the inner city neighborhoods. Joblessness triggers a whole
lot of other problems.
It's one of the things I try to emphasize in my latest book When Work
Disappears that a neighborhood in which people are poor and working is
entirely different from a neighborhood in which people are poor and jobless.
One of the reasons why you have had such an increase in rates of these social
dislocations ranging from gang formation to drugs to violent crime is the
jobless rate. So we have got to talk about these things; we've got to
talk about these problems. We have to introduce explanations that are far more
comprehensive than the simplistic views that have been advanced in the media
and by some of my more conservative colleagues.
GATES: What do we, as black intellectuals, and by extension members of the
black middle class, what do we do?
WILSON: Well, I think there, it is very, very important, Skip--I'm
speaking now of black intellectuals--to be more than just ivory tower
academics. I think that we have to be public intellectuals. We have to make
sure that our research reaches the widest possible audience, that we have to
talk about the policy relevance of our research, that we make ourselves
available to policy makers, to civil rights leaders, to other leaders who are
concerned about these issues that we work with them. I think that we have that
I think that middle class blacks in general have to get involved in
efforts to improve the lives of the disadvantage by participating in public,
private partnerships and working with community groups and
certainly supporting politicians who are trying to improve things, but
most important I would like to see middle class blacks as well as working and
lower class blacks for that matter. Work with other groups to improve
conditions in America to turn America around. I'm talking about
interracial coalitions -- that we can't do it alone.
GATES: Do you think we need a moral revolution within the black community?
Or a behavioral revolution? How do we get people to change these forms of
WILSON: I don't think they are going to change until we open up the
opportunities for them. That's when they will change. I think we have seen
many examples that when you open up the opportunity structure, people behave
accordingly because they have a future.
I can tell you about a program that I'm involved with in Chicago where we
took the entire sixth grade from one of the worst schools in the city of
Chicago on the south side, not just a selected few of the kids from that class
but the entire sixth grade. This is a school that had a very, very high
dropout rate, very, very high teenage pregnancy rate as the kids who were in
that school, and we
pulled the kids out of the public school system. I say we, actually the
guy I'm writing the book with did, pulled the kids out of the public school
system, public school system, placed in parochial and private schools around
provided around the city, provided mentors for them, guaranteed them
college scholarships -- if they completed the program.
These kids are now in their senior year. I don't know the exact figures
but certainly no more than one or two have been lost because of pregnancy or
being involved in crime. The overwhelming majority of these kids are still in
the program and are looking forward to going to college and are looking forward
to the future. They now have a future. This has changed their own behavior.
That's what we have got to do. We've got to open up the opportunity structure
so that people believe that there is something to look forward to.
For example, people are concerned now that the black kids are not
studying in school. A lot of them are not studying because they don't see a
relationship between school and post school employment. So they feel whether
you drop out of high school or whether you graduate, it doesn't make any
difference. You are not going to find a job. If they feel that way, they are
not going to study. So somehow we've got to create in their minds that it is
possible to find a job when you graduate. That education is meaningful,
that it will lead to something. We don't do that--we can't reform our
schools so that the kids clearly see a relationship between schooling and
employment after school. We are not going to get them to study. So that's
what we've got to do.
GATES: Finally, the Poor People's Campaign was about economic injustice.
What happened to that? I mean, where did it get derailed? Was it the success
of affirmative action that turned people's heads away from the economic
WILSON: I was so pleased when Martin Luther King was involved in trying to
pull these different groups together. But it was something that was very, very
new, and there was not a lot of enthusiasm for the Poor People's Campaign not
only in the Black community but in the Latino community and
the white community. There wasn't an sufficiently established space. I
think he probably was a little bit premature in trying to get it off the
ground. But I do think it was an excellent idea. It was something that we
have to really work at. There are efforts now to develop these kinds of
coalitions, but it's really very, very difficult because of the emphasis on our
society on ethnic and racial divisions.
The general view is that people
can't work together across ethnic or racial lines. That's even more true
today than it was back when King was trying to organize that Poor People's
Campaign. The Los Angeles riot heightened these divisions. The O.J. Simpson
trial heightened these divisions. So much so that blacks and whites in many
people's eyes are alien groups and have very little in common when in fact they
have more in common than they have differences. Common aspirations, common
goals, common concerns, common problems. I think what we need to do is begin
to talk about what these various groups have in
common so we can lay the basis for some sort of meaningful interracial
coalition down the road. In other words we need to talk about inter ethnic,
interracial unity much more than we do. We need to develop a public rhetoric
that captures the things that we have in common because right now the rhetoric
emphasizes things that divide us.
GATES: Do you in your heart of hearts do you think that the American
capitalist system can accommodate a normal distribution of black people in the
economy. Again, this bell curve of class....
WILSON: I don't see any reason why not. Let me just put it to you this
way. Corporate leaders don't lose much when -- in fact they gain -- when they
employ blacks and place them in responsible positions within the corporation.
There is such a thing as corporate liberalism. There was a
recent study that showed that even if the government ended affirmative
action programs, corporate leaders would still continue such programs because
they think it's good for business to have blacks in these positions -- in key
positions if they are qualified.
There is no reason why we couldn't have an adequate distribution of
blacks in key positions in our society. We just have to work at it. I mean
there is no major sacrifice here. The one problem is that if the economy is
shrinking and not growing and
white workers perceive blacks as competitors for a shrinking pie, then
there is going to be resistance. But if the economy is expanding so that there
are enough positions for everyone so that employers are looking for workers,
there is no reason why the capitalist system can absorb people into different
levels so that you would have an adequate distribution of minorities in these
positions as you now do whites.
GATES: Are you optimistic?
WILSON: No. I am not optimistic about the short term. I must say I'm
genuinely an optimistic person, but I am fighting pessimism right now. That's
because we seem to be retreating from using public policy as a way to fight
social inequality. We are much more concerned about balancing the budget right
now than dealing with
inequality. I think that eventually we are going to have to come to grips
with the issues because we are going to be faced with some severe problems that
are going to embarrass the United States in comparison with other countries the
way that they deal with these problems. So on a short term I am pessimistic.
I don't think things are going to get done in the immediate future, but in the
long term I think I'm somewhat optimistic. I think that we will eventually
come to grips with some of these issues.
GATES: In your book you talk about the fact that employers don't want to
hire blacks in the inner city. I was wondering if you could go into some of
the reasons that your research uncovered that they don't want to deal with that
WILSON: Yeah, the reason that employers are reluctant to hire inner city
workers is that they believe that the environment that they live in is so
devastating that it affects their work readiness skills and that they
developed the hard skills, numeracy, literacy, basic mechanical ability,
and the soft skills -- certain kinds of personality traits that they need in
order to work effectively with the consumer.
This is a view that is shared by both black employers and white
employers. Our studies show that, for example, where 74 percent of all white
employers that we surveyed had negative things to say about inner city workers.
Eighty percent of the black employers did so as well.
The question is to what extent
do these views just sort of reflect general racist attitudes? To what
extent do they reflect sort of an assessment of changes in the labor market?
My recent survey showed that only a very, very small percentage of jobs right
now--on the basis of employers' assessment of the nature of these jobs--only a
very, very small percentage really call for people with low cognitive skills
and low education. The jobs that don't require training -- some kind of
training and education are shrinking. Employers are sort of matching employees
these skill requirements. It's a real problem. Since so many of the
inner city workers are jobless for long periods of time, it aggravates their
employment prospects because people think they are just not job-ready. They've
been out of work so long that they don't know what the norms of the workplace
are. They may not show up for work on time.
So these are the general views of employers-- we are not going to
overcome these problems. We can preach until we are just blue in the face.But
you are not going to change these perceptions until you open up opportunities
for these kids to get better education because many of them are not getting a
decent education. In fact, the longer these kids stay in school, some of these
schools the lower their IQ score. The end of the first grade they are
enthusiastic looking forward to school. By the time they reach the fourth
grade, they are completely turned off. Not their fault. They want to learn.
They are dedicated to learning when they enter school, but the school systems
in some of these inner city neighborhoods, they are just so demoralizing that
these kids get turned off.
A lot of the employers see this. They think that the kids are not ready,
and they don't want to hire them for that reason. So we are not going to
change that until we, first of all, get people in the jobs where they can
develop employment records and then you can have supervisors recommend them for
jobs in the private sector. Secondly, we are going to have to open up
opportunities so that these kids can develop the skills, acquire the skills and
the training that they need to compete. It's not enough just to criticize the
employers and say you shouldn't approach the problem that way. That you should
have a commitment to hire these kids. It's not going to work. We are going to
have to come to grips with the fact that these schools are not training the
kids properly and that to some extent the employers' perceptions reflect some
aspect of reality.
In other cases I think that there is a tendency to discriminate against
even the qualified folks. It's what economists call statistical
discrimination. You don't have the time to do the background or the research
to find out whether or not this person has a good employment record or can
perform the job adequately. You say well, this person comes from this
neighborhood, chances are because he or she is from that neighborhood, he or
she is not job ready. Therefore, I won't take them. So these people get
systematically strained out before their qualifications are checked, and that's