Interview with William Julius Wilson, professor of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University and an advisor to the Clinton administration on social and public policy issues.


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 society."

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 disadvantage.

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 blacks.

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 the 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 from affirmative action.

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 further behind.

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, which are 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 particular.

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 males.

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 about it.

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 were working 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 of 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 developing.

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 Humphry/Hawkins 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 high 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 obligation.

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 dysfunctional behavior?

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 the country, 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, and 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 crisis?

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 population.

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 haven't 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 with 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 unfortunate.

His books include The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and the Changing American Institutions; The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy; and When Work Disappears.   Interview conducted in the spring of 1997.


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