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