William Julius Wilson(continued)previouspage 2 of 2

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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