Another View of W.J. Wilson

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Washington-Baltimore ATC Study Group

NO RECENT sociological/political thesis has sparked more controversy within the progressive left than William Julius Wilson’s book, The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. A self-proclaimed social democrat, Wilson has been relabeled by his left critics as a conservative, a “Black conservative,” a neo-liberal, and a liberal reformist

Our aim in this review will not be to label Wilson, nor to prove that he is or is not what he claims to be, but rather to grapple with the assertions he puts forth. We want to illuminate the real questions the left must deal with in regard to the marginalized Black population in America, and to use those questions to inform what action the left should take.

Wilson wrote The Truly Disadvantaged in response to the ascendance of conservative thought, which in recent years has come to dominate the debate around the increase in Black inner-city poverty.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action,” drew such criticism from Black and radical activists that liberal and progressive researchers, who had up until then put forward the strongest and most confrontational, yet sympathetic, analyses of the Black urban poor’s situation, began to shy away from addressing the question of the Black underclass for fear of being accused of racism.

Wilson describes four major ways in which progressives have dealt with, or not dealt with, the question of social dislocations among the Black urban poor since the early 1970s.

One approach has been to avoid association with “Moynihanism,” by avoiding the description of any behavior on the part of Blacks that might sound pejorative and stigmatizing. Wilson says this approach led to a dearth of liberal research and analysis of the underclass; it was left to the conservatives to take up those issues that liberals had been afraid to consider.

Another approach has been to refuse to use the term “underclass,” objecting to its unflattering connotations. Not only has this focus on terminology diverted the question from one of substance to one of language, but it has served to obscure the fact that such a growing group of impoverished inner city Blacks does exist, that this group is in fact distinct from the working class, and that the continued growth of such a group represents an extremely important social trend.

A third way in which liberals, according to Wilson, have approached the underclass issue has been to deny the very existence of an underclass by emphasizing selective data that tended to extol the virtues of underclass life. What had previously been described as pathological behavior on the part of Blacks was reframed as functional, pragmatic, adaptive and resilient

The problem with this approach, Wilson argues, is that such redefining of the underclass experience deflected from the fact that poverty and the problems it creates do exist, and the romanticization of the underclass took attention away from finding solutions to the problems.

The fourth way in which liberals have dodged the underclass issue has been to view current racial discrimination as the predominant factor in the current rise in inner-city social dislocations.

Wilson takes this argument up as one of the main points in his book, asserting that the widening class divisions among Blacks argues against blaming current racism for the plight of marginalized inner-city Blacks. He points out that “this same racism is directed with equal force across class boundaries in the black community.” He further contends that racism does not adequately explain the fact that there has been dramatically greater deterioration in the inner city in the post-civil rights period than there was in the preceding period.

This avoidance of the issue of the underclass has left conservatives free reign to dominate the discussion. No one has been more influential in the promotion of conservative interpretation of ghetto Blacks’ situation than Charles Murray, who, in his book Losing Ground, put forth the view that federal social programs are in fact harmful to the poor in that they contribute to poverty, to poor single parent Black family formation and work disincentive among poor Blacks.

It was largely Murray’s book that sparked progressives into action to refute him and to reassert the progressive argument on behalf of the urban ghetto Black population Wilson’s book is an attempt to pose the question of the Black under­class in a way that makes it a live question once again and to energize progressives to regain the preeminence they had in the ’60s in defining social policy.

Wilson addresses himself to liberals, but we feel that the socialist left has equally suffered a loss of influence and credibility because it has failed to generate new ideas about the problems of the poorest; the left has distinguished itself primarily by more resolutely pronouncing the word “racism” in the face of the right-wing assault

Wilson’s Theory of the Underclass

Wilson’s main goal is to show how and why a large number of Blacks in America have seen their lives getting worse precisely during the period when legal segregation has been rolled back and affirmative-action programs have opened doors to advancement for many Blacks.

Despite civil-rights legislation and affirmative-action programs, the Black ghetto underclass in America continues to grow. By “underclass” Wilson means:

“a heterogeneous grouping of (Black) inner city families and individuals whose behavior contrasts sharply with that of the mainstream America …. Today’s ghetto neighborhoods are populated almost exclusively by the most disadvantaged segments of the black urban community…. .Included in this group are individuals who lack training and skills and either experience long-term unemployment or are not members of the labor force, individuals who are engaged in street crime and other forms of aberrant behavior, and families that experience long-term spells of poverty and/or welfare dependency.”

Wilson demonstrates the extreme and recent rise in  the social “pathologies” pervading the underclass inner-city joblessness, teenage pregnancy, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed families, welfare dependency, and serious crime have all increased sharply since the 1970s.

Wilson’s main argument, specifically in response to the progressives who insist that racism is the fundamental cause for things deteriorating for some Blacks, is that things have gotten worse in spite of the gains made in eliminating legal racism, and that, in fact, for a substantial number of middle-class Blacks, things have gotten better.

Toward the examination of why this has occurred in this way, Wilson makes a distinction between the effects of contemporary racism and historical racism; he credits the latter with creating the conditions that make possible segregated poverty and social/political isolation under which the underclass presently lives, but dissents from his progressive critics’ view that the former (contemporary racism) is responsible for the perpetuation of these conditions.

This theoretical difference leads to a different evaluation of the weight that should be given to “race-based” strategies for solving the problems. In particular, Wilson criticizes the limitations of affirmative-action programs, which he claims have primarily helped those Blacks who already have some advantages in terms of economic status, education, job skills and social networking, but miss the truly disadvantaged:

“… although affirmative action programs do in fact create opportunities for some less advantaged minority individuals, ghetto underclass individuals are severely under-represented among those who have actually benefited from such programs. In other words, upon dose examination what we really see is a ‘”creaming’ process in the sense that those with the greatest economic, educational and social resources among the less advantaged individuals are the ones who are actually tapped for higher paying jobs and higher education through affirmative action.”

As a result of the positive effects of affirmative action on middle-class Blacks many of them have moved out of the ghetto, leaving behind a much more concentrated mass of poor and unemployed people. Some of the most compelling data Wilson presents documents the development of these “concentration effects” and the consequences in increased crime, teenage pregnancy, single female-headed households and persistent poverty.

This is not an indictment on Wilson’s part of those who left, but of the capacity of capitalism to thwart social reform as long as its fundamental structures are left intact

Impact of Deindustrialization

These concentration effects were of course exacerbated by the doubling of unemployment during the ’70s and ’80s. Blacks were more heavily concentrated in the job categories and geographical areas hardest hit by deindustrialization. Wilson argues that this process is a consequence of impersonal market forces, not personal racism. The cumulative, historical effects of racism, however, laid the groundwork for it to happen in the way it did.

Regarding the rise in single-female-headed households and the deterioration of the traditional, two-parent family system in the ghetto, Wilson refutes both the explanation that this is a holdover from slavery and that it is a function of anti-family values on the part of poor Blacks.

Wilson shows that the breakup of the Black family is a recent phenomenon and is primarily a response to Black male unemployment

Welfare benefits (AFDC), as an incentive not to marry, are only a secondary consideration in Wilson’s view; the main reason young Black women do not get married when they get pregnant, he says, is that the men are unemployed, and would prove to be financial burdens rather than helping partners. This reminds us that marriage is still very much an economic arrangement in our society.

Wilson draws a distinction between the phenomenon of unmarried mothers in the Black underclass and the increase of divorce and separation among the middle class, which is a result of feminist values (it is no longer considered virtuous or necessary to stay in a bad marriage) and the increased economic independence of women.

The left has sometimes minimized the problem of female-headed families saying that “women don’t need men” and ignoring the distinction between free choice and economic coercion.

Wilson believes that the rise in inner-city social and economic dislocation must be explained in terms of the “dynamic interplay between ghetto specific cultural characteristics and economic opportunities.”

He connects what he calls the “experience of poverty” with the “structure of poverty.” In other words, he invites us to think about the relationship between crime, poverty, unemployment welfare dependency, single females raising children alone, etc. that pervade the Black underclass, and how those problems are a consequence of the fact that the underclass is being socially and economically isolated from mainstream society.

Instead of endlessly repeating the truism that the poor are ultimately trapped by racism, he begins the systematic investigation of how the “trap is set,” in the tradition of Elliot Liebow, Lee Rainwater, and Herbert Gans.

Wilson’s policy proposals, designed to address the problems of the underclass, amount to a program of economic and social reforms “highlighting macro-economic policies to promote balanced economic growth and create a tight-labor-market situation, a nationally oriented labor-market strategy, a child support assurance program, a child care strategy, and a family allowance program.”

Modeled after the Western European family allowances program, Wilson’s proposals suggest a non-means-tested, therefore non-stigmatizing program that would, he says, benefit all citizens regardless of race or minority affiliation.

Because all families would be eligible for this program, Wilson says, there could be a formation of a broad-based coalition of labor, progressives and minorities to support it. Wilson calls this his “hidden agent,” whereby such policy would receive public approval because the white majority would support policies that would benefit them, when in fact the underclass would be the group most helped:

“The hidden agenda for liberal policy makers is to improve the life chances of truly disadvantaged groups such as the ghetto underclass by emphasizing programs to which the more advantaged groups of all races and class backgrounds can positively relate.”

The Critics Raged

Wilson’s book and the responses it has engendered have raised several issues we see as most important First, whether one agrees with Wilson’s arguments or not, one must certainly acknowledge his contribution to making the issue of the underclass a live and vital question once again The Truly Disadvantaged has been a splash of cold water on a hibernating progressive force, and one cannot disagree with him that we must wake up if we are to move forward.

Wilson has been attacked from left and right alike. For the most part his critics, whether progressive or conservative, argue that he is putting forth an essentially conservative position masked by liberal policy reforms.

Adolph Reed (The Nation, May 14, 1988) defends Wilson from charges that he is a neo-conservative, but argues that Wilson’s definition of the underclass in terms of “deviant” behavior puts him objectively in the camp of the right-wing culture of poverty theorists, who blame the plight of the underclass on bad values.

Reed further questions the existence of the underclass as an identifiable group separate from the working poor. He rejects Wilson’s dismay at the life conditions of the poor as class and patriarchal bias, and demagogically turns “truly disadvantaged” into a new twist on “deserving poor.”

While many political activists may find Wilson’s methodology loo clinical and detached for their tastes, he clearly is an advocate for the poorest of the poor, not a superior observer. He effectively demonstrates that the underclass is in a crisis not of its own making, and that its behavior results from adaptation to oppression. Putting the shoe on the other foot, Reed’s moral relativism could be perversely interpreted as giving aid and comfort to laissez-faire attitudes.

Wilson and others, such as Robert Starks, Phillip John, and Helene Slessarev (The Guardian, March 2, 1988) and Andy Pollack (“Critique of Wilson Julius Wilson: The Ignored Significance of Class,” ATC 16) have made the more substantive criticism that Wilson falsely dichotomizes overt discrimination and race-blind structural dynamics.

Whites are better able, for example, to protect themselves from market forces through seniority rules and exclusive job-finding networks. It is probably true that Wilson does not give enough weight to institutional racism, but his critics seem to miss Wilson’s main thrust. ‘The underclass has grown despite affirmative action, and its problems would persist even if racism were completely eliminated tomorrow.

His point is not to attack affirmative action, but to demonstrate how the growth of class divisions among Blacks has prevented the completion of the civil rights revolution of the ’60s. We can go beyond Wilson and point to the development of a Black elected officialdom that has at times represented the interests of the Black middle class and the white business community to the detriment of the unorganized underclass.

A Misguided Strategy

The real difference between Wilson and his critics on the left is one of strategy. Wilson wants to emphasize class-based remedies that can gather support from a broad coalition. Despite the unfortunate use of the name “Hidden Agenda” this idea is closely akin to the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson’s call for finding the “economic common ground.”

Wilson’s suggested reforms include universal, non-stigmatizing programs for health care, education, jobs, housing,. child care, and family allowances. Starks et al emphasize stepping up the fight for race-based remedies such as affirmative action and school and housing desegregation. Pollack sees in the Hidden Agenda a retreat from promoting the rights of the most oppressed in the face of majority backlash.

While it is beyond the scope of this article to seriously discuss a program for Black liberation, we agree that the political conception of the Hidden Agenda is misguided. Our program must include economic reforms that benefit all sectors of the working class, but whites cannot be somehow fooled into supporting programs that will primarily help poor Blacks. We agree that white people must be won to the idea that anti-racism and class solidarity are in their interests.

One element of this struggle is the development of a credible analysis of the underclass. On many questions the understanding of the left remains frozen at the consensus reached during the New Left period of the ’60s and early ’70s.

Thus we have a surreal situation in which we have a lot to say about certain safe, well-understood issues such as U.S. intervention in Central America, police brutality and equal pay for equal work, but little to say about other vital issues such as drugs, crime, teen pregnancy.

Wilson’s work, warts and all, is a first step down the road to facing reality without flinching. Pollack, through a chain of guilty associations, links Wilson to all that is evil, including the CIA and Albert Shanker. We hope that ATC readers will see beyond this excessive attack and try to learn from and critique Wilson’s science without feeling they have to adopt his entire world view.

Conclusions: Beyond Wilson

Having defended what we view as the core of Wilson’s argument we want to conclude by indicating some ways in which we need to go beyond him. His book tacitly assumes that reforms will take place within the basic structure of capitalism. Without radical reorganization of the economy and the sentiment that determines policy, liberal reforms are doomed to failure.

Specifically absent from Wilson’s discussion is any mention of a class struggle or a mass movement to advance that struggle. We do not know what Wilson thinks about this, as he does not say. Whatever his beliefs, however, we believe that a class struggle carried forward by a mass political coalition is absolutely necessary in order for change to have any meaning.

In addition to needing the force of a mass movement to obtain reforms, the process of struggle itself is vital to preparing the people to reap the benefits. As Marx often said, the working class needs to spend “forty years in the desert” to prepare itself to rule.

The left has often limited itself to defending the liberal welfare state because the liberals have lost the courage or even the desire to do it. Our program is not government handouts (although we are for them as long as they are necessary) but self- and world-transforming self-activity and human solidarity. Where the liberals offer pacification and marginalization through social isolation, we offer empowerment.

Both the experience of poverty and the structure of poverty for the under-class must be transformed. As Wilson says, the “pathologies” or “social dislocations” that afflict the Black urban ghetto area response to the objective conditions facing the underclass. We agree with Wilson that once opportunity is enhanced in a restructuring of the experience of poverty these “pathologies” will also begin to disappear.

In our opinion, two things must happen to advance our progressive goals. First, we must provide the underclass with economic opportunities by implementing policies such as Wilson proposes. The lack of opportunity and the dramatic and pervasive effects of this lack of opportunity has led to hopelessness and a profound sense of worthlessness among the underclass.

Hopelessness leads to self-destructive behavior, manifested in the deliriously accelerating drug problem and heightened rates in violent crime. Improving the life conditions of the under-class is the only way to begin to excite self-interest, self-motivation, self-worth, hope in the future and a belief in the possibility that life can be better than it is.

But policy changes alone are not enough; the ultimate solution lies in the restructuring of the economic and political machinery that determines how our society’s wealth is to be divided. Revolutionary change can occur only when people sense hope in the future.

What flows from the awakening of hope in the future is the will to action; the will to be active makes possible the organization of a coalition, and through the process of building a coalition, a sense of empowerment and direction will result But such a movement cannot begin to grow without the dissolution of the underclass, nor can the underclass be expected to have the energy for action as long as they are intractably depressed.

It is for this reason that radicals are obliged to support the kinds of reforms Wilson proposes, not as the solution, but as an essential step towards a more radical, fundamental solution.

It is not all that difficult to name the specific content of racial and economic equality, or to get agreement among the progressive left as to what that content should be. The truly interesting question for us is how to energize the coalition of which Wilson and Jesse Jackson speak.

How do we get people to believe that it is in their interest to support reforms that will benefit first and foremost the most oppressed? It seems to us that is where the unified energy of the left ought to be going.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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