American Thought Today: William Julius Wilson, *More Than Just Race* (2009)

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Jeffrey Rubard

Aug 9, 2020, 3:02:55 AM8/9/20

I am an internationally known Harvard professor, yet a number of unforgettable experiences remind me that, as a black male in America looking considerably younger than my age, I am also feared. For example, several times over the years I have stepped into the elevator of my condominium dressed in casual clothes and could immediately tell from the body language of the other residents in the elevator that I made them feel uncomfortable. Were they thinking, “What is this black man doing in this expensive condominium? Are we in any danger?” I once sarcastically said to a nervous elderly couple who hesitated to exit the elevator because we were all getting off on the same floor, “Not to worry, I am a Harvard professor and I have lived in this building for nine years.” When I am dressed casually, I am always a little relieved to step into an empty elevator, but I am not apprehensive if I am wearing a tie.

I get angry each time I have an experience like the encounter in the elevator. It would be easy to say that the residents’ reaction to me is simply another manifestation of racism. However, when I lived in a middle-class Chicago neighborhood that bordered a ghetto neighborhood, I, too, would tense up when I walked my dog at night and saw a black man or a group of black male teenagers approaching me on the street. The portrayal of black men in the media and their widely known disproportionate rates of incarceration may have influenced some of the residents in my condominium when they saw me in casual clothes. This experience is exacerbated for low-skilled black males and, as we shall see in Chapter 3, is especially problematic when employers assess the suitability of black males for jobs. This is a cultural phenomenon in which people respond to perceptions about black men depicted in the electronic and print media, including racist perceptions. But as a sociologist, from years of research and study I am also aware of and understand the structural reasons—including the limited availability of economic and social opportunities—for the extremely high crime rates of young black men from ghetto neighborhoods. Indeed, I will spend some time discussing the plight of black males in Chapter 3, basing the current exploration on this previous scholarship.

Although we have made considerable progress since the days of Jim Crow segregation, it is clear that we still have a long way to go. Indeed, one of the legacies of historic racial subjugation in this country is the extremely high crime rate among black males, including the violent crime rate. And as long as these disturbing rates persist, people of all racial and ethnic groups will often react to black males in public and private spaces in negative ways.

These problems will not be addressed, however, if we are not willing to have an honest and open discussion of race in America, including a discussion of why poverty and unequal opportunity so stubbornly persist in the lives of so many African Americans. We depend on the work of social scientists to help us come to grips with and understand these issues. However, social scientists have yet to find common ground on how to explain the social and economic destinies of African Americans. In More than Just Race I hope to further our understanding of the complex and interrelated factors that continue to contribute to racial inequality in the United States. In the process, I call for reexamining the way social scientists discuss two important factors associated with racial inequality: social structure and culture. Although the book highlights the experiences of inner-city African Americans, the complexities of understanding race and racial inequality in America are not limited to research on blacks. Formal and informal aspects of inequality have also victimized Latinos, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. In this book, however, I use the research on inner-city African Americans to elaborate my analytic framework because they have been the central focus of the structure-versus-culture dispute.

This book will likely generate controversy because I dare to take culture seriously as one of the explanatory variables in the study of race and urban poverty—a topic that is typically considered off-limits in academic discourse because of a fear that such analysis can be construed as “blaming the victim.” Nonetheless, I hope I can convince the reader of the urgent need for a more frank and honest discussion of complex factors that create and reinforce racial inequality and to rethink the way we talk about addressing the problems of race and urban poverty in the public policy arena.

We should be clear about what we mean by these two important concepts: social structure and culture. Social structure refers to the way social positions, social roles, and networks of social relationships are arranged in our institutions, such as the economy, polity, education, and organization of the family. A social structure could be a labor market that offers financial incentives and threatens financial punishments to compel individuals to work; or it could be a “role,” associated with a particular social position in an organization such as a church, family, or university (e.g., pastor, head of a household, or professor), that carries certain power, privilege, and influence external to the individuals who occupy that role.1

Culture, on the other hand, refers to the sharing of outlooks and modes of behavior among individuals who face similar place-based circumstances (such as poor segregated neighborhoods) or have the same social networks (as when members of particular racial or ethnic groups share a particular way of understanding social life and cultural scripts that guide their behavior). Therefore, when individuals act according to their culture, they are following inclinations developed from their exposure to the particular traditions, practices, and beliefs among those who live and interact in the same physical and social environment.2

In this book I try to demonstrate the importance of understanding not only the independent contributions of social structure and culture, but also how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality. When we talk about the impact of structure or culture, we are making explicit references to the forces they set in motion that affect human behavior. To help set up this analysis, let’s take a close look at these structural and cultural forces.

Understanding the Impact of Structural Forces

Two types of structural forces contribute directly to racial group outcomes such as differences in poverty and employment rate: social acts and social processes. Social acts refers to the behavior of individuals within society. Examples of social acts are stereotyping; stigmatization; discrimination in hiring, job promotions, housing, and admission to educational institutions—as well as exclusion from unions, employers’ associations, and clubs—when any of these are the act of an individual or group exercising power over others.

Social processes refers to the “machinery” of society that exists to promote ongoing relations among members of the larger group. Examples of social processes that contribute directly to racial group outcomes include laws, policies, and institutional practices that exclude people on the basis of race or ethnicity. These range from explicit arrangements such as Jim Crow segregation laws and voting restrictions to more subtle institutional processes, such as school tracking that purports to be academic but often reproduces traditional segregation, racial profiling by police that purports to be about public safety but focuses solely on minorities, and redlining by banks that purports to be about sound fiscal policy but results in the exclusion of blacks from home ownership. In all of these cases, ideologies about group differences are embedded in organizational arrangements.

Many social observers who are sensitive to and often outraged by the direct forces of racism, such as discrimination and segregation, have paid far less attention to those political and economic forces that indirectly contribute to racial inequality.3 I have in mind political actions that have an impact on racial group outcomes, even though they are not explicitly designed or publicly discussed as matters involving race, as well as impersonal economic forces that reinforce long-standing forms of racial inequality. These structural forces are classified as indirect because they are mediated by the racial groups’ position in the system of social stratification (the extent to which the members of a group occupy positions of power, influence, privilege, and prestige). In other words, economic changes and political decisions may have a greater adverse impact on some groups than on others simply because the former are more vulnerable as a consequence of their position in the social stratification system. These indirect structural forces are often so massive in their impact on the social position and experiences of people of color that they deserve full consideration in any attempt to understand the factors leading to differential outcomes along racial lines.

Take, for instance, impersonal economic forces, which sharply increased joblessness and declining real wages among many poor African Americans in the last several decades. As with all other Americans, the economic fate of African Americans is inextricably connected with the structure and functioning of a much broader, globally influenced modern economy. In recent years, the growth and spread of new technologies and the growing internationalization of economic activity have changed the relative demand for different types of workers. The wedding of emerging technologies and international competition has eroded the basic institutions of the mass production system and eradicated related manufacturing jobs in the United States. In the last several decades, almost all of the improvements in productivity have been associated with technology and human capital, thereby drastically reducing the importance of physical capital and natural resources. The changes in technology that are producing new jobs are making many others obsolete.

Although these trends tend to benefit highly educated or highly skilled workers, they have contributed to the growing threat of job displacement and eroding wages for unskilled workers. This development is particularly problematic for African Americans, who have a much higher proportion of workers in low-skilled jobs than whites have. As the late black economist Vivian Henderson argued three decades ago, racism put blacks in their economic place, but changes in the modern economy make the place in which they find themselves more and more precarious.4

The workplace has been revolutionized by technological changes that range from mechanical development like robotics to advances in information technology like computers and the Internet. While even educated workers are struggling to keep pace with technological changes, lower-skilled workers with less education are falling behind with the increased use of information-based technologies and computers, and they face the growing threat of job displacement in certain industries.5 To illustrate, in 1962 the employment-to-population ratio—the percentage of adults who are employed—was 52.5 percent for those with less than a high school diploma, but by 1990 it had plummeted to 37.0 percent. By 2006 it had rebounded slightly, to 43.2 percent, possibly because of the influx of low-skilled Latino immigrants in low-wage service sector jobs.6

In the new global economy, highly educated, well-trained men and women are in demand, as illustrated most dramatically by the sharp differences in employment experiences among men. Compared to men with lower levels of education, college-educated men spend more time working, not less.7 The shift in the demand for labor is especially devastating for low-skilled workers whose incorporation into the mainstream economy is marginal or recent. Even before the economic restructuring of the nation’s economy, low-skilled African Americans were at the end of the employment line, often the last to be hired and the first to be let go.

The computer revolution is a major reason for the shift in the demand for skilled workers. Even “unskilled” jobs such as fast-food service require employees to work with computerized systems, even though they are not considered skilled workers. Whereas only one-quarter of US workers directly used a computer on their jobs in 1984, by 2003 that figure had risen to more than half (56.1 percent) of the workforce.8 According to the economist Alan Krueger, “The expansion of computer use can account for one-third to two-thirds of the increase in the payoff of education between 1984 and 1993 [in the United States].”9 Krueger gives two reasons for this expansion: First, even after a number of background factors such as experience and education are taken into account, those who use computers at work tend to be paid more than those who do not. Second, the industries with the greatest shift in employment toward more highly skilled workers are those in which computer technology is more intensively used.

The shift in the United States away from low-skilled workers can also be related to the growing internationalization of economic activity, including increased trade with countries that have large numbers of low-skilled, low-wage workers.10 Two developments facilitated the growth in global economic activity: (1) advances in information and communication technologies, which enabled companies to shift work to areas around the world where wages for unskilled work are much lower than in the “first world” and (2) the expansion of free trade, which reduced the price of imports and raised the output of export industries. But increases in imports that compete with labor-intensive industries (e.g., apparel, textile, toys, footwear, and some manufacturing) hurt unskilled labor.11

Since the late 1960s, international trade has accounted for an increasing share of the US economy, and beginning in the early 1980s, imports of manufactured goods from developing countries have soared.12 According to economic theory, the expansion of trade with countries that have a large proportion of relatively unskilled labor will result in downward pressure on the wages of low-skilled Americans because of the lower prices of the goods that those foreign workers produce. Because of the concentration of low-skilled black workers in vulnerable labor-intensive industries (e.g., 40 percent of textile workers are African American, even though blacks make up only about 13 percent of the general population; this overrepresentation is typical in many low-skill industries), developments in international trade are likely to further exacerbate their declining labor market experiences.13

Note that the sharp decline in the relative demand for low-skilled labor has had a more adverse effect on blacks than on whites in the United States because a substantially larger proportion of African Americans are unskilled. Indeed, the disproportionate percentage of unskilled African Americans is one of the legacies of historic racial subjugation. Black mobility in the economy was severely impeded by job discrimination, as well as by failing segregated public schools, where per capita expenditures to educate African American children were far below amounts provided for white public schools.14 While the more educated and highly trained African Americans, like their counterparts among other racial groups, have very likely benefited from the shifts in labor demand, those with lesser skills have suffered. Although the number of skilled blacks (including managers, professionals, and technicians) has increased sharply in the last several years, the proportion of those who are unskilled remains large. This is because the black population, burdened by cumulative experiences of racial restrictions, was overwhelmingly unskilled just several decades ago.15 As urban economies have transformed from goods production to more of a digitized, information-focused, “virtual” workplace, black central-city residents with little or no education beyond high school see their access to employment increasingly restricted to low-paying jobs in the service sector.

The economic situation for many African Americans has now been further weakened because not only do they tend to reside in communities that have higher jobless rates and lower employment growth—for example, places like Detroit or Philadelphia—but also they lack access to areas of higher employment growth.16 As the world of corporate employment has relocated to America’s suburban communities, over two-thirds of employment growth in metropolitan areas has occurred in the suburbs,17 many of the residents of our inner-city ghettos have become physically isolated from places of employment and socially isolated from the informal job networks that are often essential for job placement.

The growing suburbanization of jobs means that labor markets today are mainly regional, and long commutes in automobiles are common among blue-collar as well as white-collar workers. For those who cannot afford to own, operate, and insure a private automobile, the commute between inner-city neighborhoods and suburban job locations becomes a Herculean effort.18 For example, Boston welfare recipients found that only 14 percent of the entry-level jobs in the fast-growth areas of the Boston metropolitan region could be accessed via public transit in less than an hour. And in the Atlanta metropolitan area, fewer than half the entry-level jobs are located within a quarter mile of a public transit system.19 To make matters worse, many inner-city residents lack information about suburban job opportunities. In the segregated inner-city ghettos, the breakdown of the informal job information network magnifies the problems of job spatial mismatch—the notion that work and people are located in two different places.20

Although racial discrimination and segregation exacerbate the labor market problems of low-skilled African Americans, many of these problems are currently driven by shifts in the economy. Between 1947 and the early 1970s, all income groups in America experienced economic advancement. In fact, poor families enjoyed higher growth in annual real income than did other families. In the early 1970s, however, this pattern began to change. American families in higher-income groups, especially those in the top 20 percent, continued to enjoy steady income gains (adjusted for inflation), while those in the lowest 40 percent experienced declining or stagnating incomes. This growing disparity in income, which continued through the mid-1990s, was related to a slowdown in productivity growth and the resulting downward pressure on wages.21

Then, beginning in late 1995, productivity began to surge, averaging 2.6 percent annual growth and reaching an astonishing 6.4 percent annual rate in the final quarter of 1999. Given the rate of productivity growth, a rising gross domestic product, and sustained low unemployment rates, the most optimistic scenario at the end of the twentieth century was that this new economy would eventually produce rates of family economic progress similar to those of the 1950s and 1960s.

From 1996 to 2000, real wage growth—that is, wages adjusted for inflation—was quite impressive, especially for low-wage workers. The ranks of the long-term jobless—defined in the US economy as those in the labor market who have been out of work for more than six months—plummeted from almost 2 million in 1993 to just 637,000 in 2000. The unemployment rate of high school dropouts declined from almost 12 percent in 1992 to less than 7 percent in 2000. The unemployment rate among blacks declined to 7.3 percent, the lowest ever recorded since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began compiling comparable statistics in 1972.

More than any other group, low-skilled workers depend on a strong economy, particularly a sustained tight labor market—that is, one in which there are ample jobs for all applicants. In a slack labor market—a labor market with high unemployment—employers can afford to be more selective in recruiting and granting promotions. With fewer jobs to award, they can inflate job requirements, pursuing workers with college degrees, for example, in jobs that have traditionally been associated with high school–level education. In such an economic climate, discrimination rises and disadvantaged minorities, especially those with low levels of literacy, suffer disproportionately.

Conversely, in a tight labor market, job vacancies are numerous, unemployment is of short duration, and wages are higher. Moreover, in a tight labor market the labor force expands because increased job opportunities not only reduce unemployment but also draw in workers who had previously dropped out of the labor force altogether during a slack labor market period. Thus, in a tight labor market the status of all workers—including disadvantaged minorities—improves.

Just as blacks suffered greatly during the decades of growing separation between haves and have-nots, they benefited considerably from the incredible economic boom that the country enjoyed in the last half of the 1990s.22 This period saw not only substantially reduced unemployment and concentrated poverty (areas where 40 percent or more of the residents live in poverty) for blacks and other groups, but sharp increases in the earnings of all low-wage workers as well.

Undoubtedly, if the robust economy could have been extended several more years, rather than coming to an abrupt halt in 2001, joblessness and concentrated poverty in inner cities would have declined even more.23 Nonetheless, many people concerned about poverty and rising inequality have noted that productivity and economic growth are only part of the picture.

Thanks to the Clinton-era economic boom, in the latter 1990s there were signs that the rising economic inequality that had begun in the early 1970s was finally in remission. Nonetheless, worrisome questions were raised by many observers at that time: Would this new economy eventually produce the sort of progress that had prevailed in the two and a half decades prior to 1970—a pattern in which a rising tide had indeed lifted all boats? Or would the government’s social and economic policies prevent us from duplicating this prolonged pattern of broadly equal economic gains? In other words, the future of ordinary families, especially poor working families, depends a great deal on how the government decides to react to changes in the economy, and often this reaction has a profound effect on racial outcomes.

In considering the effect of political actions that may not be motivated by issues of race, I am reminded of economist James K. Galbraith’s observation that what is unique about the 1950s and ’60s is that the government’s policies—social as well as economic—were integral to the gains experienced by all families. Low-wage workers benefited from a wide range of protections, including steady increases in the minimum wage, and the government made full employment a high priority. Throughout the 1960s these policies were accompanied by federal wage-price guidelines that helped check inflation. In addition, a strong union movement emerged in the 1950s and ’60s following the passage of protective legislation in the 1930s and ’40s. The activities of unions ensured higher wages and more nonwage benefits for ordinary workers.

In the 1970s and ’80s, however, things moved in a different direction for low-wage workers. The union movement began its downward spiral, wage-price guidelines were eventually dropped, and macroeconomic policy was no longer geared toward tight labor markets. Monetary policy came to dominate public policy thinking on the economy, and it was focused on defeating inflation above all else.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought to the federal government a new focus on the economy—one in which “supply-side economics” predicted that wealth for the few would eventually “trickle down” as financial well-being for all. As part of the Reagan experiment, the tax structure became more regressive; that is, the proportion of income taxes paid by the wealthy declined while the tax burden was dispersed through a number of other vehicles, including higher Social Security taxes. Furthermore, congressional resistance to raising the minimum wage and to expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit threatened the economic security of disadvantaged families.

During Bill Clinton’s eight years in office, redistribution measures were taken to increase the minimum wage. But the George W. Bush administration halted increases in the minimum wage for several years, until the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006 and voted to again increase the minimum wage in 2007. Thus, many political acts contributed to the decline in real wages experienced by the working poor.24 Because people of color are disproportionately represented among the working poor, these political acts have reinforced their position in the bottom rungs of the racial stratification ladder. In short, in terms of structural factors that contribute to racial inequality, there are indeed nonracial political forces that must be taken into account.
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