The Common Good
September-October 1999

A Coalition of Power and Hope

by William Julius Wilson | September-October 1999

Ordinary people could bring about a more just society. But to do so, we have to work together. An interview with sociologist William Julius Wilson.

William Julius Wilson has a way of shaking things up. In his landmark 1978 book The Declining Significance of Race, he argued that class and economics plays a more significant role than race in causing inner-city poverty. His last book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor—which the New York Times Book Review named one of the most notable books of 1996—examined the devastating effects of the loss of jobs on individuals, families, and neighborhoods in our cities. For these and other works, Time magazine named Wilson as one of America’s 25 Most Influential People, stating, "No thinker has done more than William Julius Wilson to explain why the black underclass sank into such misery and isolation at the same time millions of other African Americans were escaping from the ghetto to create a vibrant middle class."

Wilson, who taught for 24 years at the University of Chicago and was a MacArthur Prize Fellow, is now the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. His next book, The Bridge Over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics (University of California Press) is due out in October. He was interviewed in May in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Sojourners editor Jim Wallis.

Jim Wallis: How do you explain the stunning silence in this country about rising social inequality?

William Julius Wilson: Messages about rising inequality probably would have resonated more if they had been presented forcefully a few years ago, rather than today, because of the strong economic recovery.

The optimistic scenario is this: As productivity grows, it creates a situation where the rising tide lifts all boats. It resembles the period from the end of World War II to about 1973, when all income groups experienced a substantial increase, even the poor. But just as we begin to become a little bit optimistic about economic growth, the press starts talking about inflation and how it’s slowing down the economy. They place much more emphasis on the interests of Wall Street and the elite segment of society and have less concern about the effect of inflation on the poor. Many ignore what would be more beneficial to the masses—a full-employment-type labor market.

We can do something about labor unions, the quality of education, international trade legislation, and the other political structures that mediate the most extreme market forces and try to ensure that most Americans will benefit from economic growth. But we can’t strengthen the equalizing forces if we are not organized.

Wallis: If the metaphor for that earlier period was "a rising tide lifts all boats," since ‘75 it is mostly "a rising tide lifts all yachts"!

Wilson: Precisely!

Wallis: Tell us about your new book on race and class.

Wilson: The basic thesis of The Bridge Over the Racial Divide is that there is a growing inequality in American society, and ordinary families are, in effect, getting the short end of it. Whites, blacks, Asians, Native Americans, and Latinos need to begin thinking less about their differences and more about the things they have in common—their aspirations, problems, and hopes—so that they see the need and the potential of mutual cooperation across racial lines.

Many of the government’s actions aggravate rather than alleviate the stresses on ordinary families. We have a problem with our monetary policies, trade policies, and tax policies, as well as congressional inaction or even opposition to programs such as public investment and national health insurance—all these things that would benefit ordinary families. If a multiracial citizen’s coalition were in place, it would have the muscle to pressure national public officials to consider seriously the interests of ordinary citizens when such issues are debated.

Wallis: In your book you take on two of the toughest issues, race and class. How do you describe the complicated relationship between them?

Wilson: I begin with racism—racial exploitation and domination based on the belief that the racial group is either bio-genetically or culturally inferior to the dominant group, which uses that belief to justify unequal treatment for that group or to explain that group’s social outcome.

Biological racism—the belief that blacks are genetically inferior to whites—has declined significantly over the years. But a form of cultural racism has emerged in the sense that people say, "Look, we should not support poor blacks with government programs because they are in a situation because of their own personal deficiencies, their lack of the work ethic." They may not explicitly endorse the biological argument, but they do feel that blacks are responsible for the plight they are in. This is what my colleague here at Harvard, Larry Vogel, calls "laissez-faire racism."

A lot of people feel that because of racism, it is unrealistic to get groups of different racial backgrounds to work together in an effective coalition. I argue that it depends on leadership. It is very important for leaders to develop a sense of interdependence. Social and psychological research shows that if you develop a sense of interdependency, over time people overcome their racial stereotypes while working together to pursue a common goal. They achieve a sense that they have the same values and aspirations.

Wallis: This is deeper than soft multiculturalism, such as suggesting that we should hear each other’s music and eat at each other’s restaurants....

Wilson: Right. It’s bigger than that. We are creating a sense that we need one another and have to work together.

In the first half of the 1990s, there was an effort to severely divide racial and ethnic groups. Politicians, particularly conservative Republican politicians, did not hesitate to demonize the most vulnerable groups—immigrants, welfare recipients, minorities that benefited from affirmative action—shifting attention from the real source of our problems: failed economic and political policies. These messages resonated with the general public, because progressives did not have effective sound bites to offset the mean-spirited sound bites of the conservatives.

Then the demagogic, mean-spirited messages decreased in both frequency and intensity. We can thank the strong economic recovery for that. People are still economically anxious, but they are not nearly as uptight as they were in 1994 and 1995. Now is the time for progressives to build on this change in the public’s mood. Now is the time to push harder for multiracial coalition building.

What we should now say is, "We can overcome our racial differences, and we can pull groups together across class lines and pursue an agenda that benefits ordinary families." In the book I talk about the research that shows how you promote mutual racial cooperation, and use case studies to demonstrate that it is possible.

Wallis: There are those who say, "Let’s have affirmative action on a class basis. That’s all we need now!" Yet still today, African Americans of every class can tell you stories of discrimination. What is your response to the affirmative action debate?

Wilson: If we talk about affirmative action in the ways that conservatives do—as numerical guidelines and quotas—we will create divisions. On the other hand, we can change that language.

For example, an overwhelming majority of Americans, including white Americans, support such opportunity-enhancing programs as providing scholarships for black kids who maintain good grades in school. They would support special training programs for blacks to get better jobs and flexible criteria of evaluation so that you can identify the potential to succeed. We shouldn’t rely solely on standardized tests because they don’t really capture true potential.

Good research clearly indicates that Americans would support affirmative action programs that capture the idea of equal opportunity. In fact, right after President Clinton delivered his speech on affirmative action in 1995, a substantial majority of Americans supported his views that affirmative action should be mended, but not ended.

Some proponents of affirmative action just draw a line in the sand and say, "Look, we are not going to budge. We’re gonna have quotas. We’re not gonna move." Well, we’ll go down to defeat! What I’m concerned about is coming up with language that is acceptable to the American people, who feel the need of leveling the playing field. They know the playing field is not level now for minorities, but the issue is how you talk about these things.

Wallis: So you would argue that race and class, while often connected, are independent realities?

Wilson: Right. For this reason you cannot have a class-based affirmative action program and think that you are going to maintain anywhere near the level of racial diversity in colleges and universities. Class-based affirmative action is good in its own right, but it is not a substitute for race-based affirmative action.

If you have class-based affirmative action, even a lot of the middle income Latinos and blacks would be denied entrance to racially selective universities like Harvard and Princeton, because they still suffer from the effects of racial exclusion—such as living in segregated neighborhoods, attending schools that are not as good as schools in the white neighborhoods, having parents who are first generation middle class, with grandparents who are poor. They never are able to overcome the effect of living in disadvantaged circumstances. Even when you control the present income, you don’t capture the cumulative effects of the past.

Wallis: This kind of inequality didn’t happen accidentally. It’s because of everything from campaign finance to monetary and trade policy. What political agenda would get at these root causes?

Wilson: From about 1945 through 1970, the state maintained a wide range of protections for the average worker, protections that were held in place by stable macro-economic policies. But after Ronald Reagan took office, the monetary policy shifted. The belief was that economic growth creates a tightening of markets and leads to higher inflation, so you have to slow down economic growth and put workers out of work. This coalition should put that on the table. Why does our monetary policy pursue the interests of elite segments of society, incurring problems for the average citizen?

The coalition should also address tax policy. The growing income inequality is high even before taxes are taken out. Post tax, inequality increases!

We would want to examine trade policies to make sure that they don’t undercut ordinary workers and have environmental protection standards at heart. We would want to make sure that we have an adequate minimum wage. Also, the expansion of the earned income tax credit is a very good thing for the working poor. At one point the earned income tax credit had bipartisan support, but in recent years Republicans have tried to even reduce the earned income tax credit. And then you have the Family Medical Leave Act. At least mothers who are pregnant and take time out won’t lose their jobs, but they don’t get paid! No other major Western democracy has such a weak family support program. So that would be a type of legislation that this coalition would focus on.

Wallis: We’ve talked about the importance of monetary policy, but a lot of people don’t know how to organize around that.

Wilson: Somehow, progressives have to develop impressive sound bites, not only to capture major policy issues, but also to define where we are and how we got that way. Whenever conservatives say, "People are in the condition they are in because they lack initiative," this resonates within the American belief that people are poor because of their personal behavior. We ought to be thinking of creative ways to capture the complexity in a way that would lend itself to a campaign.

Wallis: Such as, "If people work, they ought not to be poor." People can say yes to that. Or, "Your zip code and who your parents are shouldn’t determine the quality of education you have." Again, most people would say yes to that.

Wilson: Precisely. Also, we need to talk about policies that the poor will definitely benefit from, but that will also capture the support of other segments of the population. If you don’t address the concerns of the non-poor segments of the population who are struggling, they are not going to be real interested in this coalition. It has to be a New Deal-type coalition, focusing on bread and butter issues that affect the majority of the American public

Wallis: What is the role of faith communities in this vision?

Wilson: Religious organizations would play a significant role in the coalition, which would also include labor unions, civil rights organizations, women’s rights groups, and so on. Some of the strongest advocates for social equality represent religious organizations. These organizations have direct contact with congregations and can get people involved and mobilized.

Wallis: You are a very serious scholar, but there is also a passion in you about these questions; these aren’t just academic issues for you. For example, you’ve done a lot of speaking around this areaà

Wilson: I’m trying to promote in Boston a greater urban and suburban cooperation.

Wallis: This obviously isn’t part of your Harvard teaching load. Is it your own citizen action?

Wilson: I strongly believe in fighting inequality. I am not an Ivory Tower intellectual. If I am trying to wed scholarship and politics, then I have an obligation to really speak to these policy issues that are formed around my research—not only to my colleagues, but also to public policy makers and community leaders. I just feel that that is my mission.

Wallis: That has a spiritual content.

Wilson: When I am out doing research, my values don’t get in the way. My values come into play again when I look at the results: "Why don’t you help change this situation?" I am involved right now in a project to form legislation for the city of Chicago. I got involved in the research project because I was concerned about the effects of the welfare reform legislation on the poor, but we didn’t really have adequate data. So my values influenced my selection of that project.

It is good to be in a place like this. It is good to be around a number of other colleagues who have the big picture in mind, who can see the relationship between the church and public policy and feel an obligation to pursue the matter even further by providing leadership in how we address things.

One of the reasons I came to Harvard, after being in Chicago for so many years, is the critical mass of public intellectuals at Harvard. They are concerned about issues of inequality and are working with community organizations and others who are trying to change our society and move it in a progressive direction. The older I get, the more I am interested in not only reaching a broader audience with my writing but also trying to influence the public agenda. It is time consuming when you get involved, and sometimes when you are working 16, 17 hours a day, seven days a week, you wonder whether it is all worth it. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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