Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Wilson is a highly respected African American sociologist. He writes in a dispassionate and analytical manner about sensitive issues involving the poverty component of the United States’ African American population. These issues include violent crime; childbearing among young, unmarried women; poor education and low job skills; and unemployment and nonemployment.

Wilson highlights the disturbing fact that, after significant government efforts to eradicate racial discrimination and after the initiation of the so-called War on Poverty in 1964, the various pathologies associated with African American poverty became more prevalent. Acknowledging that racism remains far from being eradicated, Wilson insists that the persisting poverty in the United States does not arise significantly from racism. He is also very critical of the “individualist” style of economic analysis, represented by Charles Murray, which finds the roots of the problem in the poor attitudes and poor choices of individual persons. In Wilson’s view, attitudes and choices are not ultimate data but arise from underlying economic and cultural changes in society. He cites abundant evidence that government welfare programs did not contribute significantly to the proliferation of female-headed households and out-of-wedlock births.

Wilson does not flinch from examining the data on the pathologies contributing to African American poverty, beginning with violent crime. Even before the impact of the “War on Drugs,” the rate of African American imprisonment in 1984 was six times that of imprisonment among whites, and half of all arrests for violent crime involved African American perpetrators—and almost always African American victims.

The proportion of U.S. households headed by females rose rapidly after 1965. Wilson notes that “46...

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The Truly Disadvantaged

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

An infuriatingly repetitious volume, William Julius Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy is, nevertheless, an important book for sociologists, advocates of civil rights, and those concerned about public policy and the plight of America’s “truly disadvantaged.” Wilson also provides an excellent survey of post-World War II social science theory relating to the nature of the “truly disadvantaged.”

The repetitiousness of the volume is a result of its awkward style. Each chapter describes in detail what the author intends to accomplish in the chapter. Wilson then proceeds, point by point. Finally, he concludes each chapter with a summary of what he has written thus far. Moreover, he discusses in subsequent chapters the findings of earlier chapters. The book would benefit from a judicious and thorough editing.

Still, it is not the style but the substance of The Truly Disadvantaged that is recommended. This volume is a sequel to Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, published in 1978. The latter publication was controversial because it addressed two much-disputed points: the improving condition of middle-class blacks and the deteriorating condition of the poor (especially urban blacks). The reception of The Declining Significance of Race focused on Wilson’s discussion of the first point (it was often critical) and generally ignored his treatment of poor blacks. With The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson attempts to rectify the situation by providing a comprehensive analysis of the plight of the urban poor.

The preliminary to such an analysis is an understanding of what social scientists of the postwar period have been saying about the urban poor. According to Wilson, by the mid-1960’s, social scientists began to notice major changes in inner cities of the nation. The trends—including increases in poverty, joblessness, teenage pregnancy, illegitimate births, one-parent families, serious crime, and welfare dependency—reached catastrophic levels by the mid-1970’s and continued at such levels, the results of social disorganization and deterioration. Prior to the mid-1960’s, inner cities manifested some of these problems but clearly not at such intense levels. Patterns of social organization in the earlier period, such as a sense of community, neighborhood identification, established norms, and sanctions against improper behavior, all inhibited such behavior.

Liberal analysts, such as Kenneth Clark, author of Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (1965), recognized that racial isolation, discrimination, and unequal treatment contributed to “low aspirations, poor education, family instability, illegitimacy, unemployment, crime, drug addiction, and alcoholism, frequent illness and early death.” Liberal approaches to the study of black urban ghettos have refused to describe aberrant black behavior for fear of being racist or “blaming the victim,” refused to use a term such as “underclass” because it might be unflattering, ignored evidence that supports the idea of an “underclass,” and viewed the pathology of the ghetto as resulting entirely from racism. The famous report by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “The Negro Family” (1965), by identifying behavior unflattering to blacks, raised a storm of criticism and inhibited liberal study of the urban black community until the 1980’s. Whereas liberals may have been reluctant to study this area, conservative scholars have focused on certain views reflecting their particular ideological orientation.

Wilson argues against the liberal view that racism is the sole cause of the catastrophic deterioration of the ghetto in recent years. According to him, the conservative argument is far more persuasive. Based on the view of Oscar Lewis in “The Culture of Poverty” (1968), conservatives have argued that welfare payments on which some ghetto residents have subsisted have created dependency. An underclass has developed which is welfare dependent and whose offspring are unmotivated and seek to avoid work. Living on a perpetual dole has corrupted ghetto residents who now lack character and must be rehabilitated. The conservatives have argued that modifications in the criminal justice system have contributed to an increase in inner-city crime. Affirmative action has been an advantage to qualified members of minority groups, but it has reduced the demand for those not well qualified. Finally, conservatives believe that welfare programs increased joblessness, illegitimate births, and other social problems of the ghettos. In other words, conservatives have attributed the deteriorating...

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The Truly Disadvantaged Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Anderson, Elijah, and Douglas S. Massey, eds. Problem of the Century: Racial Stratification in the United States. New York: Russell Sage, 2001. Praises and extends Wilson’s emphasis on geographic factors, particularly in urban neighborhoods.

Darity, William, and Samuel L. Myers, Jr. Persistent Disparity: Race and Economic Inequality in the United States Since 1945. Northampton, Mass.: Edward Elgar, 1998. Two African American economists examine the data on racial income inequality, finding more evidence of racism than Johnson found.

“Discrimination in Product, Credit, and Labor Markets.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 12, no. 2 (Spring, 1998): 23-117. Collects six articles that provide much detailed evidence on the forms and extent of racial discrimination in U.S. markets.

“Economic Inequality Among Racial and Ethnic Groups.” In Economic Report of the President. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1998. Notes that inequality within racial and ethnic groups has grown relative to inequality between such groups.

Kitwana, Bakari. The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. New York: BasicCivitas Books, 2002. Candid assessment of the continuing pathologies contributing to African American poverty. Extends Wilson by documenting continuing racism in law enforcement and noting intra-black conflicts, between generations and between men and women. Refreshing description of African American activist organizations and leaders.

Levitt, Steven D. “Understanding Why Crime Fell in the 1990’s: Four Factors That Explain the Decline and Six That Do Not.” Journal of Economic Perspectives 18, no. 1 (Winter, 2004): 163-190. Gives much attention to the waxing and waning of the crack epidemic and to African American imprisonment as important influences on crime.

Smith, James, and Finis Welch. “Black Economic Progress After Myrdal.” Journal of Economic Literature 27, no. 2 (1989): 519-564. Reviews and analyzes the large improvement in the economic status of African Americans between 1940 and 1980, emphasizing improved education and geographic relocation.