The (Still) Truly Disadvantaged

This year in my sociological theory class, I added two chapters on Race and Gender: one classical and one 20th century (which was called “contemporary theory” when I was in school and now a third of the course is theoretical work done after I was a student.)

The classical perspective on Race came from W.E.B. Du Bois and I was stunned to realize how little I’d learned of his insights in my graduate training. The 20th century perspective came from the work of William Julius Wilson, now at Harvard and still active at 80 (Du Bois lived to be 95).

It was actually difficult to treat Du Bois and Wilson as sociological theorists. They don’t so much advocate for a unique theory of society as to point out that the theoretical perspectives we tended to advocate work very differently for people of color, if they work at all. The default assumptions we make have not only shaped how sociology has framed critical questions but it can be seen imbedded in nearly all public policy discussions and campaign rhetoric.

This is Wilson in 1987, but the perfect academic tweed jacket and pipe were too good to pass up.

Wilson spent 25 years of his career at the University of Chicago. Sociology at Chicago has always used that city as a laboratory to explore the on-the-ground dynamics of social thought. In 1980, Wilson wrote The Declining Significance of Race, a book which argued that we had to pay more attention to class separation within racial groups. The title was probably unfortunate because it spawned a whole industry of folks arguing against affirmative action and government programs. The heart of his argument was actually that there was mobility for some blacks while others were still being left behind. In the shadow of the civil rights movement, it’s a story of mixed success (paper idea for a sociology student: contrast The Jeffersons with Black-ish).

To flesh out my lecture on Wilson, I turned from TDSR to The Truly Disadvantaged, a book he wrote in 1987. Truly Disadvantaged tries to chart a course between two alternative theories of urban poverty: overt discrimination and the culture of poverty. Wilson certainly acknowledges the role of discrimination but argues that historic discrimination is more of a factor in defining conditions than current racism. He also dismisses the culture of poverty argument being propagated among conservative and libertarian publications. Charles Murray’s Losing Ground serves as a foil. What is more significant, argues Wilson, is to see the ways that historic patterns of settlement and employment left the Truly Disadvantaged behind in the midst of other measures of social progress.

Although present-day discrimination undoubtedly has contributed to the increasing social and economic woes of the ghetto underclass, I have argued that the problems have been due far more to a complex web of other factors that include shifts in the American economy ā€“ which have produced extraordinary rates of black joblessness that have exacerbated other social problems in the inner city ā€“ the historic flow of migrants, changes in the urban minority infrastructure, population changes in the central city, and the class transformation of the inner city (62).

There are several elements to Wilson’s interpretation of the inner-city poor populations. First, suburbanization allowed leaders within the black community to move out of the inner-city, depriving those left behind of key role models and economic supports. Second, changes in the occupational structure lessened the need for unskilled labor (ironically, the same process that precipitated the Great Migration north at the beginning of the 20th century). Third, the combination of these two factors, plus the incorporation of suburbs as separate taxing entities, starved the financial base of the inner city in terms of services, schools, and innovation. Finally, the abandonment of large sectors of urban America (especially in the northern industrial centers) contributes to the disfunction identified by culture of poverty advocates.

Wilson’s summary clearly connects the threads:

If ghetto underclass minorities have limited aspirations, a hedonistic orientation toward life, or lack of plans for the future, such outlooks ultimately are the result of restricted opportunities and feelings of resignation originating from bitter personal experience and a bleak future. Thus the inner-city social dislocations emphasized in this study (joblessness, crime, teenage pregnancies, out-of-wedlock births, female-headed families, and welfare dependency) should be analyzed not as cultural aberrations but as symptoms of racial-class inequality. If follows, therefore, that changes in the economic and social situations of the ghetto-underclass will lead to changes in cultural norms and behavior patterns (158-159).

In prepping for class this week, one idea kept ringing in my brain: This was written thirty years ago!

Wilsons analysis of life in the cities of the industrial north still speaks volumes. The thirty years that have passed since his book came out roughly correspond with the period of growing economic inequality in American society. Issues from changing trade policy to the financialization of the economy have done little for those in the most need. In large measure, the economic changes that have benefitted part of the income structure (not just the 1% but middle class college professors with 401Ks) have likely made their situation even bleaker. And Charles Murray is still writing books about the moral failures of the poor (Coming Apart).

In this context, our recent social discourse is really depressing. You may agree with Bernie Sanders that inequality that benefits billionaires is a problem to be addressed. You might agree with Donald Trump that trade policies make us losers. But I’m depressed that all of this gets couched in terms of what will benefit the middle class or white working class men.

Thursday’s confrontation between President Clinton and Black Lives Matter protesters show what little distance we’ve covered since 1987. Clinton argues that the Crime Bill was a good thing (the evidence is mixed at best) without acknowledging the disproportionate impact policies like that, including those at the state level, had on the dissolution of local communities. The BLM protesters were correct that we need to be concerned about racial prejudice within law enforcement but don’t acknowledge the contextual factors that shape police response to impoverished neighborhoods.

So I’m left with this question: why has nothing changed in 30 years? In fact, when examining the deterioration of Detroit schools or the lack of affordable housing or the Flint water contamination, things are worse.

This is where I think Wilson’s dismissal of racism as a factor needs a second look. Not in terms of the actions of housing officials, employers, school principals, or police officers. Race and class enter the conversation at the point of policy making.

I’m teaching an online class in Criminal Justice Policy. It’s heightened my sensitivity to “how the sausage gets made”. The reason we don’t make the necessary changes in economic, governmental, or social policy is because policymakers see that the ghetto-underclass doesn’t have lobbyists. They know that arguing for policies that will disproportionately benefit inner-city Detroit residents won’t bring them any new voters.

That’s why we invest big money on developing the touristy parts of our cities while ignoring the pockets of need. It’s why the state of Michigan proudly announced the had received $75 million from HUD’s “Hardest Hit Fund” (“designed to provide assistance to struggling homeowners through modification, mortgage payment assistance, and transition assistance programs”) to pay for home demolition in poor areas.

Because at the end of the day, either we don’t think the Truly Disadvantaged can ever be helped or, worse, we do but just aren’t willing to pay the political costs.


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