March 17, 2010

Harvard Professor Talks Race and Poverty

Print More

Students and faculty gathered in Call Auditorium in Kennedy Hall Wednesday afternoon to hear Prof. William Julius Wilson, Harvard, speak about his book, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City. Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University, is the author of numerous books and is the recipient of the 1998 National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States.

“Much of what we have learned about urban poverty in the last few decades is due to Wilson’s courageous work. Wilson blazed the path for us,” David Harris, deputy provost, said during the lecture.

The event was part of Cornell’s spring 2010 lecture series and was organized by the Persistent Poverty and Upward Mobility Theme Project of the Cornell Institute for the Social Sciences.

During the lecture, Wilson outlined his goals for the book.

“I wanted to further our understanding of the factors that contribute to racial inequality in the United States,” he said. “In the process, I called for reexamining the way that social scientists discuss two important factors associated with racial inequality: social structure and culture.”

Wilson’s discussion of culture as a factor associated with racial inequality and urban poverty is controversial.

“Culture is a topic that is often off limits in academic circles for fear that such analysis can be construed as blaming the victim,” he said. Instead, Wilson developed an alternative approach to both the role of cultural and structural forces in racial inequalities and urban poverty.

“I developed a framework that integrates structural forces and cultural forces to not only show how the two are inextricably linked, but also to explain how structural forces should receive far more attention than cultural factors in accounting for social outcomes of African Americans and forming public policies that address racial inequity,” Wilson said.

He emphasized that American society should emphasize cultural arguments based on individual traits and the behavior of inner city Americans while deemphasizing the structural origins of poverty and race that affect inner city Americans.

“The popular view is that people are poor or on welfare because of their own personal shortcomings,” Wilson said. “We must make sure that the powerful influence of structural factors does not recede into the background. Culture matters, but it does not matter nearly as much as social structure. From a historical perspective, it is hard to overstate the structural factors that Martin Luther King Jr. fought against, the effects of Jim Crow laws, construction of public housing in poor neighborhoods, and employer discrimination.”

To change this outlook, Wilson feels that “a social scientist has an obligation to make sure that the explanatory power of their structural argument is not lost to the reader and can provide a context for cultural responses to racial subordination.”

Throughout the lecture, Wilson emphasized that traits due to cultural responses to racial subordination linger and are inherited, which further contributes to the perpetuation of poverty.

“Studies show that residing in a severely disadvantaged neighborhood cumulatively impedes the development of academic verbal cognitive ability in children,” he said. “Among the effects of living in segregated neighborhoods is repeated exposure to cultural traits, which include linguistic patterns that are the products of racial exclusion and verbal skills that may impede successful maneuvering in larger society.”

Wilson stressed the importance of how the issues of race and poverty are framed in discussions. “How we frame the issues says a lot about our commitment to change,” he said. “The question is not whether policy should be race neutral, the question is whether the policy is framed to facilitate a frank discussion of the issues and generate broad political support to alleviate them.”

Wilson cited President Barack Obama’s Mar. 18, 2008, speech in which he spoke about both the cultural and structural inequities in the African American community with an emphasis on personal responsibility.

“I feel this speech could serve as a model with the kind of political framing of race and poverty we need in this country to move forward,” Wilson said.

Wilson spoke of the Obama administration’s “Promise Neighborhoods” initiative. The program will need billions of dollars from a consortium of lenders, including the government, corporations and philanthropic institutions. Wilson hopes that “Obama’s project will launch a major effort to remove people from persistent poverty towards upward mobility.”

Andrew Curley grad said she found Wilson’s talk somewhat biased.

“I think Wilson’s talk overemphasized charter schools … as a solution. Charter schools are being heavily promoted by the Obama administration and federal money is tied to states opening up charter schools,” Curley said. “I think that there are credible counter arguments about the cost, outcome and variation among charter schools that must be taken into consideration. In his lecture, Wilson solely highlighted ideal cases.”

Despite possible political messages, at the conclusion of the lecture and question and answer period, Wilson reiterated his belief that all people should have an equal opportunity for life chances.

“If you can enter a hospital ward of newly born babies and accurately predict their eventual social position in society solely based upon their race and economic class origins, it really says something about our society,” he said.

Original Author: Michelle Honor