William Julius Wilson’s academic writing on race has influenced everything from "The Wire" to speeches by former president Bill Clinton and President Barack Obama.
Since 1996 Wilson has worked as a sociology professor at Harvard University. This Wednesday, March 16, he’ll be speaking at St. Michael’s College at an event free and open to the public.
Wilson has studied race, class, education and poverty for more than five decades. His book The Truly Disadvantaged won the National Medal of Science in 1998, marking only the second time that award has been given to a sociologist.
Much of Wilson’s writing contends that black neighborhoods have been devastated by the departure of the middle class, the elimination of manufacturing jobs and declines in wages over the past 60 years.
“I argue that economic class position is now more important than race in determining an individual black’s life chances or life trajectories," Wilson told VPR in a conversation about his work and how it informs his thinking about our current culture and politics.
Wilson points to Robert Putnam’s book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, as further evidence that “although racial barriers to success remain powerful, they represent less burdensome impediments than they did in the 1950s.”
He says factors such as class segregation across neighborhoods, the quality of primary and secondary education and class discrepancies in enrollment in highly selective colleges all contribute to a growing wealth disparity.
“Even life expectancy is reflected in the growing class discrepancies,” he says.
‘Black Lives Matter’
Wilson says the Black Lives Matter movement has dramatically called attention to the violent police encounters that some African-American people experience, especially young black males. He says smartphones and social media have helped make more Americans aware of these events.
“However, here's where I sort of differ a bit from the Black Lives Matter people: I think it that it would be good to expand the focus of the movement to include groups that are not usually referenced," Wilson says.
For example, Wilson says that there’s a relatively low priority placed on solving the high murder rates in poor, inner city neighborhoods.
“Grieving African-American families whose loved ones have been killed tend to be disregarded or ignored, even by the media,” says Wilson. He says he remembers a conversation with a mother in Chicago several years ago, when he was doing research there.
“[The mother] lamented the fact that her son, who was killed walking down a street, was killed by a stray bullet. She said, ‘You know, Dr. Wilson, my son's death was not reported in any Chicago newspaper. It wasn't reported on TV ... No one cared that my son died. And my son was a good student in school and he wasn't involved in any gangs, but no one cared,’” he recalls.
On the current rhetoric in politics
Wilson says politicians can use populist messages in two ways: “You can have progressive populist messages that pull people together, or you could have negative populous messages that divide individuals.”
Wilson contrasts Sen. Bernie Sanders’ message about growing class inequality with Donald Trump, “who uses negative populous messages to place the blame for our problems on vulnerable groups such as immigrants. And yeah, I'm concerned about that. We all should be concerned about that.”
When asked if he was surprised that Sanders isn’t polling better among African-Americans, Wilson replied, “African-Americans tend to place a great deal of emphasis on race first, and maybe class problems second.”
Wilson says he argues that to reduce racial problems in America, the country needs a strong economy.
“You need to reduce class inequities," he says. "Look at the situations that are causing racial problems and try to correct them."