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On race and policy: worth noting

18 Mar

Again I owe Arts & Letters Daily for pointing to Slate and Sudhir Venkatesh on How To Understand the Culture of Poverty, a review of More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson.

… Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of "blaming the victim." Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families. It’s like Yankees vs. Mets, and for 40 years there has been no middle ground. (That the current generation of college students might not necessarily share this polarized view may augur an important shift in the years ahead.)

In this standoff, along comes the eminent sociologist William Julius Wilson, whom I studied with at the University of Chicago in the 1990s, promising to transcend the polarizing discourse on race in American society. (Sound familiar?) Wilson claims his analysis in his new book, titled More Than Just Race, will bridge the two worlds and create a new, more enlightened way for Americans to talk about race (heard this one before?)—but he is well aware that won’t happen without controversy…

More Than Just Race, which draws on Wilson’s earlier research as well as more recent studies, is yet more proof of his willingness to ignore political and academic pieties and his will to make social science relevant to the public. Wilson wants to explain inner-city behavior—such as young black males’ disdain for low-wage jobs, their use of violence, and their refusal to take responsibility for children—without pointing simplistically to discrimination or a deficit in values. Instead, he argues that many years of exposure to similar situations can create responses that look as if they express individual will or active preference when they are, in fact, adaptations or resigned responses to racial exclusion…

The book stands to have a powerful impact in policy circles because it points to the elephant in the room. Wilson knows it is difficult to engineer cultural change. We can train black youths, we can move their families to better neighborhoods, etc., but changing their way of thinking is not so easy. Evidence of this lies in the many "mobility" programs that move inner-city families to lower-poverty suburbs: Young women continue to have children out of wedlock and, inexplicably, the young men who move out return to their communities to commit crime! These patterns flummox researchers and, according to Wilson, they will continue to remain mysterious until we look at culture for an answer…

…Wilson repeatedly points to the benefits that jobs programs and vocational training have on the cultural front. Stated somewhat crudely, increasing employment will reduce the number of people who might promote or even condone deviant behavior. Change might not occur overnight, and it may not be wholesale, but it will take place.

Wilson advised the Obama campaign, and it is likely that his combination of race-neutral social policies and "jobs-first" agenda will be attractive to our president. Perhaps after addressing the financial mess, terrorism, the Iraq war, "AfPak," education, health care, and the climate, the administration will turn its attention to domestic poverty. However long that takes, it is alas safe to predict that ghetto poverty will still be a pressing national problem.

Despite the obviously US context of this – and do read the whole article – it is clear (to me at least) that some of our more vexing issues here in Australia would benefit from similar thinking.

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4 responses to “On race and policy: worth noting

  1. rummuser

    March 20, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Why only in Australia? Similar thinking is called for in India too. Our political class and the vested interests that back them, essentially the neo middle classes, corner all the resources here too. Similar interventions as advised are badly needed here too.

     
  2. Neil

    March 20, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Good to see you here, Ramana. Interesting: I hadn’t thought of an application to India.

     
  3. tikno

    March 26, 2009 at 8:34 am

    Presumption, which is always negative against a particular group is a tyranny. Especially if the feeling comes from racism, hate feeling and done systematically.

     
  4. Neil

    March 26, 2009 at 8:48 am

    Thanks, Tikno. I couldn’t agree more.

     
 
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