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Taking On Culture -- Supposedly: William Julius Wilson's Latest

We know William Julius Wilson, star Harvard sociologist, best for his articulate presentation of the structural analysis of black poverty: low-skill manufacturing jobs moved away from city centers just as middle-class role models took off for the suburbs. Result: high concentration of poor blacks. "Segregation," that is - and you know what happens when you get a bunch of ...

Well, at least that's one implication of the thesis as I see it. But never mind. Wilson is considered a hero for it, which gives a certain punch to the way his latest book is billed. More Than Just Race is supposed to address the cultural factors in black poverty - i.e. what good-thinking people are taught to dismiss as "blaming the victim."

"This book will likely generate controversy because I dare to take culture seriously as one of the explanatory variables in the study of race and urban poverty," Wilson promises. However, it will generate no such thing.

Wilson is so wary of being tarred as unfeeling - perhaps because of the scorching response to his 1978 The Declining Significance of Race where he looked to class as more important - that the cultural aspect of his argument is essentially an extended afterthought. What Wilson means by culture is:

shared outlooks, modes of behavior, traditions, belief systems, worldviews, values, skills, preferences, styles of self-presentation, etiquette, and linguistic patterns - that emerge from patterns of intragroup interaction in settings created by discrimination and segregation that reflect collective experience within those settings.

translation: inner city black culture is a response to racism (culture "mediates" structure, as Wilson later puts it) such that even if such views no longer afford a perfect fit with reality, they must be classified as further fodder for plaints about racism's "legacy," but with only hazy counsel as what we might do now.

The problem with Wilson's thesis is that he submits inner city blacks to a narrative in which they are ever powerless to adapt to changing circumstances, developing a "culture" of ingrained pessimism that will only change when - we can only assume from Wilson's argumentation - the world turns upside-down.

So, Wilson repeatedly teaches us that our view of inner city black behavior must be informed by the facts that highway construction helped jobs move to the suburbs and fragmented black neighborhoods, extended mortgage policies encouraged white and black middle-class flight and isolated poorer blacks, post-1980 fiscal policy cut federal aid to states for social programs and debased the real value of the minimum wage, and employers often by pass uneducated black men for Latinos or black women.

All of that is true and amply covered, and none of it is good news. Wilson even openly acknowledges that most of this was not done out of explicitly racist animus. But "culture," as traditionally understood in reference to human beings, can take on a life of its own out of any kind of meaningful coherence with the current state of the GDP or even employment opportunities.

For example, no one argues that Albanians indulge in blood feuds because of modern geopolitics; it is, as they sing in Fiddler on the Roof, tradition. One generation learns it from another. Black people have tradition, too - and not always in response to the latest meanderings of the Dow Jones.

I recall, for example, eating a salad in midtown New York not long ago when a black guy about 15 quietly asked me for money. I took a look at him; he was clean, healthy, poised, wearing spanking new sneakers, and by all physical indications most certainly not hungry.

I didn't want to light into him. But I was feeling vaguely paternal that day for some reason, and suspecting this kid was amenable to reason I asked - "Why are you asking me for money?"

"I don't know."

"Because I can tell from looking at you you're not sick, you're not hungry, and you aren't poor - I can see that from your sneakers and your clothes. Am I right?"

He nodded. I continued.

"I don't want to give you a hard time, but you shouldn't be asking anybody for money you didn't earn. You think that's okay because you've seen guys in your neighborhood doing it, don't you?"

He nodded. (I swear - I know, it sounds like someone wrote this. It really happened exactly like this.)

"Well, it's not okay just because they do it. You can get a job, can't you?"

"Yeah, that's what I'm doing here, applying." (And the place was staffed by people just like him; he was likely working a week later somewhere similar.)

"Well, I know it's not always easy, but keep looking. And stop asking people for money. Other kids are watching you and they're going to start doing the same thing. And don't think it's okay to ask black people but not white people. We're not supposed to be using each other."

"Sorry, man."

Basically, that kid was hitting up strangers for money not because it was the best he could do, but because it's something he grew up watching people do, to the extent that it didn't strike him as deviant. Growing up with that kind of begging as norm, he didn't see the shame in it that a white kid from Scarsdale would. He was an innocent. But he was an innocent steeped in a culture - and if that culture was "mediating" between the structural problems facing older men around him, in his case, he was just, as it were, speaking the language he grew up hearing.

I know - just an "anecdote." But in his book Wilson downplays a great deal of systematic, academic data showing that culture can operate much more autonomously of root causes than he wants to admit.

Wilson would have it that employers are reluctant to hire ghetto black men for no reason, when there is a literature showing that such employers have often come to this conclusion based on actual experience, including by Joleen Kirschenman and Kathryn Neckerman (the latter of whose work Wilson even cites) and Wilson himself in his 1997 classic When Work Disappears. We must address this (upon which prisoner re-entry programs become germane) - but we get nowhere pretending that the employers are just modern-day Archie Bunkers.

Or, Wilson, in a quest to dismiss Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson's work on the "cool-pose" culture that ghetto black men often adopt rather than seeking long-term work (editorial that broadcast this research here), neglects studies showing that such men are often quite aware of work opportunities (a 1987 study showed that only 13% percent of inner city black male interviewees said they were not working because jobs weren't available). This work is covered here, a book by New York University political scientist Lawrence Mead engaged with too little detail by Wilson in the new book.

Elsewhere, Wilson cites Katherine Newman's ethnography of inner-city New Yorkers, leaving out that she amply chronicles black young people's jeering friends who work in fast food restaurants, out of a sense that not working is better than working for "chump change," and University of Michigan sociologist Alford Young's work (in this anthology) on semi-employed black men without mentioning that Young readily shows that:

They often say they will take whatever they can get, but a sentence or two later say that certain wages are wholly unacceptable. This seemingly contradictory talk is consistent with their statements about problems with certain past work experiences, such as the fast food industry, where some men eventually find jobs but abandon them (if not be dismissed) as soon as problems or tensions arise.

Wilson is especially revealing in his coverage of studies that show that poor blacks relocated from housing projects to apartments elsewhere in town tend not to change cultural patterns as quickly as "structural" fans would suppose. He notes that patterns of behavior established in the projects may take longer than a single generation to change regardless of surroundings. He means this as a defense of the structural position - i.e. that time will prove that structure was the issue. But this is actually a demonstration of the cultural issue: assumptions and behavior can be passed on and internalized unrelated to current conditions.

There's more of this kind of thing in More Than Just Race. Suffice it to say that Wilson brings to mind a question Ralph Ellison asked long ago: "Can a people (its faith in an idealized American Creed notwithstanding) live and develop for over three hundred years simply by reacting?"

Wilson's answer to that question is, despite his claim to think of culture as key to understanding where we are, yes. He repeatedly specifies that culture is less important than structure, and under an analysis where culture is relevant simply as people's predictable responses to structure, it is largely a semantic distinction.

Wilson's primum mobile is a defense of his people against abuse. He openly states that he prefers to keep the cultural explanation subsidiary because the general public is notoriously susceptible to substituting it for structural explanations rather than placing it alongside. In a revealing moment in When Work Disappears, discussing an example of media abuse of blacks he interrupts his usual sober, scholarly tone with that sometimes "one has the urge to shout ‘Enough is enough!'"

Understood. But in the end, it's unclear what Wilson intends other than this solicitous protection. Do we want to tear up the interstates and rebuild old-time black slums in all of their vaunted cultural coherence? Redlining is now virtually nonexistent and that has to be good enough - we can't go back in time and erase it from history. There are too many black men in jail now - but we can't go back and tell people like Maxine Waters (yes, her and other well-intentioned black legislators who supported the relevant policies along with whites) that penalizing crack possession was going to decimate black communities.

In his bookstore talk Wilson talked up Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone, targetting poverty block by block with a charter school with longer school hours than regular schools, parenting programs, and other attempts to change the way inner city Harlemites raise their kids. Most - including the Manhattan Institute where we recently had Canada on a panel - think of the Harlem Children's Zone as constructively addressing culture.

Wilson apparently thinks of the cultural traits in question - disidentification with school, insufficient parental oversight - as "structural" issues merely "mediated" by culture. Mere semantics, I suppose. But I can't help noticing that the Harlem Children's Zone gets nary a mention in Wilson's book. He would rather recall what highways did to black communities sixty years ago.

I'm not sure why that is more constructive.