I recently finished reading More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City by William Julius Wilson. The book is a bit academic in style and therefore can’t be read as quickly or easily as your usual summer fluff reading. However, I still highly recommend it as a good resource to better understanding a complicated and controversial topic.
Wilson provides an excellent overview of this issue. He navigates the multitude of studies and stats, both past and present, pertaining to poverty and race and explains them well. His main point is that there are both “structural” and “cultural” causes for the poverty of inner city blacks and that we really can’t discuss the issue without considering both factors. Studies and politicians who favor pointing the finger at structural causes are critiqued as not putting enough emphasis on personal responsibility and hard work. Conversely, studies and politicians who blame cultural causes alone are critiqued as “blaming the victim.” Through careful analysis and comparison of various research, White shows us that neither structural or cultural causes alone can be blamed. Instead, favors explanations that take both into consideration.
In his concluding chapter he quotes a May 2008 speech by Barack Obama:
…the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination – and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past – are real and must be addressed, not just with words, but with deeds, by investing in our schools and our communities; by enforcing our civil rights laws and ensuring fairness in our criminal justice system; by providing this generation with ladders of opportunity that were unavailable for previous generations. It requires all Americans to realize your dreams do not have to come at the expense of my dreams; that investing in the health, welfare and education of black and brown and white children will ultimately help all of America prosper.
In White’s mind, this is a good example of how to discuss this issue. The structural causes are acknowledged but so is the quintessentially American idea that working hard will bring success. Or as White puts it, the speech “called for all Americans to support blacks in their struggle to help themselves.” I support that idea.