Du Bois for the 1990s
William Julius Wilson has provided a searing analysis of inner-city collapse.
Can we rise to his challenge?
When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor
William Julius Wilson
Nearly a century has passed since W. E. B. Du Bois published The Philadelphia
Negro, a pioneering empirical study of the city's segregated and impoverished
Fourth Ward. Combining ethnography and statistics, it deployed a cool, methodical
style of social investigation to advance awareness of the urban effects of
servitude and white supremacy. Du Bois had come to Philadelphia and the University
of Pennsylvania at the behest of members of the city's reform elite: they
were concerned to secure social peace and worried by the apparent susceptibility
of black voters to appeals by corrupt machine bosses; he accepted their patronage
to research and write a monograph subversive of the racial order. Six years
before the University of Chicago founded the country's first sociology department--one
committed to induction based on community studies--Du Bois wielded facts based
on prodigious research to make racism (understood less as an attitude and
more as a set of structures and practices) manifest and to force his readers
to see people and situations literally hidden from view.
The Philadelphia Negro unsentimentally portrays the wounded culture
of the Fourth Ward's residents, most of whom had recently arrived from the
South: it depicts their discomposed mores, fragile families, and irregular
criminality. Even more central is its causal story pivoting on wage labor.
Du Bois showed how Philadelphia's blacks had been pushed out of the niches
in the service sector they had occupied before the period's unprecedented
immigration from southern and eastern Europe, and confined to an artificially
small number of occupations. He commented,
Men have a right to object to a race so poor and ignorant and inefficient
as the mass of the Negroes; but if their policy of the past is parent of much
of this condition, and if to-day by shutting black boys and girls out of most
avenues of decent employment they are increasing pauperism and vice, then
they must hold themselves largely responsible for the deplorable results.1
Addressing "the duty of the whites" after speaking to "the duty of the Negroes"
(including the obligation of probity and the charge to make energetic efforts
at schooling, training, and self-help), Du Bois called for a "radical change"
in mainstream employment attitudes and practices. "There is no doubt," he
that in Philadelphia the centre and kernel of the Negro problem
. . . is the narrow opportunities afforded Negroes for earning a decent living.
Such discrimination is morally wrong, politically dangerous, industrially
wasteful, and socially silly. It is the duty of whites to stop it, and to
do so primarily for their own sakes. . . . [T]he same incentive to good, honest,
effective work [should] be placed before a black office boy as before a white
one--before a black porter as before a white one; and that unless this is
done the city has no right to complain that black boys lose interest in work
and drift into idleness and crime.2
Part of the solution was obvious: an end to the "thoughtless acquiescence
in the continual and steadily encroaching exclusion of Negroes from work in
the city," and initiatives "by leaders of industry and opinion" to "open up
new opportunities and give new chances to bright colored boys." But another
part, he argued, was less straightforward, requiring a comprehensive assault
on the "involved and complex . . . combination of social problems."3
At the close of the Second World War (the last moment the federal government
willfully excluded blacks from full citizenship by dint of their color), St.
Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, acknowledging a debt of methodology and purpose
to The Philadelphia Negro, deployed the community research skills for
which the University of Chicago had by then become famous to produce a holistic
study of the South Side neighborhoods of Washington Park, Grand Boulevard,
and Douglas adjacent to their university. "Bronzeville," they showed in Black
Metropolis, was defined in all its aspects--class structure, family patterns,
spatial isolation, and patterns of wage employment--by the color line. Black
immigration from the South was not commensurate with European immigration
and incorporation. During the depression Bronzeville's residents had been
disproportionately unemployed; during the wartime boom, they had been confined
mainly to the lowest-paid unskilled and domestic jobs, those usually lacking
in prospects for mobility.4
When William Julius Wilson and his University of Chicago research team revisited
Drake and Cayton's neighborhoods as well as Chicago's segregated West Side,
they found the large majority tragically disconnected from labor markets:
"in 1990, only one in three adults ages 16 and over in the twelve Chicago
community areas with ghetto poverty rates held a job in a typical week of
the year." In the neighborhoods Drake and Cayton studied, a majority of adults
had once held jobs; Wilson and his collaborators discovered that "by 1990
only four in ten in Douglas worked in a typical week, one in three in Washington
Park, and one in four in Grand Boulevard" (compared to an overall labor force
participation rate for Chicago of 57 percent).
Wilson might well have also contrasted this disconnection of black central-city
slum residents from labor markets with the situation reported by Du Bois for
the late 1890s, when 55 percent of adults in Philadelphia were gainfully employed
but fully 78 percent of the African-Americans who lived in the Seventh Ward
had paid jobs of some kind. They were poor, dirt poor and exploited, but at
work. Though their late-20th-century urban successors were less poor because
of the transfers and cushions offered by America's meager welfare state, they
were out of work--often out of the labor market.
It is this extraordinary decline in mainstream employment that rightly torments
Wilson and provides the driving concern of his quietly written but often searing
analysis. He grapples with the awful irony that the major gains African-Americans
have secured since Drake and Cayton, and certainly since Du Bois--gains in
civil rights, officeholding, access to formerly off-limits jobs and schools,
and the concomitant growth of an unprecedented middle class--have been accompanied
by the catastrophe of disemployment. His central proposition, predicament,
and policy orientation are summarized on the first and last pages of When
Work Disappears: "For the first time in the twentieth century most adults
in many inner-city ghetto neighborhoods are not working in a typical week.
. . . Increasing the employment base would have an enormous positive impact
on the social organization of ghetto neighborhoods."
By now, Wilson's reasoning, evidence, and explanation for the collapse of
inner-city employment are well-known, as are his transracial policy prescriptions.
His argument pivots on structural changes to the size of markets and the deployment
of skills and technology and to the ethos of young black male workers. The
poor, segregated, and increasingly depopulated neighborhoods of big city America
house black (and other) minority populations who have lost their connection
to the labor market, in part because jobs have changed (they demand greater
skill), in part because they have gone elsewhere (to lower cost sites outside
of cities, and sometimes outside the country), and in part because employers
prefer other workers (other than young, black men). Disemployment would be
a disaster in any capitalist economy and culture; it is catastrophic in one
that puts so much value on work, individual effort, and achievement, and provides
relatively few social supports to manage the school-to-work transition, train
workers after schooling, cushion families, or insure against financial cataclysm.
With the collapse of the coherent, if flawed, post-war structure of employment
opportunity, pessimism and cynicism have deepened, the gap between creed--the
poorest and most oppressed Americans embrace mainstream aspirations and values,
according to Wilson's surveys--and possibility has widened, and deeply destructive
forms of behavior, most notably drug use, have made things worse. The traditional
nuclear family has collapsed under the strain. Young people, especially young
black men, have developed patterns of living that make them unattractive to
white employers who often find their racial stereotypes confirmed, but also
to black employers who can locate more pliant and pleasing employees among
older and immigrant workers.
Like Du Bois, Wilson does not restrict his attention to structural causes
but incorporates cultural patterns as induced and as constitutive of structure.
Like Drake and Cayton, he does not turn a blind eye to the power of unadorned
racism. Unlike both, he mounts an ambitious set of proposals--really social-democratic
guidelines--geared to overcome racism and its effects and, in more finely-tuned
fashion, reconnect poor African-Americans to work. He is guided throughout
by the assumption that it is vastly better to be working and poor than not
working even if equally or perhaps less poor; moreover, for normative and
practical reasons, he wants to avoid racial targeting. So he develops a "broader
vision" that focuses on creating public and private sector jobs, tightening
links between schooling, employment, and systems of family support, and enhancing
collaboration between cities and suburbs.
Reading When Work Disappears alongside Wilson's two previous books--The
Declining Significance of Race5 (really about the changing
significance of race in relation to class structure and the growing divide
between middle and lower classes in black America) and The Truly Disadvantaged6
(which presaged When Work Disappears without quite the same intense
focus on jobs)--brings out the full force of his message: an anguished call
for recognition that the American dilemma has shifted its vectors from dirty
work and fierce racism to no work and less racism. We need this mixture of
hard-headed social inquiry and policy prescription grounded in social theory,
equipped by social science, and motivated by normative purpose. Contrasted
with recent best-sellers purporting to deliver systematic studies of intelligence
or impartial accounts of America's tortured racial history, the combination
of Wilson's unassuming tone, care with evidence, and manifest drive to rectify
extreme and insufferable circumstances provides a model for progressive scholars,
activists, and policymakers.
Implicitly, it does more. Wilson's exemplary text reminds us that, since
the collapse of the Great Society and the radicalization of the student and
anti-war movements in the late 1960s, the left has gotten out of the business
of advancing intellectually well-founded, politically plausible policy designs
aimed at shifting the public agenda and influencing legislative initiatives.
With the exception of the Economic Policy Institute, The American Prospect,
and a few others, scholars and institutions on the left either have produced
general statements of normative purpose (the secular analogs of Catholic Church
encyclicals), technical studies without public or political resonance, and
policy schemes so remote from American political reality as to be irrelevant.
Consider AFDC. In the 1960s and 1970s, the left trashed this mean-spirited
aspect of America's pitiful welfare state without offering or supporting serious
alternatives;7 in the 1980s and 1990s, when even this pathetic
set of supports for poor mothers and their children came under fierce and
successful attack, the left found itself in the unenviable position of defending
a system it despised. No wonder few were convinced (or even listening).
Set in this context, Wilson's work is almost singular. He knows that smart,
assertive government is essential to redress the suffering and deep social
inequality he describes, but is fully aware that current ideological and political
trends incline otherwise. In tough political circumstances, he chooses not
to trim his prescriptions, but to "provide a basis for further discussion
and debate" in order to "galvanize and rally concerned Americans to fight
back" and provide policymaking elites with both the warrants and the tools
to craft plausible and far-reaching alternatives. When Work Disappears
thus provides a parallel to the policy discourse of conservatives after
the collapse of the Nixon regime, when they had ample reason to feel despondent.
Even exemplary work has its limitations, and critics have already noted several
shortcomings in Wilson's text: its analysis of structural economic change
is marked by generalities; its consideration of structure and culture is a
causal hybrid; its European comparisons are insufficiently detailed; its policy
recommendations are relatively modest and rather general. Compared, however,
to the book's sustained ethnographic and survey research, comparative contextualization
of the American case (highly unusual in American policy studies), theoretical
grounding and historical reach, and attempt to shift the policy agenda, these
imperfections are relatively insignificant. In any case, they do not vitiate
his central line of argument about the causes of disemployment, its devastating
consequences, or the importance of remedying it.
Still, if we are to advance Wilson's purposes and stand tall on his shoulders,
important aspects of When Work Disappears do demand further attention
and elaboration. If the left is to develop the kind of effective policy voice
Wilson strongly advocates, it has to become more systematically historical,
more critically attuned to the politics of policy design and advocacy, and
less simple in the deployment of public/private and state/market dichotomies.
The invitation to be more historical may seem to invite despair and political
paralysis: Du Bois's portrait of a ghetto bruised by cultural disconnection,
crime, and broken families and marked by isolation and inadequate access to
decent jobs is hauntingly familiar, except matters seem much worse now. A
century ago, as noted earlier, most young African-Americans had wage work,
however dirty and exploitative. Their cross-class neighborhood was filled
with commercial energy and imposed solidarity. The recent arrival of many
newcomers from the South made significant optimism credible. The massive commercial
trade in deadly drugs we know today was absent. Levels of violence were far
Yet Du Bois's portrait was meant to be representative; Wilson's clearly is
not. After a revolution in formal rights, access to schooling, and an end,
if not to segregation then at least to the prison-like enclosure of central
city ghettoes for all blacks irrespective of means, the neighborhoods Wilson
has studied no longer can be called the heart of black America. They have
been abandoned not only by merchants and employers but by the majority of
their African-American residents. These desolate places are locations of depopulation
as well as disemployment. In 1950, nearly 79,000 people lived in Douglas;
just under 35,000 do so today. In Grand Boulevard and Washington Park the
decline has been even more decisive: from 115,000 and 57,000, respectively,
to 36,000 and 19,000. The emptiness and devastation of these once vibrant
places testifies to broader transformations. Reading Wilson, I find myself
wishing for more attention to such historical and contextual specification
of the distinctive policy challenges we now face.
I also miss a more frontal consideration of political agency--not only of
the left-out individuals whose aspirations Wilson so vividly portrays, but
of black Americans more generally. When Du Bois moved from analysis to advocacy
he adopted a not terribly satisfactory hortatory voice. He lectured fellow
blacks about their responsibilities for decorum and aspiration, and Philadelphia's
whites about their obligations to the city's black newcomers. He implicitly
thought there was little blacks could do to remedy their condition without
white largesse (not surprisingly for the time, since blacks were utterly absent
from other than the most servile positions in political life); he also identified
no particular role for public policy to play as an instrument of rectification.
Wilson, by contrast, places government front and center. Even under conditions
in which African-Americans are potentially significant political players,
however, he says little about the connections of policy goals to black political
action or to the mobilization of the black poor. Absent such discussion, Wilson's
plea for transracial policies and strategies appears to hand political initiative
over to middle class whites. In this way, against his own intentions, he appears
to minimize the continuing specificity and significance of racism in American
life and to make progress entirely contingent on the unlikely good will of
whites who have worked hard to distance themselves from the misery and threats
of the ghetto.
Wilson thus sets himself something of a political trap. Though he explicitly
refuses to bow to the realities of today's conservative hegemony, his approach
to policy prescription accommodates white resistance to race-specific remedies.
I would like to see this aspect of his analysis turned on its head: to transcend
race in policy, we need more head-on engagement with racial realities. Without
such engagement with America's deepest and ugliest social and political construction,
the strategy of transracialism invites cynicism from blacks, who appear only
as objects of policy by stealth, and from whites, who know there is a conversation
underway that is racially-driven but spoken only in code. The right has mastered
this art of camouflage; the left will cede too much if it crafts its own path
Progressives need more than honest talk and transracial social democratic
prescriptions, however. We also must candidly acknowledge the responsibility
of public policy--Democratic as well as Republican--for ghetto isolation and
dislocation. In this respect, Wilson's text is doubly unfinished. Its arresting
contrast with Drake and Cayton's Chicago at mid-century implies a lost golden
age, associated in considerable measure with the active government of the
New Deal and Fair Deal eras. This retrospective comparison leaves out far
too much: FDR's accommodation to the apartheid wing of his party, and the
exclusionary features and discriminatory application of the Wagner Act, Social
Security Act, Fair Labor Standards Act, United States Employment Service,
and GI Bill, among other landmark pieces of the period's putatively race-blind
"social democratic" legislation (accomplished by the omission of agricultural
and domestic labor and by decentralized implementation and public administration).
Wilson also is silent on the uneven and often shameful postwar record on race
of the Democratic party's key interest group, organized labor; and he is quiet
about how some Great Society programs and the extension of AFDC contributed
to the isolation of the ghetto.
Current problems, in short, cannot simply be associated with the assault
on black rights and on an effective role for government deployed with such
telling effect by the right. In the absence of crisp, systematic accounts
of the successes and severe limitations of policy initiatives before the Reagan-Gingrich
revolution, the left will continue to come across either as credulous or disingenuous--not
a promising foundation for persuading ghetto teenagers or congressional staffers.
In the past, the left identified the straightjacket of the capitalist state
and underscored how our political-economic structure fosters growing inequality.
These valuable positions and studies, Wilson rightly recognizes, are useless
unless tied to a repertoire of policy prescription stopping well short of
smashing capitalism or the state. To marry analysis to plausible action, we
need more a textured analysis and a more supposable politics. When Work
Disappears succeeds in part by setting an agenda and inviting us to do
more in both dimensions.
On the research side, we can extend Wilson's questions about the microdynamics
of low-wage labor markets, the transition from welfare to wage employment,
and alternative ways of structuring the linkage between schooling and work.
Wilson calls for urban-suburban collaboration: how might this be envisaged?
He calls for public employment: how to do this without undercutting what is
left of the labor movement? He calls for the extension of low-wage opportunities
for the low-skilled and for training to empower the less-skilled to compete
and tells us other countries do this better: accepting the emphases and contrasts,
how should we deal with European job stagnation and under- and unemployment
of long duration? It is easy to find comparable questions on the side of urban
culture and its pathologies.
We also can extend his call for a politics of policy into more textured considerations
of plausible political strategies based on constellations of ideas, interests,
associations, coalitions, and diverse forms of mobilization. As his book concludes,
Wilson issues such a call to action, noting that "Groups ranging from the
inner-city poor to those working- and middle-class Americans who are struggling
to make ends meet will have to be effectively mobilized in order to change
the current course." He continues, arguing that "perhaps the best way to accomplish
this is through coalition politics that promote race-neutral programs" because
"it is imperative that the political message underscore the need for economic
and social reform that benefits all groups, not just America's minority poor."
Cast at this level of generality these claims are reasonably persuasive. Yet
as the outer shell of a framework they cry out for more specification of rhetoric,
policy content, and a nitty-gritty strategy for grass-roots and elite political
mobilization. Don't think of this, however, as a criticism of Wilson; think
of it as summarizing the challenge he poses to the rest of us. For without
such a characterization and without a concomitant strengthening of the organizational,
intellectual, and political capacities of the left, his summons will fall
short of its inspiring goals.
1 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social
Study (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), p. 394 [original
2 Du Bois, Philadelphia, pp. 394-95.
3 Du Bois, Philadelphia, pp. 395, 385.
4 St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis:
A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1945).
5 William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of
Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1978).
6 William Julius Wilson, The Truly Disadvantaged: The
Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 1987). Wilson now abjures "underclass" as inevitably charged
7 I include the Nixon Administrationžs Family Assistance
Plan, drafted by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which would have created a national
floor well above what half the countryžs states were then providing (AFDC
benefits then, in real terms, were worth about twice what they are today).
The bill was defeated by an unholy alliance of Republican conservatives, Jim
Crow southerners, and left-liberals prodded by the opposition of the National
Welfare Rights Organization and, more broadly, by much of the organized left,
and the periodžs policy intelligentsia. Nixonžs welfare legislation was vastly
better than anything Clinton proposed, let alone signed, because it sought
to move to a nationalized minimum rather than decentralize welfare and thereby
invite states to race to the bottom.