W.J. Wilson on the ghetto

Apropos of nothing in particular (and because I’m in class today) I thought I would post this conclusion from one of my readings; “The Cost of Racial and Class Exclusion in the Inner CIty.” It’s a journal selection from 1989 in the Annals of the American Academy of Political Science, co-written by William Julius Wilson and Loïc J. D. Wacquant:

Our conclusion, then, is that social analysts must pay more attention to the extreme levels of economic deprivation and social marginalization as uncovered in this article before they further entertain and spread so-called theories about the potency of a ghetto culture of poverty that has yet to receive rigorous empirical elaboration. Those who have been pushing moral– cultural or individualistic –behavioral explanations of the social dislocations that have swept through the inner city in recent years have created a fictitious normative divide between urban blacks that, no matter its reality – which has yet to be ascertained – cannot but pale when compared to the objective structural cleavage that separates ghetto residents from the larger society and to the collective material constraints that bear on them. It is the cumulative structural entrapment and forcible socioeconomic marginalization resulting from the historically evolving interplay of class, racial, and gender domination, together with sea changes in the organization of American capitalism and failed urban and social policies, not a “welfare ethos,” that explain the plight of today’s ghetto blacks. Thus, if the concept of underclass is used, it must be a structural concept: it must denote a new sociospatial patterning of class and racial domination, recognizable by the unprecedented concentration of the most socially excluded and economically marginal members of the dominated racial and economic group. It should not be used as a label to designate a new breed of individuals molded freely by a mythical and all-powerful culture of poverty.

This article takes much of the grunt work done two years prior by Wilson in his book The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, and distills his major points about “hyperghettoization” — what he described as a process of historical economic and social forces post-1970s leading to a “growing social and spatial concentration of poverty” that further marginalized inner city ghetto residents.

You might wonder why a twenty-four year old article about a twenty-six year old book is relevant, but ostensibly it matters for my course because of the subject (urban sociology) and the sociological concepts (socio-spatial disenfranchisement). Yet some of Wilson’s assertions are specifically compelling to my random interests here. First: that much of the same attitude towards “moochers” and “takers” today is derived from older narratives for the comparative socio-economic losers. Which is to say, it’s nothing new. In the same sense that individuals in poverty today are given the unique honor of solely bearing responsibility for the things happening around them, similar designations were given to the effects of meso and macroeconomic changes twenty to thirty years ago. Second: that primarily blaming ‘culture,’ then and now, with no socio-historical context is more often than not an amorphous term that allows one to believe “It’s not my problem,” when really it means “I don’t care.” Lastly: that the negative consequences of economic change inevitably have a disparate racial impact. Rather than contemporary minorities simply having a sagging pants and violent music problem, they become further marginalized due to the accumulation of decades upon decades of private and public decisions that don’t go away just because we pretend they don’t exist anymore.

Side note: I don’t believe I’ve had a course yet in this program that wasn’t summarily an exercise in understanding how disenfranchised groups have routinely gotten the short end of the stick during the 20th century. There has been progress, of course, and some major advances, but I’m also consistently reminded of how enduring some of these issues are today.

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One response to “W.J. Wilson on the ghetto

  1. Pingback: That time when the “FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy.” | Punditocracy·

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