2009 04 07
Recently read: More Than Just Race
William Julius Wilson. More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City
At the heart of this book is a distinction between structural and cultural causes of enduring inter-generational poverty and social marginalization. Structural causes include our institutions and our social and economic policies, in so far as they impact the life prospects of the less advantaged. Cultural causes include those collective understandings and behavioural scripts shared by members of some group which arguably play a role in perpetuating the lower status and achievements of that group.
Liberal and conservative opinion in American political cultural has tended to put practical and rhetorical emphasis on one or the other of these causes of poverty, with liberals favouring structural explanations for enduring, inter-generational poverty and conservatives favouring cultural ones. Liberals tend to argue that conservatives’ preference for cultural explanations end up “blaming the victim,” with conservatives responding that liberals miss an important dimension of the dynamics of poverty. These debates have been particularly sharp when they focus on the fate of black Americans in American society, and the reasons for the continued marginalization and poverty of significant numbers of them.
Wilson wants to reintroduce culture as a respectable explanatory factor in the story of poverty and marginalization in black communities, albeit only one among a complex and interacting set of causes. But as a black liberal scholar and a veteran of these debates, he’s well aware of the rhetorical and substantive risks of doing so. So in spite of his stated aim of reintroducing culture as part of the explanation for poverty, much of his book reads as a sharp rebuke to the many attempts to use cultural explanations to explain the social and economic marginalization of black men.
When Wilson finally gets around explaining how cultural causes might play a role in comprehensive explanations of poverty, it’s clear that it’s often by mediating the impact of structural causes of poverty, and that the best social science available suggests that culture is of much less importance than structural causes. Some of the most interesting passages in the book debunk popular attempts to draw a connection between culture and poverty in the black community. In the end, however, Wilson sees real value—substantive and rhetorical—in acknowledging the limited ways in which culture matters in the perpetuation of poverty and marginalization. In Obama’s rhetoric about race, especially in his remarkable March 2008 speech (“A More Perfect Union”), Wilson finds these two themes of culture and social structure brought together in an analytically effective and rhetorically persuasive combination.
This is a good and worthwhile book. There are a number of points in the book at which Wilson might have signaled his main themes more clearly, since they sometimes get lost in the blizzard of qualifications, counterarguments and on-the-other-hands. Wilson’s prose style is also a bit dryly academic, which may unfortunately get in the way of the wide readership his book deserves. Although Wilson is very interested in reintroducing cultural explanations for poverty, in the American context the most valuable thing about this book will be its vigorous and cogent defence of the relevance of structural causes and its equally effective rebuttal of lazy cultural explanations.
Howls of outrage (3)