Renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson told a UMass Boston audience on Tuesday that, while the black middle class is growing, the life prospects of the urban poor, including other persons of color and whites, are no better than they were 37 years ago.
Wilson, a professor at Harvard, made his remarks at the Robert C. Wood Lecture, sponsored by the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. He was reflecting on developments since the publication of his book, The Declining Significance of Race, in 1978.
In his controversial book, Professor Wilson charted the swing in the concentration of racial conflict from the economic sector to the sociopolitical order. Wilson’s lecture revisited the themes and conditions of poor Black Americans in 1978 and shared updated scholarship to revisit topics like income segregation and income inequality, occupational mobility, educational disparities, and family structure. He also touched upon changes in mortgage lending policies, weakened labor unions, waning employment opportunities in the public sector, and credit card debt affecting the upward mobility of Black families.
“Class inequality is a major political issue today,” said Wilson.
Sharing recent scholarship from Robert D. Putnam’s book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis and Marisa Abrajano and Zoltan L. Hajnal’s White Backlash: Immigration, Race, and American Politics, Wilson stated that class barriers loom much larger today and contribute to the increased disparities while white Americans' mounting concerns on immigration are exacerbating racial divides. Wilson also discussed the ideas of zero-sum mobility and the call for continued affirmative action programs in Richard Alba’s book Blurring the Color Line: The New Chance for a More Integrated America.
Following Wilson’s speech, three panelists posed questions and offered comments on the topics of race and class.
Gail Latimore, executive director of the Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, talked about the geography of opportunity and the need to develop alternative economic models for people of color. Michael Patrick MacDonald, best-selling author of All Souls and distinguished writer-in-residence at the McCormack Graduate School and Honors College, made comparisons between the need to organize and build coalitions between the single-parent, female-headed households that surrounded him as a child in South Boston and the African American families in Roxbury and elsewhere in the capital city. Lawrence Mayor Daniel Rivera discussed the shrinking achievement gap and called for progressive education reform to support low-income and middle-class residents.
Representing the Wood family, Margaret "Maggie" Hassan, governor of New Hampshire, praised Wilson as a public intellectual and reflected on why her father thought that public intellectualism was so important. Throughout his career as secretary of housing and urban development, superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, president of the University of Massachusetts, and a senior fellow at the McCormack Institute, she said, “My dad wanted to honor human dignity, unleash new talent, grow the economy, and allow all to influence policy and thrive together.”
Dean Ira A. Jackson described Wilson as “arguably the nation’s leading urban sociologist and certainly one of the most important academics anywhere in the world on the subjects of race and class.”