Patterns That Hinder Progress of Urban Poor

New Book Reaches Beyond Skin Color

Posted March 23, 2009 at 4:09pm

William Julius Wilson knows something about being feared or discriminated against because of his skin color. In the opening lines of his new book, “More Than Just Race,— Wilson recounts the nervous looks and body language that he inspired simply by being a casually dressed black man.

“Several times over the years I have stepped into the elevator of my condominium dressed in casual clothes and could immediately tell from the body language of the other residents in the elevator that I made them uncomfortable,— he writes. “When I am dressed casually, I am always a little relieved to step into an empty elevator, but I am not apprehensive if I am wearing a tie.—

The author’s personal testimony humanizes one of several factors to which he attributes the ongoing cycle of poverty among urban black communities. In addition to prejudice, structural factors such as the changing economic landscape, and cultural influences such as the pressure to gain respect among one’s peers by any means necessary, have made it increasingly difficult for the urban poor to break out of this pattern.

Unfortunately, the opening chapter is where the personal anecdotes end. The rest of the book takes a hard, factual look at the subject, but it does not offer engaging voices that might keep the average reader connected to the issues.

As a scholarly work, however, which is what “More Than Just Race— seems to be, it is serious and informative. Wilson examines issues of urban poverty in the context of a globalizing economy and changing technologies that lessen the demand for low-skilled workers, positions once filled by people from neighborhoods that he describes.

In the 155-page work, Wilson tackles a complex web of issues. In addition to economic factors, he examines urban cultures in which young black males who cannot find work or refuse to do jobs that are frequently looked down on seek other ways to gain stature.

“In a context of limited opportunities for success, some of these individuals devise alternative ways to gain respect,— Wilson said in an interview. “Unfortunately, this just perpetuates poverty.—

These alternative routes include developing a “predatory attitude— toward neighbors, getting women pregnant and developing street smarts that make them respectable in their neighborhoods but serve little purpose outside those boundaries.

Though Wilson gives special attention to the plight of young black males, he also looks at what happens to the women in these communities who become pregnant out of wedlock and often lose hope of escaping the poverty in which they grew up.

“A lot of these women have children out of wedlock because they feel they don’t have anything else to look forward to,— he said.

In a chapter on the fragmentation of the poor black family, he quotes anonymous men and women living in poverty. Their accounts, though somewhat impersonal, are sobering as they give their personal accounts of romantic relationships and reasons for not marrying. The men often see no point in getting married because they can barely provide for themselves, let alone a family, and don’t want to deal with the expected nagging and suspicions of their significant others. The women, he writes, want to get married but have little expectation that men will be faithful and rarely find men whom they consider marriage material.

Wilson’s analyses of the cultures in poor urban neighborhoods are the most engaging elements of the book, as they may serve to explain some misconceptions about these communities. But while those are important, he argues that the structural influences, including historic segregation and discrimination, are far more significant factors in the present situation.

In order to push back against these influences, a change in mindset has to begin, Wilson argues, particularly among young segments of the population. One example that he offers is the Harlem Children’s Zone, in which students from poor neighborhoods attend charter schools and are given resources that help them succeed academically. That allows them to maintain a positive focus and avoid the pitfalls that would keep them in the same cycle as so many others in their communities.

“Other efforts are not going to work if they are not going to combine them with real opportunities for success,— he said.

As the national conversation remains on the economy, “More Than Just Race— adds an interesting perspective to the discussion and offers insight into a traditionally troubled demographic.