Wilson, William Julius 1935–

views updated May 23 2018

William Julius Wilson 1935

Sociologist, educator

Taught at University of Chicago

Wrote Controversial Books on Race, Poverty

Criticized Welfare Reform


William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard Universitys John F. Kennedy School of Government, is one of the top authorities on race and poverty in the United States. Wilson has built his reputation on three controversial and widely-read books: The Declining Significance of Race (1978), The Tru/y Disadvantaged (1987) and When Work Disappears (1996). According to David Whitman of the Washington Monthly, Wilsons academic research has been able to change almost singlehandedly the national debate over why the urban underclass exists and what can be done about it. Before accepting the position at Harvard in 1996, Wilson taught in the sociology department at the University of Chicago for 25 years. Much of Wilsons groundbreaking academic work was based on research conducted in the poor African American neighborhoods of Chicagosome of them within blocks of the university.

Unlike many scholars, Wilson has been able to make his opinions known outside the world of academia. Politicians across the country, from Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley to President Bill Clinton, have consulted Wilson on issues of race and poverty. While his advice has not always been accepted, Wilsons influence is undeniable. President Clinton, for example, told Time magazine that Wilsons books made me see race and poverty and the problems of the inner city in a different light.

Wilson is also well-known to the general public, having appeared on television news programs many times over the years. In 1996, Wilson was named as one of Time magazines 25 most influential Americans. He was described as a giant in The New York Times, which published excerpts from When Work Disappears in its Sunday magazine. While his political beliefs tend to be left-of-center, Wilson also earns respect from conservatives. John J. Dilulio Jr., writing in National Review, described him as Americas most thoughtful and morally forthright liberal social-policy scholar.

Taught at University of Chicago

Wilson was born on December 20, 1935 in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, and raised in Blairsville, Pennsylvania, a working-class community east of Pittsburgh. His father, Esco Wilson, a coal miner, and his mother, Pauline Wilson, had to struggle to support the family. The Wilson

At a Glance

Born Witllim Julius Wilson, Dec, 20, 1935, Derry Township, PA; son of Esco Wilson, a coal miner, and Pauline (Bracy) Wilson; married Mildred Mary Hood, Aug. 31, 1957 (divorced); married Beverly Ann Hyebner, Aug. 30, 1970; children: Colleen, lisa, Carter, Paula. Education: Wflberforce University, BA in sociology, 1958; Bowling Green State University, MA in sociology, 1961; Washington State University, PhD in sociology, 1966. Polifto; Democrat.

Career: University of Massachusetts, assistant professor, 1965-69, associate professor, 1969-71; University of Chicago, visiting associate professor, 1971-72, assosiateprofessor, department of sociology, 1972-75, professor, 1975-96, chair, department of sociology, 1978-96, university professor, 1990-96. Harvard University, professor of social policy, (joint appointment with Afro-American studies department), 1996-

Member: Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, National Academy of Sciences, Sociological Research Association, International Sociological Association.

Addresses: Home 75 Cambridge Parkway, Unit £406, Cambridge, MA 02142, Office-John P. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 79 John P. Kennedy St, Cambridge, MA 02138-5801.

home was so small that all six children shared one bedroom. When Wilson was twelve, his father died of lung disease. Much to his mothers chagrin, the family was forced to accept public assistance until she managed to find a job as a housekeeper. The vegetables in our gardenliterally kept us from starving, Wilson recalled in an interview with the magazine Chicago. We were desperately poor. But I dont remember being unhappy .We simply had no idea how bad off we were.

As a child, Wilson spent summers with his aunt, Janice Wardlaw, a psychiatric social worker in New York City. Wardlaw had a profound influence on Wilsons early life, taking him to cultural attractions in New York and encouraging him to read. Later, when Wilson won a church scholarship to attend Wilberforce University, a predominantly black school in Wilberforce, Ohio, Wardlaw helped to support him financially. Aunt Janice made it clear to me that the only impediments to my doing whatever I wished to do would be of my own making, Wilson was quoted as saying in Chicago. Wilsons five brothers and sisters also went on to attend college.

Later in life, some conservatives tried to use Wilsons background to argue that government assistance for the poor was unnecessary. I become angry when people use my life as some kind of example of how black people should make it on their own, Wilson was quoted as saying in Chicago. Thats absurd. You cannot generalize from my experience. The obstacles those in the inner cities now face are nearly insurmountable.

As a sociology major at Wilberforce, Wilson became interested in urban sociology and the politics of race. He earned a BA in 1958, then spent several years in the army. In 1961, he earned a masters degree in sociology from Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. In 1966, Wilson earned a PhD from Washington State University.

From 1965 until 1971, Wilson taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In 1970, he was honored with a Teacher of the Year distinction from the university. Wilson was offered a position in the sociology department at the University of Chicago in 1971. In an interview with Chicago magazine, he recalled that while no one at the University of Massachusetts had ever insinuated that he was hired merely because he was African American, that was less true when I arrived at the University of Chicago, Wilson remarked. But the idea that some people were suspicious of black professionals abilities simply drove me to work even harder. I was determined to prove that I was not only capable, but that I was better than the other scholars there.

Wilsons achievements at the University of Chicago were remarkable. He won tenure in his first year, and was appointed as a full professor in 1975. Three years later, at the age of 42, he became chair of the sociology department. In 1984, he was given the title of distinguished service professor and became a university professor in 1990. The following year, Wilson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. In the words of Gretchen Reynolds, writing in Chicago, the appointment is perhaps the highest honor available to a U.S. scientist, apartfrom a Nobel Prize.

Wrote Controversial Books on Race, Poverty

Early in his academic career, Wilson had become disillusioned by the urban sociology that was being produced in the 1960s and 1970s, which he considered to be too partisan. In response, he developed a fact-based approach, relying heavily on statistical analysis to back his claims. His first book, Power, Racism, and Privilege: RaceRelations in Theoretical and SociohistoricalPerspectives, a comparative study of race relations in the United States and South Africa which appeared in 1973, was based on such methods.

In his next book, Wilson decided to focus on class distinctions within the African American community. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, published in 1978, would become a landmark work of scholarship. In the book, Wilson argued that social class was becoming more important than race in determining the prospects of African-Americans. For middle-class blacks, Wilson wrote, there were fewer and fewer impediments to success, whereas for very poor black Americans, options were increasingly limited.

Wilsons book infuriated many leaders of civil-rights and liberal policy organizations, who thought it provided ammunition toconservatives who wanted to blame the poor for their own misery. When the American Sociological Association honored the book with a top award, the Association of Black Sociologists protested, claiming that the book misrepresented the African American experience. Although Wilson has described himself in Time magazine as an unashamed liberal, he was labeled a neo-conservative following the books publication. Inevitably, he was invited to meet President Reagan, Joe Klein wrote in the New Republic. Horrified, Wilson called the White House and told them that a terrible mistake had been made. One of the things Wilson identified in The Declining Significance of Race was the increasing divergence between the two large groups of blacks, the middle class and the impoverished, sociology professor Elijah Anderson of the University of Pennsylvania recalled in Chicago. That idea is accepted wisdom now. But it was controversial at the time. That insight was threatening to many blacks.

Hurt by the angry, and often personal, criticism of The Declining Significance of Race, Wilson took pains in his next book to distance himself from conservative scholars. The Truly Disadvantaged: The lnner City, The Underclass, and Public Policy appeared in 1987. In this book, Wilson argued that many middle-class and working-class African Americans had moved out of ghetto neighborhoods, taking with them traditional values. The only solution to this problem, in Wilsons view, would be for the government to implement a major, race-neutral project of social and economic reconstruction for American cities. While The Truly Disadvantaged was also controversial, it was well-received by many liberals and moderates, and Wilson was no longer labeled as a neo-conservative.

During this period, Wilson organized a project called the Urban Poverty and Family Life Study, which would grow into one of the most extensive ethnographic surveys of the urban poor in history. Assisted by a large number of graduate students, Wilson organized interviews with 2,500 poor Chicago residents and 190 area employers. The 21 papers that emerged from the project were presented at a symposium held at the University of Chicago in 1991. On the basis of this extensive study, Wilson secured grant money to establish a permanent organization for poverty research at the University of Chicago. This organization, The Center for the Study of Urban Inequality, was inaugurated in 1993.

Criticized Welfare Reform

Over the years, Wilson has been consulted by Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, Senator Paul Simon of Illinois, and Mario Cuomo, governor of New York. In 1992, Wilson was recruited to be an adviser during Bill Clintons presidential campaign. After winning the election, President Clinton continued to ask for Wilsons advice on public policy decisionsthough he has not always followed it. In 1996, Wilson professed to be deeply disappointed when Clinton signed the welfare-reform bill. According to the new rules, virtually all welfare recipients, including children, are entitled to receive only five years of welfare assistance throughout their lifetime. After receiving aid for two years, recipients must find work or lose their benefits.

Most of the welfare mothers who reach the five-year time limit will be left to sink or swim, and for those in the inner city the situation will be catastrophic, Wilson was quoted as saying in Time magazine. The supply of low-skilled workers compared to the number of jobs that are available is so large that it would take 10 to 15 continuous years of economic expansion to absorb them. Weve never had a period of sustained economic growth that has lasted that long. The only way to avert this disaster, in Wilsons view, would be for the government to create jobs, just as it did during the Great Depression in the 1930s.

Wilsons most recent book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, was published in 1996. In the book, Wilson argued that it is chronic, community-wide unemployment that produces deviant behavior in the American ghetto. According to Don Wycliff, writing in Commonweal in Wilsons telling, the central reality has come to be not just poverty, but mind-numbing, spirit-killing, community-destroying joblessness. The result, according to Wilson, is a set of cultural traits and behaviors that trap ghetto residents in poverty. As in hisearlier books, Wilson advocated an extensive, race-neutral program of social reforms, including universal health insurance, and a system of low-wage public jobs to replace welfare.

In 1996, Wilson left the University of Chicago to join Harvard Universitys prestigious John F. Kennedy School of Government. Wilsons move was newsworthy within the academic community, which viewed it as a coup for Harvard and a profound loss for the University of Chicago. According to David R. Gergen, writing in U.S. News and World Report, Wilson became a notable addition to Harvards dream team of African American intellectuals, which also includes Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West. Never before has so much intellectual firepower been gathered in one place to focus on our most intractable problem: racial inequality, Gergen wrote.

In 1997, Wilson and a team of researchers began a study to track the impact of welfare reform on 4, 500 low-income workers and welfare recipients in Boston, Chicago, and Baltimore. The five-year study will determine whether Wilsons predictions of disaster are borne out by the actual experience of the poor, who, in his view, are trying to survive without the advantages he had growing up. Those of us who have succeeded, those of us in the black middle class, should have, and I believe largely do have, a special sensitivity to the problems and overwhelming difficulties of the black poor today, he was quoted as saying in Chicago. We cannot simply say, do what we did. They dont have thatoption. So we, as a nation, and those of us who are black, in particular, have a responsibility to help those left behind.



Chicago, December. 1992, p. 80.

Commentary, November, 1996, p. 58.

Commonweal, November, 1996, p. 21.

Essence, February 1997, p. 58.

Journal of the American Planning Association, Spring 1997, p. 285.

National Review, January 27, 1997, p. 53.

New Republic, October 28, 1996, p. 32.

Newsweek, February 19, 1996, p. 64.

Time, September 2, 1996, p. 45; June 17, 1996, p. 56; February 26, 1996, p. 58.

US News and World Report, March 18, 1996, p. 116.

Washington Monthly, November 1996, p. 43.

Carrie Golus

Wilson, William Julius

views updated May 18 2018

William Julius Wilson

Sociologist, educator, writer

William Julius Wilson is a distinguished sociologist, teacher, and researcher; as well as a popular speaker and a prolific writer. Wilson's research and published works have caused controversy and stirred strong emotions. He has been labeled a neoconservative; he has been called an ultra-liberal. He has received high praise and vitriolic criticism. His peers have honored him, and he has been on the short list to communicate with well-known politicians. Wilson's views have been debated and used by both the political right and the left to promote some government programs and eliminate others. He has challenged liberal views about root causes of a permanent underclass in U.S. society and conservative views that attribute the state of poverty to a dependency on welfare, on cultural deficiencies, and to people who simply do not want to work. He has been criticized for deemphasizing the lingering impacts of discrimination and segregation and for pushing for programs that are race neutral. He was disappointed with and strongly criticized welfare reforms put in place during President Clinton's first term because they provided no job training programs and cut social services. He recommends that government provide support for low-income women who want to go to college and create jobs programs comparable to that of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the FDR era.

Wilson turned down an invitation to the White House to meet President Reagan, after being labeled a neoconservative. In 1989, Ebony magazine identified Wilson as a pathfinder in a report on "Blacks as Leaders of Professional Organizations."

Early Years and Education

Wilson was born on December 20, 1935 and spent his early childhood in Derry Township, Pennsylvania. He attended primary and secondary school with children from Irish, Swiss, German, Hungarian, and Italian families. Even though he and his siblings grew up in a predominately white environment, they had a strong support system of blacks throughout the community. During his childhood, his parents, Pauline and Esco Wilson, placed high priority on family, hard work, and educational attainment even though neither of them had completed high school. His father was employed as a steel worker and a coal miner. After his father's death from black lung disease, his mother worked cleaning houses while raising six children.

Despite the family's economic hardships, all the Wilson children graduated from college because of the expectations set by their parents. In 1958, Wilson received his B.A. from Wilberforce University in Ohio, an institution where sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois taught. Wilson entered the university with the intent of studying business administration but discovered sociology and went on to obtain his degree in that field. Following graduation, he served in the armed forces from 1958 to 1960. Prior to leaving Wilberforce he developed an interest in urban sociology and a desire to continue studying at the graduate level. In 1961, he earned his M.A. in sociology from Bowling Green State University (Ohio) and five years later received his Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology from Washington State University. Neither his master's thesis nor his doctoral dissertation dealt with race or racism. He was hired as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) in its nationally recognized department of sociology before he completed his doctorate degree. When he left University of Massachusetts in 1971 he was associate professor of sociology and had become interested in racial politics.

Influenced by Roles Models and Mentors

Wilson's most important influences were his parents and his father's sister, Janice Wardlaw, a psychiatric social worker from New York. They encouraged him to achieve academically and to always work hard. His aunt provided him with cultural experiences and with finan-cial support when he entered Wilberforce. His research methods and teaching styles were influenced by Maxwell Brooks, his sociology professor at Wilberforce; Richard Ogles, professor of sociology at Washington State University; Robert Park (one of the founders of the Chicago School of Sociology); sociologist E. Franklin Frazier; W. E. B. Du Bois; and John Hope Franklin. Wilson was invited to the University of Chicago in 2003 to participate in a symposium, "Race in the Making of American History: Perspectives at the Onset of a New Century," that honored Franklin.

For nearly twenty-five years, Wilson was a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. He arrived at the university in 1971 as a visiting professor and advanced to associate professor in 1972. Three years later he became professor of sociology. Twice he served as chair of the sociology department between the years 1975 and 1996. He became the Lucy Flower Distinguished Service professor of sociology and before he left the university was the Lucy Flower University professor of sociology and public policy and was director of the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality from 1990 to 1996. During his years at Chicago, he gained a reputation as a dedicated teacher and scholar. He focused his research on race, class, and the study of the urban poor. From his published articles and books on racial politics, he gained recognition beyond academia.

His first book Power, Racism, and Privilege: Race Relations in Theoretical and Sociohistorical Perspectives, published two years after his arrival at Chicago, compares race relations in the United States and South Africa. In it, according to a review by Thomas F Pettigrew in Michigan Law Review, he "advances sociological thinking about race." In 1973 he joined Peter I. Rose and Stanley Rothman in publishing Through Different Eyes: Black and White Perspectives on American Race Relations. One of his most controversial works, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, was published in 1978. This book of slightly over 50,000 words is described by Pettigrew as a "brief overview of American racial history that is provocative and engaging, if not novel and definitive." The book received the American Sociological Association's Sydney Spivack Award. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy, published in 1987, deals with the plight of the urban poor. In it Wilson suggests that government needs to develop a plan for economic reconstruction for U.S. cities. From 1987 to 1988, Wilson and his students gathered research data for a study called the Urban Poverty and Family Life Study.

In 1989 Wilson served as editor of The Ghetto Underclass: Social Science Perspectives for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. This book challenges the political views of neoconservatives who had sought to claim Wilson as one of their own. In 1995 he published a comparative study of inequality in Europe and the United States.

Joins the "Dream Team" at Harvard

Wilson joined Harvard in 1996 following twenty-four years at the University of Chicago. When he arrived it was announced in major news publications that the professor who was heralded for his explorations of the study of inner cities was joining two other African American scholars, Henry Louis Gates and Cornell West. The first title Wilson held was the Malcolm Wiener professor of social policy. Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser university professor at Harvard University's John F Kennedy School of Government. He is a member of the Department of Afro-American Studies and director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at the Kennedy School. He is also professor of social policy and the Andrew D. White professor-at-large at Cornell.


Born in Derry Township, Pennsylvania on December 20
Graduates from Wilberforce University
Serves in the U.S. Army; earns Meritorious Service Award
Earns M.A. from Bowling State University
Earns Ph.D. from Washington State University
Serves as professor of sociology, University of Chicago
Publishes Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions
Publishes The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy
Elected to the National Academy of Sciences
Inaugurates the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago
First winner of the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award by someone who is not an economist
President's Commission on the National Medal of Science, National Science Foundation
Publishes The Disappearance of Work: The World of the Urban Poor; selected by Time magazine as one of America's twenty-five most influential people
National Medal of Science recipient
Publishes The Bridge Over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics
Publishes Youth in Cities: A Cross-National Perspective, edited with Marta Tienda

During his first year at Harvard, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor was published. This book was selected by the New York Times Book Review as a notable book of 1996, and it was selected for the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award. It deals with unemployment of African Americans in inner cities and was read by many public figures, including President Clinton. It was described in Time magazine as a "profound and disturbing book." In 1999, Wilson wrote The Bridge Over the Racial Divide, an analysis of the socio-economics of race. In 2001, he joined Neil J. Smelser in editing America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences, a two-volume study of evidence of racial disparities prepared for President Bill Clinton's Advisory Board on Race. For the Jacobs Foundation series on adolescence, he co-edited Youth in Cities: A Cross-National Perspective in 2002.

Awards and Honors

Wilson has received many honorary degrees and prestigious awards. One of his first awards was a Distinguished Teaching Award at the University of Massachusetts in 1970. While at the University of Chicago he was a MacArthur Prize Fellow from 1987 to 1992. In 1991 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors granted to American academics, an award that is usually bestowed on natural scientists. In 1994, Wilson was the first recipient not in economics to receive the Seidman Award. When he was elected president of the 12,000-member American Sociology Association, he announced that sociology had not received the kind of nationwide attention it deserves. At the time of his election, he was only the second African American to hold that position. (The first was E. Franklin Frazier who was elected to the office in 1948.) Wilson was awarded the National Medal of Science Award in 1998, which has been described as the U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Wilson was only the second sociologist so honored. In 2002, Bowling Green State named him the President's First Visiting Scholar in Ethnic Studies. In 2003 he was the recipient of the Talcott Parsons Prize in Social Sciences.

Wilson is widely read and quoted, appears frequently on television, and testifies before Congressional committees. His books have been translated into many different languages, and he has taught at prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States and the École des Hautes Études in Sciences Sociales in Paris. He was listed by Time magazine as one of twenty-five most influential persons of 1996 in the United States.

Wilson's scholarship has shaped the focus of articles by scholars, including Sandra Smith at the University of California/Berkeley and social scientist Alford Young. At a symposium held in 2003, participants, who were his former students of color, presented essays and discussed race and racism, urban poverty, and social inequality. In 2004, Frank Harold Wilson (no relation) wrote a biography entitled Race, Class, and the Postindustrial City: William Julius Wilson and the Promise of Sociology. This book discusses Wilson's political theories on race relations.

Wilson has spent much of his career studying and lecturing about crime, poverty, the unemployed, and the underemployed in urban environments. He has studied conditions that lead to the spread of concentrated poverty. He is respected for taking the study of sociology out of the classroom and introducing its concepts to the public and political arena.

Wilson is one of eighteen Harvard professors to hold a university professorship, Harvard's highest professorial distinction. He has conducted seminars for members of the Congressional Black Caucus, advised Mayor Harold Washington, and consulted with Mayor Richard M. Daley, senators Bill Bradley and Paul Simon, governor Mario Cuomo, and former President Bill Clinton. He serves on many boards, including the board of trustees of Wilberforce. He is married to Beverly Ann Huebner and is the father of Colleen, Lisa, Carter, and Paula.



"William Julius Wilson, 1935—Sociologist, educator." Contemporary Black Biography. Vol. 22. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999.

"Wilson, William Julius." The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.


FitzGerald, Marian. "Comment and Analysis, Letters: Segregation Won't Work." Guardian Leader (6 June 2005): 21.

"Harvard's Wilson Awarded National Medal of Science." Black Issues in Higher Education 15 (7 January 1999): 8.

Lyons, Douglas C. "Pathfinders of the '80s—Blacks as Leaders of Professional Organizations—Special Report: 25 Years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What's Changed? What Hasn't?" Ebony (August 1989): 60.

May, Reuben. "The William Julius Wilson Effect on a Young African American Scholar's Sociological Investigation of Race." Ethics and Racial Studies 26 (November 2003): 1088-95.

Pettigrew, Thomas F. Power, Racism, and Privilege: Race Relations in Theoretical and Sociohistorical Perspectives (Book Review). Social Forces 54 (September 1975): 291-92.

――――― "Review: The Changing But Not Declining Significance of Race." Michigan Law Review 77 (January-March 1979): 918.

White, Jack E. "Let Them Eat Birthday Cake." Time 148 (2 September 1996): 45.


"Harvard Professor and BGSU Graduate William Julius Wilson Is Visiting Scholar. http://www.edu/offices/pr/news/2002/Jan02/scholar.html (Accessed 15 February 2006).

Sidney Hillman Foundation. Prize Awards Program.http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/about.html (Accessed 15 February 2006).

University of Chicago Chronicle. Vol. 13, no. 14., 31 March 1994. http://chronicle.uchicago.edu/940331/wilson.shtml (Accessed 15 February 2006).

William Julius Wilson Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor full bio. http://ksghome.harvard.edu/∼WWilson/FullBio.html (Accessed 15 February 2006).


Wilson, William Julius. "The Political Economy and Urban Racial Tensions," acceptance paper for the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award in Political Economy. Memphis: P. K. Seidman Foundation, 1994.

                                      Gloria Hamilton

Wilson, William Julius

views updated May 14 2018

Wilson, William Julius 1935


William Julius Wilson is an African American sociologist who is most noted for his work in urban sociology and his study of the black urban underclass. He was born December 20, 1935, in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, and he received a BA from Wilberforce University, an MA from Bowling Green State University, and a PhD from Washington State University. He began his professional career at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he wrote his first book on the African American community. He continued his research and wrote his most influential treatise while a professor at the University of Chicago. As of the mid-2000s he was Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University.

In his book The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1980) Wilson posits that although past racial oppression created an urban black underclass, the black class structure is now parallel to that of whites. Therefore, blacks life chances are now more a function of their economic class status than of race relations with whites. Consequently, race-specific programs such as affirmative action improve the life chances of middle-class blacks who are in the position to take advantage of the programs. Although Wilson does not deny the existence of racism, he suggests that programs designed to lessen the effects of poverty on all races, rather than race-specific policies, would better serve the needs of the urban black underclass, and are more likely to receive political acceptance.

Jack Niemonen (2002) argued that Wilsons historical analysis was underdeveloped, and that his concentration on aggregate labor market inequality underscores the effect of persistent racism and discrimination in the workplace. In addition, Wilson (1980) noted other reactions to his work. Political conservatives embraced Wilsons theory as evidence of social pathology in the black community and as support for discontinuance of affirmative actiontype programs. They attributed problems of the inner city such as high crime rates, poverty, and high rates of female-headed families to underclass culture and welfare policies. Sociologists criticized Wilson for his disregard of racism when segregation in housing and education still hampered opportunities for blacks, as well as for the perceived public-policy implications of his treatise. They sought evidence to counter Wilsons claims of the existence of an underclass, and argued that social problems in the inner cities were caused by racism (summarized in Wilson 1980; 1987).

Wilson (1987) rejects liberal claims of racism and conservative claims of welfare policies and social pathology as the cause for inner-city social problems. Instead, he offers as explanation the economy-driven factors of urban black male unemployment, the male marriageable pool index (MMPI), social isolation, and negative concentration effects (negative consequences of the spatial and social isolation of impoverished African Americans). He also acknowledges some negative behaviors of ghetto inhabitants such as drug pushing and diminished work ethic, but continues to reject racism or social pathology as the cause (Wilson 1996). He posits that the global economy has a negative domino effect on the urban poor: When urban jobs are lost to suburbia and foreign countries, spatial and skills mismatch occurs, the tax base in the cities dwindle, public services such as education suffer, working- and middle-class blacks flee the city, and poorly educated blacks who possess no job skills eventually abandon their job searches for public assistance, and/or work in the illegal economy (Wilson 1996).

Critics argue that Wilsons application of John Kains (1968) spatial mismatch hypothesis is limited for the following reasons: Residential segregation enhances the effect of spatial mismatch; employers decisions determine black employment in local jobs; there are numerous methodological inconsistencies; and because of the lack of black human capital and the simultaneous existence of immigrant social capital (Niemonen 2002). Another researcher, Michael Stoll, points out that racial discrimination contributes to the disparity between employment rate of suburban black males who reside in close proximity to available jobs and that of comparably educated white males (Stoll 1998). Others explain that the diminished work ethic earlier noted is a function of the lack of structural opportunities available to the black inner-city poor (Gould 1999) and the negative perception of employers towards inner-city black men (Kirschenman and Neckerman 1991). Mark Gould contends that if educational and employment opportunities become more available to the urban underclass, their attitudes towards work are likely to change as well (1999).

Finally, Wilson (1999) addresses the growing schism between the elite class and the dwindling middle class. He maintains that the middle and working classes, regardless of racial group, fail to see that racial division not only worsens the conditions of the black urban poor, it also exacerbates the political and economic disparity between the elite and nonelite classes. He recommends a grassroots multiracial coalition and affirmative opportunity programs based on merit that are neither race nor class specific.

Overall, Wilsons major contribution to social science has been his illumination of the devastating effect that the global economy has had on the urban black community. Yet, his focus on class averts attention away from his agenda of improving the life chances of the ghetto inhabitants, as well as from the persistent racism and discrimination experienced by this group and other African Americans. Nevertheless, his scholarship redirected the academic communitys attention to the plight of the black urban poor.

SEE ALSO Poverty; Social Exclusion; Sociology, Urban; Spatial Theory; Underclass; Urban Studies



Wilson, William J. 1980. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.

Wilson, William J. 1999. The Bridge over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Gould, Mark. 1999. Race and Theory: Culture, Poverty, and Adaptation to Discrimination in Wilson and Ogbu. Sociological Theory 17 (2): 171200.

Kain, John F. 1968. Housing Segregation, Negro Employment, and Metropolitan Decentralization. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (2): 175197.

Kirschenman, Joleen, and Kathryn M. Neckerman. 1991. Wed Love to Hire Them, But: The Meaning of Race for Employers. In The Urban Underclass, eds. Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, 203232. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Niemonen, Jack. 2002. Race, Class, and the State in Contemporary Sociology: The William Julius Wilson Debates. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.

Remnick, David. 1996. Dr. Wilsons Neighborhood. In The Devil Problem, 250274. New York: Random House.

Stoll, Michael. 1998. When Jobs Move, Do Black and Latino Men Lose? The Effect of Growth in Job Decentralisation on Young Mens Jobless Incidence and Duration. Urban Studies 35 (12): 22212239.

Yolanda Y. Johnson

Wilson, William Julius

views updated May 21 2018

Wilson, William Julius

December 20, 1935

Born in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, to Esco and Pauline Bracy Wilson, sociologist and educator William Wilson received degrees in sociology from Wilberforce University (B.A., 1958), Bowling Green State University (M.A., 1961), and Washington State University (Ph.D., 1966).

Wilson taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst (19651971) and the University of Chicago (19711976). While at Chicago he was promoted to full professor in 1975, named chair of the sociology department in 1978, and was named distinguished professor in 1994. The next year he received a rare distinction for a sociologist when he was invited to join the National Academy of Sciences. In 1993 he founded the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality, a permanent organization for poverty research located at the university. Wilson joined Harvard University in 1996, where he was appointed Lewis P. and Linda L. Gayser University Professor in the John F. Kennedy School of Government and later the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy.

Among his numerous publications, Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) are highly regarded by many, stimulating academic and popular debates on race and urban poverty. His book When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996) furthers the discussion on poverty in inner cities and diagnoses and prescribes remedies for the ailments in these areas. Wilson's views have proved controversial, for he has supported national health and child care systems, work and training programs similar to those of the New Deal, and training programs for the poor that will allow them to gain employment.

Wilson was the recipient of the 1998 National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the United States. He continues to write and edit books, including the 2002 Youth in Cities: A Cross-National Perspective.

See also Black Studies; Economic Condition, U.S.; Sociology


Newsmakers, annual edition. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1998.

Phelps, Shirelle, ed. Contemporary Black Biography, vol. 22. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999.

Who's Who Among African Americans, 12th ed. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1999.

Wilson, Frank Harold. Race, Class, and the Postindustrial City: William Julius Wilson and the Promise of Sociology. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

jessie carney smith (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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William Julius Wilson

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