William Julius Wilson Research Paper

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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 Wilson’s 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 Wilson’s theory as evidence of social pathology in the black community and as support for discontinuance of affirmative action—type 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 Wilson’s 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 Wilson’s application of John Kain’s (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, Wilson’s 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 community’s attention to the plight of the black urban poor.


  1. Wilson, William J. 1980. The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Wilson, William J. 1987. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  3. Wilson, William J. 1996. When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Knopf.
  4. Wilson, William J. 1999. The Bridge over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  5. Gould, Mark. 1999. Race and Theory: Culture, Poverty, and Adaptation to Discrimination in Wilson and Ogbu. Sociological Theory 17 (2): 171–200.
  6. Kain, John F. 1968. Housing Segregation, Negro Employment, and Metropolitan Decentralization. The Quarterly Journal of Economics 82 (2): 175–197.
  7. Kirschenman, Joleen, and Kathryn M. Neckerman. 1991. “We’d Love to Hire Them, But…”: The Meaning of Race for Employers. In The Urban Underclass, eds. Christopher Jencks and Paul E. Peterson, 203–232. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.
  8. Niemonen, Jack. 2002. Race, Class, and the State in Contemporary Sociology: The William Julius Wilson Debates. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
  9. Remnick, David. 1996. Dr. Wilson’s Neighborhood. In The Devil Problem, 250–274. New York: Random House.
  10. Stoll, Michael. 1998. When Jobs Move, Do Black and Latino Men Lose? The Effect of Growth in Job Decentralisation on Young Men’s Jobless Incidence and Duration. Urban Studies 35 (12): 2221–2239.

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