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«THE TANNER LECTURES ON HUMAN VALUES Delivered at University of Michigan October 22 and 23, 1993 WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON is Lucy Flower University ...»

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The New Urban Poverty and the

Problem of Race



Delivered at

University of Michigan

October 22 and 23, 1993

WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON is Lucy Flower University Professor of Sociology and Public Policy and Director of the

Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University

of Chicago. He was educated at Wilberforce and Bowling Green State universities, and received his Ph.D. degree in Sociology and Anthropology from Washington State University in 1966. He is the former chair of the Chicago Department of Sociology and was a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. His many publications include Crisis and Challenge: Race, Class and Poverty in Urban America (in press), T h e Truly Disadvantaged: T h e Inner City, the Underclass, the Public Policy (1987), which was selected by the editors of the N e w York Times Book Review as one of the sixteen best books published in 1987, T h e Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1978), and Power, Racism and Privilege: Race Relations in Theoretical and Sociohistorical Perspectives (1976).

I am very pleased to have the honor of delivering this year’s Obert C. Tanner lecture at the University of Michigan. My remarks this afternoon on the new urban poverty and the problem of race are based largely on two research projects that we have recently conducted in the city of Chicago, although I believe that my general conclusions can be applied to any large industrial city in the United States. Let me begin by putting things in proper focus with a brief, but important, historical perspective that highlights previous research on race and poverty conducted in Chicago.



Since the early twentieth century, the city of Chicago has been a laboratory for the scientific investigation of the social, economic, and historical forces that create and perpetuate economically depressed and isolated urban communities. Much of this research has been conducted by social scientists affiliated with the University of Chicago. The most distinctive phase of this research, referred to as the Chicago School of urban sociology, was completed prior to 1950.1 Beginning with the publication of W. I. Thomas’s The Polish Peasant in 1918, the Chicago School produced several classic studies on urban problems, especially those under the guidance of Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess during the 1920s–40s. These studies often combined quantitative and qualitative analyses in Parts of this chapter are based on a larger study, Jobless Ghettos: T h e Disappearance of W o r k and Its Effect on Urban Life, to be published by Knopf in 1995.

Representative studies by those identified with the Chicago School include Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess, T h e City (1925) ; N. Anderson, T h e Hobo (1923) and Men on the Move (1940); F. Thrasher, T h e Gang (1927); L. Wirth, T h e Ghetto (1928); H. W. Zorbaugh, T h e Gold Coast and the Slum (1929);

R. E. L. Faris and W. Dunham, Mental Disorder in Urban America (1931); and E. Franklin Frazier, T h e Negro Family in Chicago (1932), all published by the University of Chicago Press.

4 The Tanner Lectures on Human Values making distinctive empirical, theoretical, and methodological contributions to our understanding of urban processes, social problems, and urban growth, and especially commencing in the late 1930s the nature of race and class subjugation in urban areas (O’Connor 1992).

The Chicago social scientists made the neighborhood — including the ghetto or inner-city neighborhood — a legitimate subject for scientific analysis. “In contrast to the problem-oriented surveys conducted by their reform-minded counterparts in Chicago’s settlement house movement,” states the historian Alice O’Connor (1992), “the university’s studies would take a detached look at the social forces and processes underlying social problems, geographical and related forces.... Chicago, a community of neighborhoods, would be a laboratory from which one could generalize about the urban condition more broadly.”2 The perspectives on urban processes that guided the Chicago School’s approach to the study of race and class have undergone subtle changes down through the years. In the 1920s, Park and Burgess argued that the immigrant slums and the social problems that characterized them were temporary conditions on the path toward inevitable progress. They furthermore maintained that blacks represented the latest group of migrants involved in the “interaction cycle” that “led from conflict to accommodation to assimilation” (O’Connor 1992).

The view that blacks fit the pattern of immigrant assimilation appeared in subsequent studies in the 1930s by E. Franklin Frazier, I am indebted to O’Connor (1992) for much of the discussion to follow in this section. O’Connor correctly points out that “subsequent historical research on immigrants and the black urban experience have shown the inadequacies of the Chicago school assimilationist framework, whether as a description of the migrant experience or as a predictor of how black migrants would fare in the city. Their view of poverty, social ‘disorganization’ and segregation as inevitable outcomes — albeit temporary ones — of the organic processes of city growth virtually ignored the role of the economy or other structural factors in shaping the trajectory of newcomers’ mobility patterns. Their analysis also overlooked the role of politics and local government policies in creating and maintaining ghettoes, while its inherent optimism and air of inevitability suggested that there was little room or need for intervention” (O’Connor 1992, p. 5).

[WILSON] The New Urban Poverty and Race a black sociologist trained at the University of Chicago. However, Frazier’s awareness of the black urban condition in the 1930s led him to recognize and emphasize a problem ignored in the earlier work of Park and Burgess — namely the important link between the black family structure and the industrial economy. Frazier believed that the upward mobility of African Americans and their eventual assimilation into American life would depend in large measure on the availability of employment opportunities in the industrial sector.

In 1945, a fundamental revision in the Chicago framework appeared in the publication of St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton’s classic study, Black Metropolis. Drake and Cayton first examined black progress in employment, housing, and social integration using census, survey, and archival data. Their analysis clearly revealed the existence of a color line that effectively blocked black occupational, residential, and social mobility. Thus, any assumption about urban blacks duplicating the immigrant experience has to confront the issue of race. Moreover, as O’Connor puts it, “Drake and Cayton recognized that the racial configuration of Chicago was not the expression of an organic process of city growth, but the product of human behavior, institutional practices and political decisions” (O’Connor 1992).

Black Metropolis also deviated from the Chicago School in its inclusion of an ethnographic study, based on W. Lloyd Warner’s anthropological techniques, of daily life in three of Chicago’s south side community areas (Washington Park, Grand Boulevard, and Douglas) that were labeled “Bronzeville.” In the final analysis, the book represented an “uneasy hybrid of Chicago school and anthropological methods and, ultimately, a much less optimistic view of the prospects for black progress” (O’Connor 1992).

In the revised and enlarged edition in 1962, however, Drake and Cayton examined with a sense of optimism the changes that had occurred in Bronzeville since the publication of the first edition. They felt that America in the 1960s was “experiencing a The Tanner Lectures on Human Values period of prosperity” and that African Americans were “living in the era of integration” (p. xv). They, of course, had no way of anticipating the rapid social and economic deterioration of communities like Bronzeville since the early sixties.


The most fundamental change is that many inner-city neighborhoods are plagued by far greater levels of joblessness than when Drake and Cayton published Black Metropolis in 1945. Indeed, there is a new poverty in our nation’s metropolises that has farranging consequences for the quality of life in urban areas. Unless we try to understand the basic aspects of this new urban poverty and the forces that have created it, we stand little chance of addressing the growing racial tensions that have plagued American cities in the last few years. The very forces that have created the new urban poverty have also produced conditions that have enhanced racial tensions in our cities. The recent growth of the new urban poverty and the escalating problems associated with it have in turn aggravated these conditions. This vicious cycle has resulted in heightened levels of racial animosity.

By the “new urban poverty,” I mean poor segregated neighborhoods in which a substantial majority of individual adults are either unemployed or have dropped out of the labor force. For example, only one in three adults (35 percent age 16) and over in the twelve Chicago community areas with poverty rates that exceeded 40 percent were employed in 1990.3 Each of these community areas, located on the south and west sides of the city, is overwhelmingly black. W e can add to these twelve high jobless The figures on adult employment presented in this paragraph are based on calculations from data provided by the 1990 U.S. Bureau of the Census and the Local Community Fact Book for Chicago, 1950. The adult employment rates represent the number of employed individuals (14 and over in 1950 and 16 and over in

1990) among the total number of adults in a given area. Those who are not employed include both the individuals who are members of the labor force but are not working and those who have dropped out or are not part of the labor force.

[WILSON] The New Urban Poverty and Race 7 areas three additional predominantly black community areas, with rates of poverty of 29, 30, and 36 percent respectively, where only four in ten (42 percent) adults worked in 1990. Thus, in these fifteen black community areas, representing a total population of 425,125, only 37 percent of all the adults were gainfully employed in 1990. By contrast, 54 percent of the adults in the seventeen other predominantly black community areas in Chicago, with a total population of 545,408, were employed in 1990, which is close to the city-wide figure of 57 percent. Finally, except for one largely Asian community area with an employment rate of 46 percent and one largely Latino community area with an employment rate of 49 percent, a majority of the adults were employed in each of the forty-five other community areas of Chicago?

To repeat, the new urban poverty represents poor segregated neighborhoods in which a substantial majority of the adults are not working. Let me take the three Chicago community areas that represent most of Bronzeville — Douglas, Grand Boulevard, and Washington Park — to illustrate the magnitude of the changes that have occurred in inner-city ghetto neighborhoods in recent years. A majority of adults were gainfully employed in these three areas in 1950, five years after the publication of Black Metropolis, but by 1990 only four in ten in Douglas worked, one in three in Washington Park, and one in four in Grand Boulevard. These employment changes have been accompanied by changes in other indicators of economic status. For example, in Grand Boulevard median family income dropped from 62 percent of the city average in 1950 to less than 37 percent in 1980; and the value of housing plummeted from 97 percent of the city average in 1950 to Community areas are statistical units developed by urban sociologists at the University of Chicago for the 1930 census in order to analyze varying conditions within the city of Chicago. These units were drawn up on the basis of the history and settlement of the area, local identification and local institutions, natural and artificial barriers, and trade patterns. Although there have been significant changes in the city of Chicago since 1930, the community areas continue to reflect much of the contemporary reality of Chicago neighborhoods and therefore are still useful in tracing changes over time.

The Tanner Lectures on Human Values about half the city average in 1980, with the most rapid declines occurring after 1970.5 When the first edition of Black Metropolis was published in 1945, there was much greater class integration in the black community. As Drake and Cayton pointed out, Bronzeville residents had limited success in “sorting themselves out into broad community areas which might be designated as ‘lower class’ and ‘middle class.’... Instead of middle class areas, Bronzeville tends to have middle-class buildings in all areas, or a few middle class blocks here and there” (pp. 658-60). Though they may have lived on different streets, blacks of all classes in inner-city areas such as Bronzeville lived in the same community and shopped at the same stores. Their children went to the same schools and played in the same parks. Although there was some degree of class antagonism, their neighborhoods were more stable than the inner-city neighborhoods of today; in short, they featured higher levels of social organization.

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