William Julius Wilson, one of the 19 university professors at Harvard, may be the foremost scholar on urban poverty. Since writing his classics The Declining Significance of Race and The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson has risen to the pinnacle of American intellectual society. In each of these seminal works, Wilson made novel and persuasive arguments that fundamentally changed the way competent sociologists thought about and used race in their research. Wilson’s latest book, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City, while less pointed and groundbreaking than these previous works, is a valuable addition to the discourse about urban poverty.
There are five chapters of More than Just Race, the first of which outlines the intellectual framework that Wilson uses throughout the rest of the book. In analyzing concentrated poverty among black people, Wilson uses two broad categories of causes: structural and cultural. The structural factors are components of the societal, physical, and legal environment, such as bad schools or oppressive laws, which limit the capacity of individuals to rise from poverty. The cultural factors are the more controversial causes, such as a widespread lack of social capital and the lack of self-control imagined by some conservatives.
The second, third, and fourth chapters suffer from a lack of logical unity. Wilson’s eloquence keeps this lack of direction from becoming frustrating, but it is often easy to lose track of what Wilson is trying to argue or whether he is making an argument at all. There are a few implied arguments about, say, responsibility for poverty, but the debates thus addressed have mostly been put to rest.
Instead of argument, Wilson presents a tremendous amount of information. There is no better person to summarize the last few decades of research in the field of urban poverty. The volume of information and the quality of Wilson’s analyses make More than Just Race a good introduction to the field at large.
Also, Wilson does take the time to make two unique and valuable points. First, Wilson argues that, in response to the historical abuse of cultural factors, liberal intellectuals have censored an entire set of causes. When academics such as Pat Moynihan in 1967 have tried to shed light on the cultural causes of poverty, conservatives abused their arguments and data to place the responsibility for poverty on the poor themselves. The backlash against this misinterpretation cut off funding and interest in the cultural causes of poverty for decades.
This lack of support for research into the cultural causes of poverty is problematic, Wilson argues, because the best analysis of urban poverty would integrate both the structural and cultural factors. Though he holds first that structural causes dominate cultural causes and second that cultural causes are not necessarily the responsibility of individuals to control, he insists both cultural and structural factors do play a role in generating and sustaining urban poverty. This is Wilson’s second valuable point; both cultural and structural factors are necessary to clearly explicate the problems of urban poverty.
On the whole, More than Just Race could fairly be seen as an opportunity to sit in on general lectures about the nature and causes of urban poverty from one of the most knowledgeable people in the world. Occasionally Wilson comes to important conclusions about the relationship between race and poverty, but it is the information that Wilson presents and explains that makes More than Just Race stand out.