New Conversations on Race

From a new book by William Julius Wilson to the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor, the primacy of race in the American dialogue hasn't weakened, but the subject matter has.
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Race, of course, is a defining component of American life.But in the past several months, the conversation around it seems to have moved to a new place.

By now, the racial significance of President Obama's election is almost old news. And with the Supreme Court's recent decision in regard to the New Haven fire department and the accusation by the political right of Supreme Court nominee Sonya Sotomayor's racism, talk of reverse racism is in the air.

It is far too premature to link purported moments of reverse racism to racism's end, but these different events do suggest that we are ready for a different vocabulary when it comes to talking about the effects of race on society. W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." This continues to be true into the 21st century, but the particulars of that problem have changed and we need new critical tools to reflect this.

The prolific Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson has been writing about race and structural inequality over many years and books. And the title of his latest book, More Than Just Race, suggests that we need a new way of understanding how race and poverty operate in America.

In the social sciences, the debate over black poverty has revolved around structural impediments to success. The structural argument suggests that institutions such as the economy and education are set up in such a way that makes it difficult for minorities to enter and climb up the ranks. Wilson departs from this traditional argument by considering how culture — "the sharing of outlooks and modes of behavior among individuals who face similar place-based circumstances" — also contributes to black poverty.

For more this topic, see our story on unintended racism in schools on Miller-McCune.com.

As Wilson writes, "This book will likely generate controversy because I dare to take culture seriously as one of the explanatory variables in the study of race and urban poverty — a topic that is typically considered off-limits in academic discourse because of a fear that such analysis can be constructed as 'blaming the victim.'"

Wilson does not replace structure with culture, but rather considers how they operate independently and "how they interact to shape different group outcomes that embody racial inequality."

Wilson's call for a bold, new perspective on race has also been heeded by a younger generation of scholars and writers that include Richard Thompson Ford and John McWhorter. And perhaps soon, we can add Sonia Sotomayor to this list.

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