March 16, 1998
Volume 50, No. 24
Wilson advocates new progressive strategy to aid society ills
All issues, be they political, social or economic, seem to divide the nation along racial lines, said William Julius Wilson. This long, tense continuum will prevail, he said, unless America applies a new political strategy that appeals to the majority while addressing the needs of minorities-a strategy that thinks less about differences and more about commonalty.
The Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, Wilson delivered the 13th annual Grace Hamilton Towns Lecture March 5 with the ease of a sociologist and the force of an activist. In a speech titled "Bridging the Racial Divide," Wilson told listeners why people are having problems working together in America and his ideas for a solution.
Why are there so many gaps between the races and differing ethnicities, and why do they continue to widen through eras of vast social change? Past trends and the current economic situation explain why these problems are here and why they stagnate, Wilson said. The period from 1953-1973 was one of high economic growth. It was a time of optimism, and people had a sense of hope. "People believed their children would have better lives than they did," Wilson said. But during a 1973-1980 decline, the rift between the haves and have-nots widened. The highest incomes continued to rise while lower wages dropped steadily. The outcome: a disenfranchised labor market largely comprised of low- to mid-skill level workers-workers with wavering hopes, lowered expectations and weak confidence, even in the midst of today's booming economy.
Wilson cited several polls and studies to make his point, including a 1995 BusinessWeek survey in which only 50 percent of respondents said they thought their children would have a better life than they had. "Many are insecure about keeping their jobs and being able to send their kids to college," Wilson said.
This period of economic anxiety has not been the ideal climate for race-related programs such as affirmative action. But in reality it hasn't been an ideal climate for those in education, child care, health care or justice either, Wilson said, and as long as racial and ethnic barriers hold firm, leaders won't solve a thing.
The average citizen doesn't understand the complexity of the racial divide and the resulting political response; they want simple answers. This leads politicians to "poisonous statements, sound bites and divisive messages that turn race against race, group against group," Wilson said.
Americans who understand that can deflect sound bites from political leaders who blame general unease and declining morale in the work force on immigrant and minority programs and welfare, Wilson said.
Wilson advocates "multiracial, addressive and progressive" tactics such as multiracial coalitions to solve much of society's discontent and disunity.
"Now is the time for progressives to build on the shift in public mood," Wilson said. It's time for a new public dialogue that addresses common concerns across economic status, ethnicity or race, one that "appreciates that all racial groups struggle to make ends meet and fight the problems facing their children," he said.