2017-01-09

Book Review: "More Than Just Race" by William Julius Wilson

The book that I've been able to read most recently has been More Than Just Race by William Julius Wilson. It is essentially a collection of 3 essays (each as a chapter) concerning various issues of the black experience (especially in cities) in the US, separately considering the conditions of black ghettos, the socioeconomic problems of poor black males, and the breakdown of poor black familial structures. These chapters are bookended by introductory and concluding chapters summarizing and further expounding on these issues. The main purpose of the book is to analyze, through various studies from the social sciences, the complementary roles of structure and culture in explaining why blacks in the US, especially in inner cities, are worse of by many metrics than their suburban counterparts and than people of other races/ethnicities in the US.

It is a relatively recent book (2009), but it isn't recent enough to have touched upon issues of police brutality and exploitation in urban black communities or issues of socioeconomic decay in poor white communities in cities as well as in rural areas (characterized by structural joblessness, opioid addiction, et cetera). The book itself is short, but the main three essays themselves are a bit dry. In particular, the essays are essentially separate from each other and can be read as such, but there aren't many attempts to form an overarching narrative (beyond the idea that structure and culture combine to explain the issues that many black Americans face), and the few attempts that do exist feel somewhat forced; perhaps the issue is that these issues are simply too nuanced to be described in a single broad brushstroke, but while that is clear from the details of the book, it would have been nice to see such a thesis made a little more explicit. Additionally, there are a few arguments that get rather muddled, and some ideas that aren't touched upon much after their introduction, perhaps because they don't fit the local narrative quite as well; I'll discuss these and other issues after the jump. Overall, while the discussion of structural issues seemed to be in line with a lot of what I've read in articles in newspapers and magazines in the last few years (probably because the author is an academic heavyweight in these areas anyway), the discussion of which cultural factors seem more (or less) plausible is relatively new to me, and their combination is much more nuanced than any of the broad stereotypes of individuals or institutions that I have seen previously; I rather appreciate this book for providing that perspective.

One of the things I find annoyingly confusing in this book is the author's flip-flopping on the issue of whether urban black males typically take up low-paying work and how willing they are to do so. Especially near the middle of the book, the author flip-flops at least twice on this issue within the span of a few pages, without making any great attempt at positing a particular viewpoint (except at the end of the discussion) or even at explicitly emphasizing or clarifying the mixed or contradictory nature of research on this particular phenomenon. Additionally clarity is much needed here.

Another issue is with the discussion of how the gender gap in college attainment/graduation rates is highest among black people compared to other racial or ethnic demographics, in favor of females. There isn't much further discussion of this issue; missing are links of this gender gap to the status of black males versus females in inner city settings, as well as the preponderance of single black mothers in inner cities despite the greater educational achievement in this demographic. Perhaps research connecting these issues is currently lacking, but it would have been nice to see the author address this, even if only to say exactly that.

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