In the middle of the last century, a Tennessee preacher-turned-sociologist, Tolbert H. Kennedy, found a relatively untapped pool of doctoral students among the nation’s black college graduates. Between 1944 and 1965, when Washington State University barely had a few dozen black students, he and fellow ex-preacher Wallis Beasley helped produce more black doctors of sociology than all but two schools, the University of Chicago and Ohio State.

Among them was a young man who went from the hardscrabble coal country of western Pennsylvania to graduate first in his class at Wilberforce, the oldest black college in the country, and get a master’s degree at Bowling Green University. Casting about to study for his doctorate, he fielded fellowship offers from nearly half a dozen universities.

William Julius Wilson
William Julius Wilson ’66 PhD (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University)

Kennedy, then the head of the Division of Social Sciences, told the student over the phone what it was like at WSU and made it clear that he took pride in having so many outstanding black graduate students. He followed up with letters and calls offering to answer any questions.

“I was so impressed with that attention that I decided to go there,” recalls William Julius Wilson, sitting in one of three offices he keeps at Harvard University. “You have to understand, I didn’t get that kind of attention at the other universities.”

From WSU, Wilson went on to positions at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the urban sociology powerhouse University of Chicago, then the “dream team” of Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Harvard, with positions in the Kennedy School and departments of sociology and African and African American studies.

He is now one of the nation’s most accomplished and looked-to analysts of race, inequality, and poverty, a MacArthur “genius” award recipient and, counting this year’s accolade at Yale University, holder of 45 honorary degrees. Time magazine in 1996 named him one of America’s 25 most influential people. President Bill Clinton said his books “made me see race and poverty and the problems of the inner city in a different light.” He is only the second sociologist to receive the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific award in the United States.

He is at times bewildered by his success. His father died young, leaving Wilson’s mother to pull six kids out of poverty. All ended up going to college and earning at least a bachelor’s degree. He is largely a product of public education but his top rank of University Professor—with a capital “U”— typically goes to products of elite prep schools and Ivy League colleges.

In some ways he typifies the word academic in academic celebrity, with a button-downed presence and books long on analysis. But he is also an intellectual warrior, spearing several orthodoxies of his fellow liberals, stoking the ire of fellow black sociologists, and planting several flags against conservatives in battles over race and public policy. One of his books provided the socioeconomic backdrop for a season of the HBO series The Wire.

He has a true rags-to-riches story. He worked hard to make it happen and is unabashedly proud after several decades of personal doubt. But he will just as soon tell you that his life and life’s work illustrate that his version of the American dream is a statistical outlier, a beneficiary of opportunities beyond the reach of most poor African Americans.

T.H. Kennedy and WSU are among those opportunities. It’s easy to overstate that in a university magazine, and maybe Wilson let himself get carried away over several interviews and occasionally wistful memories of living in Pullman. But let the record reflect that more than once, with no prompting at all, he would say something like this:

“Going to WSU was the greatest decision I ever made in my life.”

In 1960, the year before Wilson’s arrival, Pullman had fewer than 13,000 residents, of which about 7,000 were WSU students. Seventeen residents were listed as “Negro,” the census category of the day.

Wilson gave it little thought. Most universities were overwhelmingly white, so he expected it. He was comfortable with the racial makeup of his fellow graduate students and felt welcomed by the faculty. Pullman was similar to his rural hometown of Blairsville, Pennsylvania.

“It was just a beautiful place,” he says, “and the image of walking in downtown Pullman and looking up and seeing the campus up on the hill was fascinating. And I loved to fish. There was just great fishing down on the Snake River.”

He recalls no incidents of racism on campus and only one “paternalistic racial experience,” in a bar downtown. Civil rights protests were blossoming across the South and a tipsy patron approached, put his hand on his shoulder and said, “Believe me, I like you. But boy, slow down.”

At that, Wilson has a good laugh.

We’re sitting in his office in the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research, four floors above the slate roofs and brick-lined mystique of Harvard Square. He is 76, but doesn’t look it—trim from a 10-hours-a-week habit of stationary cycling and strength training, with an unlined face he says came from his mother, who lived to 95.

Wilson followed the civil rights movement from Pullman, but racial issues were largely absent from his studies. He focused instead on the fundamentals of sociological inquiry with Richard Ogles ’61 PhD, senior advisor, professor of the philosophy of social sciences, and “a man with a rigorous mind.” He studied the logic of inquiry, the nature of evidence, the structure of explanation—how to develop your theory, gather your data, make your case.

“Even today,” he says, “the stuff that I learned as a graduate student at Washington State informs the way that I analyze and teach my students.”

At graduation, he was honored as the top graduate student in the sociology department. It was icing on the cake and one of several reasons he feels so good about choosing WSU.

“It was the greatest decision I ever made because that’s really where I developed the confidence and that’s where I really realized that I had special talents,” he says. “And that’s where I got the kind of solid training that has held me in good stead throughout my professional career, particularly my training in the logic of inquiry.”

When he left for Amherst, the civil rights revolution “really took off.”

“He soon came up against the hard realities of race relations,” says James Short, professor emeritus of sociology and the department’s last remaining faculty member from Wilson’s time here. “That’s where he’s made his reputation. He realized that here was an under-researched area. We’d been talking about race since before the Civil War but there was so much we didn’t know about how blacks were faring in modern society.”

Exploring the literature of race and ethnic relations, Wilson found a handful of good works, but most were ideologically driven and short on theory—“awful stuff.” He undertook a comparative analysis of South Africa and the United States, a comprehensive theoretical framework that became the book Power, Racism, and Privilege.

Halfway into the work, before he could change direction, he realized he was putting blacks in a monolithic socioeconomic group when many of them were actually moving up in the world. This was going unnoticed in the wider discussion of race, but it was as obvious to him as his own life.

“I was experiencing upward mobility,” he says. “I realized my situation is significantly different from the black poor and my situation wasn’t unique. The
re was a substantial number of blacks who were improving in the economic system, the growing black middle class.”

Wilson explored the idea further at the University of Chicago, articulating it in the provocatively titled The Declining Significance of Race.

Wilson appreciates the value of hooking the reader with a good, if not bold, opening statement. In that sense, the first sentence of The Declining Significance of Race does not disappoint.

At my suggestion, Wilson pulls down a copy, opens it to page one, and reads it out loud. His timing adds to its heft, as if he were reading a poem:

Race relations 

in America have undergone fundamental changes in recent years,

so much so 

that now the life chances of individual blacks 

have more to do with their economic class position 

than with their day-to-day encounters with whites.

When the book came out in 1978, racism remained an obvious feature on the nation’s cultural landscape, with ongoing fights over school busing and integrating neighborhoods. Images of fire-hosed civil rights protesters were fresh in the national consciousness. It’s easy to see how more than a few people would be upset at even the suggestion that the role of race might be downplayed in American life.

“A lot of middle class blacks who experienced social mobility were fearful that a book like mine would slow down the trend in affirmative action,” Wilson says. “People might say, ‘Middle class blacks are doing OK’” and go on to other issues.

The American Sociological Association gave the book its Sydney Spivack Award but the Association of Black Sociologists protested “the misrepresentation of the black experience.” One academic blamed Wilson for giving “aid and comfort” to those who would “blame poverty on poor people.” Wilson, who as a child had tussled with kids who called him the n-word, was tagged with it by a Chicago activist.

Stephen Steinberg, a City University of New York sociologist, says Wilson served the nation’s “retreat from race,” with a palatable, mainstream appeal that fueled his rise to prominence. The Declining Significance of Race, he writes, “had the right title—one that satisfied the nation’s yearning to put race behind, to pretend that racism was no longer the problem it had been in times past.”

In 1981, shortly after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan, the White House called, inviting Wilson to a meeting with “a group of other black conservatives.”

“Take me off that list,” said Wilson, a liberal Democrat.

Perhaps that’s all in the cost of creating a new paradigm.

“People had not thought about the black experience in terms of class,” says Wilson. “It was always kind of a racial thing. My basic argument was that economic class had become more significant in determining blacks’ chances in life and that there was a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots in the black community, and we have to appreciate this and understand it in terms of policy programs that would reflect this growing divide. That was entirely new at the time. No one talked about that before.”

In retrospect, Wilson is fond of saying, “It’s better to be misunderstood than ignored.”

At the time, he was hurt by the criticism and outraged to be called a neo-conservative. But he didn’t hide.

“I took it as a challenge,” he says. “I didn’t retreat. Maybe it’s something in my own personality. I fought back.”

His next book, The Truly Disadvantaged, focused on the flip side of rising black prosperity: inner-city blacks with poor training and limited education, rising unemployment, rising welfare enrollment, and shrinking prospects for getting out of poverty. He got at this by looking at the cumulative effects of living in neighborhoods whose poverty deepened when middle-class blacks moved out. It takes a prosperous village to raise a child, and when nearly half the people are poor, the village structure and culture put a serious hurt on the child’s chances.

That plight falls inordinately on black children. Rare is the white family that lives in a poor neighborhood for more than a year; most black families have lived in the poorest 25 percent of neighborhoods in consecutive generations.

“A majority of black families,” says Wilson, “not just poor black families.”

Sociological discussions of racially-based inequality often look at structural forces and cultural forces. The economy, politics, and educational institutions are examples of social structures with great sway over social roles and relationships, the behavior of people in certain positions, and the machinery of our social processes. Culture involves shared outlooks and the behavior of people in similar situations, often the same place, like a poor, segregated neighborhood.

In The Truly Disadvantaged, Wilson looked at how the overwhelming structural feature of poverty ends up having more granular, cultural impacts on the neighborhood. He discussed verbal skills, unwed mothers, gang activity, how one comes to find meaning in the world and make decisions based upon it.

“You may feel that education is really not very meaningful,” he says. “You develop a view on the basis of your perception of how the world works that even if you graduated from high school, you’re not going to have a job, so why even bother studying?”

Other sociologists had long steered clear of cultural analysis, fearing it would again open the door to blaming poor blacks for their lot. Wilson was criticized for it but saw it as a matter of due diligence. And in the final analysis, he says, the larger, structural factors have an “overwhelming power.” Life in a poor neighborhood is the butt end of a long line of disadvantages—a social isolation that restricts social advancement, a lack of role models, reduced access to jobs and job networks, quality schools, and mainstream institutions. Such disadvantages come to have a life of their own, “passed,” he writes, “from generation to generation.”

When The Truly Disadvantaged came out, conservatives had been citing libertarian Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950–1980 to justify deep cuts in anti-poverty programs, claiming they actually increased poverty and welfare. After The Truly Disadvantaged was released, says Wilson, New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley invited him to his office in Washington and told him the book, “provides the ammunition liberals in the Congress need to counteract Charles Murray.”

Wilson says some cities have used The Truly Disadvantaged in support of initiatives like a federal housing program converting the worst public housing projects into mixed-income developments. Under the Obama administration, the program has been modified to include neighborhood investments in early childhood education, employment, safety, and transportation.

The New York Times Book Review listed the The Truly Disadvantaged among its 15 best books of 1987. The book influenced the philosophy and politics of the then-Chicago activist Barack Obama. Along with The Declining Significance of Race, writes University of Michigan sociologist Alford Young Jr., The Truly Disadvantaged “established William Julius Wilson as a pre-eminent public intellectual of the African American social condition. Their impact extended far beyond the confines of the academic community and elevated Wilson to the status of a widely-read public scholar.”

Murray also inspired Wilson to, once again, double down. He assembled a massive $2.5 million research project of inner-city Chicago neighborhoods, with 20 research assistants, two administrators, and five co-investigators. It led to the 1996 book, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, which argued that while a neighborhood suffers when its residents are poor, it suffers even more when they are jobless.

“Regular employment provides the anchor for the spatial and temporal aspects of daily life,” Wilson writes. “It determines where you are going to be and when you are going to be there. In the absence of regular employment, life, including family life, becomes less coherent.”

With a ground-level view that at times is more journalistic than academic, the book documents how the disappearance of work provided a foundation for the mounting crime, broken families, and welfare of inner-city ghetto neighborhoods. In the 1950s, post-war industries and union protections helped low-skilled blacks find a measure of prosperity. But as industries went to the suburbs, if not overseas, a “new urban economy” emerged in which ghetto residents were isolated from work, with twice the unemployment rate of whites. Remaining employers surveyed for the project took a dim view of ghetto workers and said they were reluctant to hire them.

“For the first time in the twentieth century, most adults in many inner-city neighborhoods are not working in a typical week,” Wilson writes. The neighborhoods in turn have high levels of crime, welfare, unstable male-female relationships, drug use, and off-the-charts incarceration rates. More than two-thirds of African American high school dropouts in their 30s have spent time in prison.

In the foreword for a 25th-anniversary edition of Declining Significance, Wilson advocates a mix of private- and public-sector initiatives targeting unemployment in the most jobless areas. In inner cities, where low-skilled workers easily outnumber low-skilled jobs, much of the job creation will need to be in the public sector.

The current recession complicates matters with a fundamental question: Where is the money going to come from? But the recession and, more recently, the Occupy Movement, has shifted the policy argument, tying joblessness to the economy and general inequality, not some perceived personal shortcomings.

“I resist being pessimistic,” says Wilson, “but it’s increasingly difficult because we’re so incredibly polarized right now that you sort of want to throw up your hands in despair and say that nothing can be done. But if you wallow in pessimism you just don’t do anything. Prospects don’t look good right now. We just have to hang in there. We just have to keep fighting. We can’t succumb.”

Wilson was 12 years old, the oldest of his five siblings, when his father died.

“It was a devastating experience,” he says. “And my mother told me, ‘Bill, you have to take on greater responsibility. You have to be the man of the house.’ I’m 12 years old.”

At first, he was too crushed. A classmate years later reminded him that he seemed to have lost his spirit. But he did step up. He worked in a bowling alley, setting pins, cleaning, and giving the money to his mother, who worked as a housekeeper. They were on relief for a spell and often hungry.

But at night his mother would gather the kids around a table to do their homework while she would knit.

“Despite the fact that we were overwhelmingly impoverished, it never occurred to us that we weren’t going to get a college education,” says Wilson.

To some extent, his experience is echoed by the families in Good Kids from Bad Neighborhoods, a study of successful adolescents who overcome the overwhelming odds of their high-risk areas. The study, on which Wilson was a junior author, found a major factor in the kids’ success was the “mediating variable” of strong family units.

But there are some ways in which Wilson’s experience is hard, if not impossible, for today’s black poor to replicate. Yes, Wilson had personal initiative to spare. He worked hard, and thinks his first two marriages suffered for it. He now spends about half a year in Thailand, the native country of his third wife, and can work even more there outside the U.S. cycle of phone calls and email.

But he fights against the American faith in “rugged individualism,” of pulling one’s self up by one’s bootstraps. In the normal statistical curve of families and outcomes, he says, there will be families that make it against overwhelming odds by chance alone.

Wilson credits his success less to work than an extraordinary set of circumstances. He grew up in a rural area, not the inner city. He started poor but had reserves of social capital. He had teachers in Blairsville that pushed him. His aunt, Janice Wardlaw, with help from Wilson’s father, earned two master’s degrees and in turn helped finance Wilson’s college tuition. She took him to New York museums and libraries during summer visits, gave him books, and talked constantly about “ambition and creativity.” His church gave him a college scholarship. At Wilberforce, he found a mentor and role model in Maxwell Brooks, a sociologist and one of the first blacks to get a doctorate from Ohio State.

At WSU, he was influenced by Ogles and charged by a supportive atmosphere. Years later, he would tell The New Yorker magazine’s David Remnick, “I became a star out there and came into my own.”

Wilson caught the eye of the University of Chicago when the chairman of its sociology department, Morris Janowitz, saw him give a presentation in Bulgaria. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, followed by what Wilson calls “affirmative opportunity.” At the time, a scholar needed to have a book published to be appointed a Chicago associate professor with tenure. Janowitz recommended Wilson’s appointment based on the unpublished manuscript for Power, Racism and Privilege. It was a gamble based on his potential. It paid off with The Declining Significance of Race.

After his Harvard appointment in 1996, Wilson had several years of self-doubt, in part from being surrounded by people from the best private schools and elite universities and feeling “like they have a kind of cultural capital that I don’t have.”

“Now I walk around with a swagger,” he says, “but it’s taken me some time to get to this point.”

He is a proud man, with books considered classics, a phalanx of nationally-known former graduate students, and popular courses, including one based on The Wire. He is an impressive individual, but it frustrates him to see economic and social outcomes, consequences of a vast, disparity-producing social structure, framed in individual terms.

Writing with Anmol Chaddha in the essay “‘Way Down in the Hole’: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire,” he points out that two-thirds of Americans feel blacks who can’t get ahead “are mostly responsible for their own condition.”

The Wire is fictional, but its look at the inner-city institutions—the ghetto drug trade, police, City Hall, schools, and the media—weaves together “the range of forces that shape the circumstances of the urban poor while exposing deep inequality as a fundamental feature of broader social and economic arrangements.”

Over dinner one evening, Wilson took to talking about a scene early in the series when D’Angelo Barksdale, a lieutenant in his Uncle Avon’s drug gang, tells Stringer Bell, the second-in-command, that some of his underlings might chafe under new restrictions.

As if they have a choice, says Bell, as if they’re going to say, “let me quit this game here and go to college.”

Web extra

A “Monumental” Impact – WSU Sociology has produced more than two dozen African American doctoral degrees, many of whom went on to make major contributions in the field.