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Building a Bridge Over America’s Racial Divide

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Building a Bridge Over America's Racial Divide

Renowned Sociologist Prescribes Multiracial Coalitions for Troubled Body Politic

By Cathy Cockrell, Public Affairs
Posted November 3, 1999

A progressive multiracial coalition must be forged to combat the growing inequities of American society, the renowned Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson told a campus audience Oct. 27.

Now is the time, he said, to eschew the particularities of race, and instead find messages that resonate across the racial divide. If we miss the opportunity, we do so at out our peril.

Wilson spoke at Boalt Hall as part of a five-city tour marking the arrival of his newest book, "The Bridge Over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics," published this month by The University of California Press.

The book is the culmination of decades of distinguished scholarship on race and politics, which has garnered Wilson many honors including a MacArthur Prize Fellow and a National Medal of Science. He served as president of the American Sociological Association and in 1996, was selected by Time magazine as one of America's 25 most influential people.

Citing a large body of scholarship, Wilson demonstrates, in his newest work, the accelerating concentration of power among a small segment of the most advantaged, and the expanding ranks of the have-nots. Monetary, trade and tax policies of recent years, he said, have deepened this power imbalance.

The period from the end of World II to the early '70s was one of economic advancement for all income groups, including the poor, Wilson said. It was matched, in American politics, by "a generosity of spirit," and "a willingness to share an expanding pie" with the disadvantaged. Affirmative action iniatives, for example, were first discussed and initiated in this era.

But in the early '70s, growth slowed, and the real economic power of ordinary Americans took a downturn that has never since reversed itself.

"When beset by economic anxiety," Wilson said, "people are more susceptible to simplistic messages" and more likely to support "mean-spirited iniatives."

The recession of 1990-92, for example, ushered in an era of "poisonous rhetoric that ... channeled frustrations in ways that divided groups in America" and culminated in the 1994 election, in which the Republican Party gained control of Congress.

But the "frequency and intensity" of racially divisive rhetoric has cooled since 1996, Wilson noted, making now an opportune moment to articulate the common values and concerns of midde- and working-class Americans of all races and ethnicities.

The opening will not last indefinitely, he warned. The elite, through bipartisan initiatives in Congress, are "pushing ahead with deficit reduction, entitlement reform, free trade" that tend to deepen social inequality. The retirement of the Baby Boomers will put pressure on programs earmarked for the poor. The worst effects of recent welfare reform won't be seen till there is an economic downturn and the truly disadvantaged are left without a social safety net.

In 1978, Wilson published the landmark book "The Declining Significance of Race," in which he argued that class and economics, more than race, explain the plight of the black urban poor. He developed his thesis in the equally controversial book "The Truly Disadvantaged.

In "The Bridge Over the Racial Divide," he updates his argument with a look at affirmative action (including the impact of its demise on undergraduate admissions at UC Berkeley), and the economic and social impact of the high-tech revolution and the global economy.

Last week's lecture was sponsored by the Commonwealth Club of California and the Goldman School of Public Policy, where in 1996, Wilson first presented a talk on which his newest book is based.



November 3 - 9, 1999 (Volume 28, Number 13)
Copyright 1999, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the
Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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