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More Than Just Race: a review

Some people describe 2008 as “the year of African-Americans,” due to Barack Obama’s successful bid to become the first black American President. However, could his success be used as an example of positive changes within the African-American Community?

In More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor In The Inner City (W.W. Norton, 200), Professor William Julius Wilson of Harvard University discusses the complex relationships between government policies, “living habits” within African-American communities, and the problem of poverty.

He uses the phrase “social structural discrimination” to describe government politics in urban planning and allocation of education budgets. He also speaks of “cultural habits” that impact African-American job seekers, influence acceptance of teenage motherhood and allow for tolerance of communal violence.

Instead of favoring liberal scholars such as Jennifer Rothschild, Wilson has aroused a debate by justifying certain conservative arguments that claim the African-American community that can ensure its future success. By referring to his own ethnographic research on the high crime rate in neighborhoods of Chicago, Wilson has created a more immediate, as opposed to solely ideologically-driven, study of social phenomena.

Wilson’s comparison of European and American attitudes toward the causes of poverty is equally good, bringing a balance to the work. Blaming blacks for under-performing while allowing them to remain cut off from decent educational opportunities has been practiced under the guise of individualism by white Americans, Wilson argues.

The main problem of Wilson’s book is a familiar one – there is a lack of solutions to tackle both discrimination and cultural factors. For example, while Wilson makes a compelling case when he argues that teachers’ low expectations toward African-American students contribute to lack of academic achievement among the children, he does not discuss possible strategies to combat this – such as allowing parents greater choice in selecting schools, so that racist environments experience lower enrollment.

Considered in its political context, the book is timely. Now that change has really come to the U.S., society is at an important crossroads in regard to race. In that sense, More Than Just Race marks a new beginning for both scholars and the general public.

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Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.