The Class Line

By Chad Galts / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
In this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. lecture, Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson used hard data, spreadsheets, and pie-charts to illustrate the economic underpinnings of America’s racial divide. The social sciences, Wilson told the student crowd filling the Salomon Center auditorium, “should not be an empty façade ­ they should talk about what ought to be done, and they should suggest a strategy to combat a growing problem.”

The single biggest problem facing American society, Wilson says, is the income gap. Flipping through number-laden charts, he outlined how, from 1947 to 1973, “the poor were becoming less poor.” Since 1973, however, the wealthiest 5 percent of Americans have seen their earnings increase so rapidly that the amount of the increase itself exceeds the total earnings of the bottom 5 percent. If the equalizing trends of the 1950s and 1960s had continued, Wilson added, the average person in the lowest earning quintile in the country would be making $33,000 a year instead of the $13,000 it’s turned out to be.

Establishing how race figures into such equations, Wilson believes, is not nearly as important as addressing what poor people have in common. “Media attention to racial matters has highlighted those factors that divide us,” he said, “and obscured the fact that we have many issues in common.” Pointing to a 1993 survey, Wilson noted that “except for affirmative action and abortion, there are no strong differences across the racial divide.” Ninety-two percent of blacks and 95 percent of whites, for example, agreed that work is an important part of daily life.

There have been positive signs of change in the past few years, Wilson says. The income gap has narrowed slightly since 1996, due mostly, he notes, to the booming economy. And the poisonous rhetoric of such highly visible figures as Newt Gingrich, Louis Farrakhan, and Pat Buchanan, Wilson added, has drawn steadily smaller crowds since the passage of the welfare reform act in the early 1990s.

It is precisely because we are in a time of relative calm and prosperity, according to Wilson, that Americans should establish a progres-sive, non-partisan, multi-racial coalition to “embrace and forward the interests that affect working families. When people believe they need each other,” he added, “they cooperate.”

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March / April 2000