Q&A: Revisiting Race-Neutral Politics

In 1990, sociologist William Julius Wilson wrote a provocative article for this magazine, "Race-Neutral Politics and the Democratic Coalition," arguing that Democrats should de-emphasize race-specific policies like affirmative action in favor of race-neutral policies that disproportionately serve minorities (who are disproportionately poor) as a strategy of expanding the Democratic base. The article was a flash point in a then-roiling debate not only about identity politics within the Democratic Party but about the country's willingness to continue activist policies to achieve racial equity. Twenty-one years later, the Prospect has invited Wilson, currently a professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard University, to reflect on how his views -- and the country -- have evolved.

How would you describe President Barack Obama's approach to addressing the country's racial disparities from within a multiracial political coalition?

Except for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which is patterned after the Harlem Children's Zone, President Obama has not addressed the country's racial disparities with a focus on race-specific policies (although there has been a return to traditional civil-rights priorities and enforcement efforts under Attorney General Eric Holder). Yet he has indirectly addressed the problem of racial disparities with ostensibly race-neutral policies that are designed to combat the problems of disadvantaged groups, including his stimulus package, the health-care legislation, and his Race to the Top [education] initiative.

Obama inherited a national debt of more than 10 trillion dollars and a national deficit approaching a trillion, an economy in the tank, and two budget-busting wars. No other president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced such overwhelming economic challenges. Yet [Obama] has, in just a little more than two years in office, done more for poor people than any president since Lyndon Johnson, and the last time I looked, a disproportionate number of black people are poor.

I have listened with some irritation to critiques by black intellectuals that [Obama's] stimulus package does not address issues that affect the poor, including poor blacks. Such critiques show how ill-informed these critics are. Robert Greenstein, the director of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told me that the Obama administration asked him to help it develop the component of the stimulus plan focused on low-income programs, and he was surprised when they accepted nearly everything he proposed. He said that he had been working with Democratic administrations for years, and he had never seen such a willingness to fund improvements in programs for low-income households.

Given the severe spending constraints, Obama risked his presidency passing the $940 billion historic health-care legislation. Blacks will benefit disproportionately from this legislation. The percentage of blacks without health insurance is twice that of whites (and now exceeds 20 percent); also, African Americans spend a higher percentage of their income on health-care costs than do whites (16.5 percent versus 12.2). I do not think that Tea Party members and other white conservatives are unaware that blacks will benefit disproportionately by the passage of this legislation.

Your 1990 article was published in a period when many felt that there was too much talk about racism and inequality. Now, many would argue that we are in an era of reactionary colorblindness (in which conservatives attack the use or evocation of race in any policy-making). Has this changed your thinking?

That article was written when we had had spent nearly a decade with a Republican in the White House, and I was concerned about effective strategies to help Democrats regain control.

In my previous writings, I have called for the framing of issues designed to appeal to broad segments of the population. Key to this framing, I argued, would be an emphasis on policies that would directly benefit all groups, not just people of color. My thinking was that, given American views about poverty and race, a colorblind agenda would be the most realistic way to generate the broad political support that would be necessary to enact the required legislation. I no longer hold this position.

I now strongly feel that both race-specific and race-neutral programs -- including those that are class-based -- must be strongly emphasized and pursued by the Democrats to combat racial inequality.

Let me talk about the race-specific policies first. Research reveals that the white backlash against racial entitlements such as affirmative action contributed to the government's retreat from anti-discrimination policies during the 1980s, a retreat that may have influenced hiring and promotion decisions in the corporate sector as well. It should come as no surprise that waning support for affirmative-action programs would have an adverse effect on blacks, especially more-advantaged blacks. A number of empirical studies have revealed significant differences in the family and neighborhood environments of blacks and whites that are understated when standard measures of socioeconomic status are employed.

Take, for example, the question of family background. Even when white parents and black parents report the same average income, white parents have substantially more assets than black parents. Whites with the same amount of schooling as blacks usually attend better high schools and colleges. ... For all these reasons, the success of younger educated blacks remains heavily dependent on affirmative-action programs, whereby more flexible criteria of evaluation are used to gauge potential to succeed.

The policy implications are obvious. Race-specific policies like affirmative action will be required for the foreseeable future to ensure the continued mobility of educated blacks and Hispanics. But affirmative-action programs are not really designed to address the problems of poor people of color. This is a major challenge.

The question is not whether the policy should be race-neutral or universal; the question is whether the policy is framed to facilitate a frank discussion of the problems that ought to be addressed and to generate broad political support to alleviate them. In framing public policy, I not only feel that it would be a mistake to shy away from an explicit discussion of the specific issues of race and poverty but also that we should highlight them in our attempt to convince Americans that there is an urgent need to address them. The issues of race and poverty should be framed in such a way to not only generate a sense of fairness and justice to combat inequality but also to make people aware that our country would be better off if these problems were seriously addressed and eradicated.

In 1990, almost seven in 10 white Americans opposed quotas to admit black students in colleges and universities and more than eight in 10 objected to the idea of preferential hiring and promotion of blacks. However, as the Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo has pointed out, the view that white opposition to affirmative action is monolithic is distorted. Programs like race-targeted scholarships or special job outreach and training efforts tend to be quite popular. In the 1990 General Social Survey, 68 percent of all whites favored spending more money on the schools in black neighborhoods, especially for early-education programs. And 70 percent favored granting special college scholarships to black children who maintain good grades. In their large survey of households in the Boston metropolitan area, Barry Bluestone and Mary Huff Stevenson found that, whereas only 18 percent of the white male and 13 percent of the white female respondents favored or strongly favored job preferences for blacks, 59 percent of the white males and 70 percent of the white females favored or strongly favored special job training and education for blacks.

Accordingly, programs that enable blacks to take advantage of opportunities are less likely to be seen as challenging the work ethic and the American values of individualism. The implications for political framing are obvious -- opportunity-enhancing affirmative-action programs are supported because they reinforce the belief that the allocation of jobs and economic rewards should be based on individual effort, training, and talent.

When President Obama gets around to making a strong case for his Promise Neighborhoods initiative, it would be good for him to discuss the successes of the Harlem Children's Zone. For example, here we have kids from some of the most impoverished backgrounds, mostly from poor single-parent families, whose scores on the cognitive tests far exceed those of kids in the public schools of New York. The math scores are especially dramatic and match those of kids who live in Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side. So, Obama could highlight the results of an effective program that creates opportunity for people of color to help themselves. ...

Continuous struggle is needed to address the problems of racial inequality -- [with some advocates] calling for race-based solutions, like affirmative action, others calling for class-based solutions, such as programs to increase employment in areas with the highest rates of joblessness. Accordingly, if I were writing "Race-Neutral Politics and the Democratic Coalition" today, I would provide more balance in my policy recommendations by placing much greater emphasis on the need to strongly and continuously embrace as well as advance both race- and class-based solutions to improve the life chances for people of color.

Do you believe that racial distrust erodes some potential white support for even race-neutral government solutions to economic inequality, particularly under Obama?

In my 1991 follow-up article to "Race-Neutral Politics," I argued that the white working and middle classes will more likely respond to political messages concerning inequality in society if those messages are perceived as relevant to their own immediate concerns and anxieties. I still maintain that position. What I also now believe is that Americans will support the idea of a level playing field that enables groups to take advantage of opportunities to help themselves.

It is true that despite the fact that there is more shared economic pain, conservatives are still able to use race in open and subtle ways to undermine broad-based support for goals of economic justice. Moreover, I agree that that racial distrust diminishes white support for robust government solutions. Furthermore, I agree that despite the fact that half of the nation's uninsured are people of color, President Obama and Democratic leaders rarely, if ever, discuss the benefits of the health bill for racial minorities. However, I very strongly disagree that progressives should avoid discussing racial inequities because of the conservative takeover of the racial discourse.

I have been frustrated with the attacks of some progressives on President Obama, given his incredible accomplishments during these very difficult times. But I must say that I am extremely disappointed with the way he and officials in his administration, as well as many progressive Democratic leaders, have responded to the right-wing hysteria and lies about the health-care bill, the stimulus package, and other important programs to address inequities.

The reason that conservatives have been so effective in using race in explicit and implicit ways, including fostering racial distrust, to undermine progressive programs is because of the incredibly weak efforts of Democratic leaders and the Obama administration to mount a counterattack against the right-wing political pundits. It is false to assume that conservative attacks cannot be counteracted with the right messages. Accordingly, I think it is a severe mistake for the White House to resist talking about issues of race because of fears that it would provide fodder to right-wing propaganda. The significant question is how to frame these issues in a counterattack. On the one hand, it is important to discuss the fact that all disadvantaged groups are suffering and that during this economic crisis, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic groups share many common problems. On the other hand, it is also important to emphasize the need to address unique inequities in communities of color. And you do this with careful framing.

So, as you can see, my position has significantly changed since I wrote "Race-Neutral Politics and the Democratic Coalition." To repeat, I now see the need, in this atmosphere of "reactionary colorblindness," as you put it, to strongly emphasize both class-based and race-based programs, couched in a very strong and consistent message featuring a political framing that captures basic American values.