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Sociologist targets urban poverty

John Tierney | Monday, January 28, 2008

The key to combating the racial and economic tensions associated with urban poverty is to work to build coalitions that defy ethnic and socioeconomic barriers, said Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson.

Wilson’s speech Sunday evening in DeBartolo Hall encouraged community collaboration and commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Center for Social Concerns.

“The American ideal of integrated neighborhoods is difficult, but not impossible, to achieve, but coalition building would at least have the potential to create interdependence, where groups can come together and recognize they need each other to reach common goals,” Wilson said.

According to Wilson, it is an improbable goal to try to make neighborhoods completely ethnically diverse, but that it is possible to ease ethnic tensions to the point where “diverse groups [can] live side by side in harmony, not in fear.”

Building community coalitions is the best method for relieving ethnic tensions, Wilson said.

Although he declined to give the names of any specific neighborhoods, Wilson cited the example of what he called the “Dover” community in Chicago, where white and Latino residents created a coalition to bring an end to the busing of students to schools in poorer neighborhoods. The coalition helped build new schools in “Dover” to solve the busing problem and also forged closer relations between whites and Latinos in the area.

In addition, Wilson emphasized that the impact of urban poverty on the middle and working classes extends beyond race. Most city neighborhoods are concerned with the “prevalence of crime and other social dislocations in nearby ghetto neighborhoods,” he said. Middle-class neighborhoods are worried that that incoming residents of a lower socioeconomic status will bring high crime rates with them.

“Society cannot continue to ignore social problems of ghettos because of their impact on the middle class,” Wilson said. “[Neighborhoods] are concerned about the immigration of lower income populations, with renters who do not share the values of homeowners.”

Wilson cited a neighborhood he named “Groveland,” also in Chicago, as an example of socio-economic status creating divisions in the community. “Groveland” was a predominantly middle- and working-class, African-American community that experienced some influx of lower-class individuals.

“Families from nearby poor neighborhoods had begun to trickle in, and their behavior was closely scrutinized,” Wilson said.

Many of the residents expressed fears about their new neighbors, and Wilson said that one resident of Groveland was worried about the “riffraff coming in” when lower-class African-Americans entered the neighborhood.

In conclusion, Wilson said he supports the candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, and argued that the senator has the ability to “successfully reach out across racially and political spectrums.” That will allow him to be “far more likely to get groups together to generate a sense of interdependence to pursue collective goals,” he said.

Wilson stressed that urban poverty is not an isolated experience, but rather, is something that affects society as a whole. The problems associated with urban poverty, such as crime, permeate the rest of society in the form of fear and apprehension of those living in poverty.

It is only through working together to “address the needs of lower income urban black residents,” Wilson said, that society can alleviate these fears and the poverty that causes them.