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Focus on nation's common problems
could end America's racial divide
February 16, 1998
The best way to bridge the racial divide in America today is to focus more on humanity's common problems, not our differences, Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson told a UConn audience last week.
Wilson, Malcom Wiener professor of social policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, was the keynote speaker for the 49th lecture of the Critical Issues Series, sponsored by the Institute for African American Studies. The lecture was held in honor of Black History Month.
"The purpose of this lecture series is to provide an opportunity for members of the University community to be exposed to some of the best thinking and scholarship on issues of national interest, as it relates to African Americans, by some of the pre-eminent scholars in the country," said Ronald Taylor, professor of sociology and director of the Institute for African American Studies. "With the publication of his book, The Declining Significance of Race, in 1978, Wilson put the issue of race back on the national agenda; his work has had a real impact on public policy in this country."
Racial and ethnic divisions act as barriers to progression and a multi-ethnic coalition of national social policy and should be set aside because all Americans share common concerns, values, hopes and aspirations regardless of their origin, Wilson said.
He noted that there has been a decline in the nation's economy, a downward trend in wages, and a rapid wage disparity fostering a general deterioration of opportunity for the working classes.
"As the turn of the century approaches, the movement for racial equality needs a new political strategy. The strategy must appeal to America's broad ethnic population, while addressing the many problems that face minorities and redressing the legacy of historic racism in America," Wilson said.
He called for the replacement of the term "affirmative action" with "affirmative opportunity" that would be based not on numerical guidelines and quotas, but on more flexible merit-based criteria.
Numerical evaluations based on the SAT and other tests do not provide a measure of other qualities of a person such as perseverance, motivation, interpersonal skills, reliability and leadership qualities. They also do not consider the lack of opportunities for the underprivileged in society or the racial and ethnic burdens carried by minorities, he said.
Wilson advocated the use of flexible criteria that include past performance, references and other background handicaps, such as being denied access to good early education programs, scholarship programs and job training for college admissions or hiring processes.
Wilson is author of the award-winning Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (University of Chicago Press, 1978); The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy (University of Chicago Press, 1987), which was selected by the editors of the New York Times Book Review as one of the 16 best books published that year; and When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (Knopf, New York, 1996).
Winner of the C. Wright Mills Award of the Society for the Study of Social Problems for The Declining Significance of Race, Wilson is a member of the President's Commission on White House Fellowships; the Board of Directors of the Social Science Research Council; the A. Philip Randolph Institute; and the Spencer Foundation.
Usha R. Palaniswa.