Wilson: America's cities to stay 'divided'

by Devin Foxall | 2/5/03 6:00am

William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard University, warned yesterday that American cities "will remain divided racially and culturally for the foreseeable future." This division will lead to greater, and possibly violent, ethnic conflict, unless groups begin to develop a sense of interdependence.

Wilson, who for the last three decades has written prominent books on race and the urban poor, told an overflowing crowd in the Rockefeller Center that the potential for ethnic unrest occurs when groups are "more likely to focus on their differences than their commonalties."

Because tension increases when people believe they must compete with members of another race for jobs and services, races -- particularly those living in the same neighborhood or city -- must realize they are dependent on one another and focus on their common goals, he said.

As an example, Wilson said that in one neighborhood, white and Hispanic parents joined together to fight an autocratic school council.

"They shared a common concern: the education of their children," he said.

There will have to be more examples like this to prevent continued racial tension, which threatens American cities, according to Wilson.

This is the first time in the nation's history, he said, that whites are the minority in the 100 largest cities. Whites have migrated to the outer suburbs while there has been a major influx of Latinos into urban centers.

Inner cities are now crippled with poverty, particularly in minority neighborhoods. Basic services are reduced, leading to urban decay seen by poor schools, rising violence and fragmented families, Wilson said.

Cities are unable to deal with the consequences of lower tax revenue and a lack of federal aid, he said. The withering opportunities and the increasing amount of different ethnic backgrounds heighten competition for housing, jobs and resources among racial and ethnic lines. Competition leads to tension which sometimes lead to something much worse.

The roots of racial tension can be found in neighborhood dynamics, which can then illuminate national racial politics, Wilson said.

Wilson and graduate students from the University of Chicago, where he used to teach, spent years immersed in four lower-middle class neighborhoods in Chicago. Three of the neighborhoods were dominated by one race -- either white, black or Hispanic. The fourth neighborhood was once predominantly white but was experiencing ethnic transformation as whites left and Hispanics filled the vacancies.

The workings of the neighborhoods, according to Wilson, illuminate a simple fact: the sense that others who looked different were different and were the cause of a neighborhood's decay left all races isolated and in perpetual fight or flight mode.

The white neighborhood, which the researchers named Beltway, was located on the edge of the city. The residents, mostly of East European descent, had collected in Beltway after they felt that blacks had encroached on their old neighborhoods.

"They feel that their backs are against the wall. The residents feel that blacks are taking over the city," Wilson said.

The residents of Beltway believe that by maintaining a fabric of strong social organization they could prevent minorities from moving in, he said. Thus the residents developed a common value system, demanding fellow residents to supervise their children, improve their property and maintain their lawn.

"They believe that if the neighborhood is allowed to deteriorate, residents will leave and blacks will fill the vacancies," Wilson said.

There is also a great hostility toward young people, Wilson noted, whom the long-term residents view as a threat to the stability of social structure. But the white population is diminishing as many young people move away. Those trying to keep the neighborhood white "are gradually losing the battle," Wilson said.

The neighborhood of Dover is undergoing ethnic transformation and hostility between races is on the rise, Wilson said. Whites, whose neighborhood population is dwindling, openly told the researchers that the Hispanic residents, who are moving to the neighborhood, were to blame for the neighborhood's deterioration.

The Hispanic residents expressed resentment that they were often the targets of racism, according to Wilson.

But both races were able to focus their attentions on one goal: they did not wish to live with African Americans. White and Hispanic parents joined to fight an effort to bus their kids to under-populated black schools. Their fight was an example of how two races could see themselves as dependent on one another and strive toward a common goal -- however, it was a negative example, Wilson said.

In the predominantly black neighborhood, there was little racial hostility toward Whites or Hispanics, Wilson observed. Much of the racial discourse concerned how to form a stronger black identity. A white presence in the neighborhood did not generate any negative comments.

Some of the racial discourse, according to Wilson, even concerned how whites did certain things -- from organizing politically to setting up food displays at supermarkets -- better. The black residents expressed a preference for goods and services provided and designed by whites.

Wilson said that a main explanation for the lack of racial tension is that one third of the residents, more than any of the other three neighborhoods, worked in civil service jobs. There, they were less likely to confront discrimination in hiring or promotion.