William Julius Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University, addressed "Affirmative Opportunity in the Barack Obama Era" during the Catherine McLaughlin Hakim Lecture Series on November 15th.
Wilson opened his talk with the results of a 2008 Newsweek poll, which observed that nearly three-quarters of Americans disapprove of "giving preferences to blacks and other minorities in things like hiring, promotions, and college admissions," an idea consistent with earlier polls, including a 2003 Time/CNN poll in which a majority of Americans were not in favor of "affirmative action admissions programs at colleges and law schools that give racial preference to minority applicants."
Wilson explained that to understand the opposition to racial preference as a way to overcome inequality, two factors need to be considered. The first factor is racial-the perception that blacks are responsible for their own economic situation and are undeserving of government support. The notion of the federal government's obligation to improve the living standards of blacks because they have faced longtime discrimination has not exceeded the support of more than one in four whites since 1975.
The second factor is the heavy reliance on individualistic explanations of social behavior and outcomes, including a perceived lack of effort or ability and poor moral character, rather than the structural origins of poverty and welfare, such as inadequate schooling, low wages, or a lack of jobs. In other words, people are poor or on welfare because of their own personal shortcomings.
Where conservatives are rallying to abolish affirmative action programs, some liberals have argued that there should be a shift from affirmative action programs based on race to affirmative action programs based on economic class or need.
"Although it is not readily apparent that a shift to class-based affirmative action would overcome the bias for individualistic explanations of social outcomes, it could be seen as nullifying some of the negative racial perceptions that undermine support for affirmative action," Wilson said.
This shift would recognize that the problems of the disadvantaged, including low-income crime-ridden neighborhoods, poor education, inadequate housing and cultural and linguistic differences, are not always related to racial discrimination, as children who grow up in homes plagued by these disadvantages will likely see the development of their aspirations and talents hindered by their environments, regardless of race.
However, Wilson said, the class-based approach would reduce opportunities for blacks, excluding them from desirable positions as conventional measures of aptitude are likely to show the cumulative effects of race, of living in segregated neighborhoods, of attending lower-quality, segregated schools, and of being raised by parents whose resources have also been limited by their race.
While acknowledging that most Americans are against the numerical guidelines or rigid quotas in programs that have made affirmative action unpopular, Wilson advocates for "a different set of evaluative criteria-new, more flexible, yet merit-based criteria of evaluation. Criteria that is more accurate than the conventional tests in gauging the actual potential of black Americans to succeed."
In the case of college admissions, research reveals that standardized test scores may not measure real merit and their relation to an applicant's future performance is questionable. High school grades are a better reflection of college grades than SAT scores in both selective and non-selective colleges, but neither measure important attributes such as perseverance, motivation and interpersonal skills. Wilson said that while standardized tests should not be abandoned, they should be given less weight and considered alongside an applicant's initiative, leadership qualities, the ability to overcome personal hardship, honors and awards, among other criteria.
Wilson calls this approach "affirmative opportunity" rather than "affirmative action," noting that the change is more than just rhetorical, but that it signifies a true emphasis on achieving equality of opportunity.
He calls himself a product of affirmative opportunity when it works in the ideal sense. While teaching at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1971, Wilson was invited to give a lecture at the University of Chicago, unaware that the sociology department was in search of a black sociologist and that he was being "looked over" as a potential faculty member.
"Luckily, I gave one of the best lectures I had ever given at that point in my career," Wilson said. "And I impressed the faculty and graduate students with my deft handling of questions during the question-and-answer period."
On returning to the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Wilson was surprised that he was being considered for the position. He didn't have an elite, Ivy-League education, nor did he have a book published, a requirement to be appointed an assistant professor with tenure in the sociology department at the University of Chicago. Rather than eliminating him early in the process, the university named him a visiting professor for one year and gave him a light teaching load, allowing him to complete the book he had been working on for several years. He finished the book, Power, Racism, and Privilege: Race Relations in Theoretical and Sociohistorical Perspective, in the winter quarter of 1972 and was offered the tenured position after the sociology faculty read it in manuscript form.
Another successful example of affirmative opportunity is the Harlem Children's Zone (HCZ), which attempts to achieve what the sociologist James Fishkin calls "equality of life chances."
According to this, "if we can predict, with a high degree of accuracy, where individuals will end up in the competition for preferred positions in society, merely by knowing their family background, race, or gender, then the conditions that affect or determine their motivation and talents are grossly unequal."
The HCZ "floods" 97 blocks of Central Harlem with educational, social and medical services to create a comprehensive safety net for the residents in that area. Their notable "Baby College" teaches parents essential skills, such as reading to children and alternatives to physical discipline. Eighty-five percent of parents who have attended the Baby College report they spend more time reading to their children than they had in the past, signaling a significant shift in cultural behavior. The HCZ's programming has also helped place 650 students in college and supports them through graduation.
The most impressive evidence, Wilson said, is seen in the performance of students in the HCZ's "Promise Academies" on New York's statewide math and English tests. When the tests were given in 2009, the scores of the children from the Promise Academies far exceeded those of children in the traditional public schools and matched those in the upper middle-class white suburbs.
"This program, a program that enhances opportunities, clearly demonstrates that with sufficient resources and dedication, it is possible to achieve the goal of equality of life chances in this country and thereby overcome the cumulative effects of chronic economic and racial subordination."
A former MacArthur Prize Fellow and president of the American Sociological Association, Wilson was awarded the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor in the U.S., in 1998, and was named one of America's 25 most influential people by Time magazine in 1996. Wilson has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Education and the Institute of Medicine. He is the author of a number of notable and award-winning publications, including The Declining Significance of Race, The Truly Disadvantaged, and When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. His latest book is More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City.
The Catherine McLaughlin Hakim Lecture Series is an annual lecture series established by Dr. Raymond Hakim in honor of his late wife, Catherine McLaughlin Hakim '70. A sociology major at Emmanuel, Catherine studied under longtime sociology professor Sister Marie Augusta Neal, SND, who left an indelible mark on her student experience. The lecture series commemorates Catherine's life, her fondness for Emmanuel, and the relationships she formed at the College and continued to maintain throughout her life. The Catherine McLaughlin Hakim Lecture Series is sponsored by the Department of Sociology. Lectures focus on issues of sociology, social justice and public policy on the local, national and international levels.