In his FRONTLINE report "The Two Nations of Black America," Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. set out to explore why some African Americans have reaped the rewards of the Civil Rights movement while many others have not. In particular, he wanted to understand the reason for the gaping and ever widening chasm between the upper and lower classes of black America.
Gates interviewed a number of prominent African Americans, including Harvard sociologist Dr. William Julius Wilson, author of When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. Dr. Wilson's research focuses on the economic plight of African Americans. What he found is that despite an increase in the standard of living among African Americans in general, a segment of the population - the urban poor -- is falling farther and farther behind. The result is a great class divide among African Americans that did not exist before 1965.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1968 and 1995, not only did black household income lag far behind white household income, there's been a decrease in income of the poorest black households. In other words, the gap between the richest and poorest blacks is increasing - even faster than it is for whites. According to the Urban Institute, the size of the black underclass has tripled since 1980.
So why has racial inequality persisted for some but not others? Wilson argues that some minorities have the resources they need to compete effectively in society - financial means, access to good schools, family stability, peer groups, and so on. These individuals are in the best position to take advantage of opportunities like affirmative action programs. But there is a large proportion of minorities who do not have the resources to compete, and this segment of the population is sinking deeper into poverty.
Economic trends also contribute to the disparity. For example, highly skilled and educated African Americans have benefited from the transition from an industrial economy to a high-tech economy, while the unskilled and uneducated members of the community are devastated by the loss of manufacturing jobs. Joblessness, in turn, triggers a host of problems including gang activity, violence, and drug addiction. Employers hesitate to hire inner-city workers, says Wilson, because they believe that the environment in which they live is so devastating that it will affect their work. Lack of employment opportunities, in turn, creates a sense of hopelessness in youth, who see no incentive for staying in school -- often referred to as the cycle of poverty.
According to Wilson, the next phase of the civil rights struggle is for economic equality, and can be achieved by implementing work programs modeled after Depression-era projects, universal health care, national child care, national education standards, improvements in public transportation, and job training programs. Where will the political support for funding these programs come from? He admits he doesn't have the answer, but believes the first step is to get people to understand the long-term implications of inner-city poverty and the effect it has on society as a whole.
According to Wilson, who benefited from the Civil Rights Movement?
What did Wilson mean by the statement: "You have to deal with the problem of the accumulation of disadvantages associated with previous racial oppression"?
What has the economic situation for African Americans changed over time?
What is meant by the term "the working poor"?
What economic changes does Wilson suggest to deal with the problem of the "truly disadvantaged"?