Following the race riots of the mid-1960’s, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the famous Kerner Commission) declared that this country had become increasingly two societies, one white and the other black, and it identified white racism as the major cause of the strife between the two. The Commission called for a broad series of government initiatives to overcome segregation and relieve the plight of poor blacks in housing, education, and jobs.
In the following decade, many efforts were undertaken to follow both the Kerner Commission’s analysis and its prescription for cure. At the close of the 70’s, however, though the black middle class had grown in size, prosperity, and influence, the problems of the black poor seemed no nearer solution. According to the Civil Rights Commission in 1977, nearly three-quarters of the black children in the nation’s 26 largest cities attended schools with 90 to 100 per-cent minority enrollments. And while there had been progress on the political front, as witnessed by the growing number of cities headed by black mayors, these mayors had come to power at a time when large sectors of the white and (increasingly) black middle class were fleeing and the urban economy had precipitously declined. In 28 of 26 medium and large cities with black mayors, the Joint Center for Political Studies reported in 1975, 16 ranked among the poorest of all American cities, nearly one-half had undergone sharp population declines in the previous decade, and in most of them housing was relatively old.
In its study, The State of Black America, 1978, the Urban League charged that the situation facing blacks had actually grown worse since the racial disorders of the 60’s. While there were some signs of progress, according to the Urban League, joblessness was felt across the board—among black women, black teen-agers, and adult men—and would continue unless “some special arrangements are made.” What these “special arrangements” might be was described by James R. Dumpson, former Commissioner of Social Services and Administrator of Human Resources for New York City, who argued that “For the blacks in the United States . . . it is posited here that only an affirmative federal government has provided and can continue to provide the opportunities for individual and collective self-realization for black Americans.”
As we enter the 80’s, then, the civil-rights leadership would still seem as committed as ever to an analysis of what ails us—namely, entrenched racism—and a social strategy to deal with it—namely, massive and continuing government intervention—developed twenty or thirty years ago and enshrined as dogma in the Kerner Commission report. The trouble with the analysis, however, is that it no longer speaks to the social, psychological, and economic changes that have taken place in American life in the intervening years; and the trouble with the strategy, as even its adherents implicitly acknowledge in the figures they cite, is that it has failed to achieve the broad results it once promised.
By the late 60’s and early 70’s, a number of social scientists committed to the goals of racial progress had already begun to raise questions about this anomalous situation. In a widely discussed article in COMMENTARY, for example, Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon argued that as a result of the gains in civil rights and the post-World War II economic expansion, a significant black middle class had arisen which, they believed, had to be taken account of in our perceptions of social reality.1 Daniel P. Moynihan, who had helped to draft the original anti-poverty legislation in the early 60’s, wrote a postscript on the War on Poverty, Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, where he criticized the terms in which the effort had been formulated and analyzed the factors that doomed it to failure. The huge Equal Educational Opportunity Survey commissioned by Congress and prepared by a research team headed by James Coleman concluded that differences in academic achievement could be explained mainly by family background and social circumstances of students and had little to do with differences in school resources, i.e., the extent and amount of government intervention and funding. Later, Coleman backed away from one conclusion many had drawn from this study—that integration automatically improved the educational prospects of disadvantaged blacks. Nathan Glazer, in Affirmative Discrimination, challenged the usefulness and wisdom of racial balancing and busing to achieve integration in the schools, as well as affirmative-action programs that relied heavily on quotas and preferential treatment to advance persons from designated groups.
For their efforts, these men came under severe attack. Moynihan, particularly, was vilified for The Negro Family, a report he wrote as an Assistant Secretary of Labor for President Johnson, and again for a memo he prepared in the late 60’s for President Nixon advocating a cooling of racial rhetoric while maintaining the positive programs of the federal government (Moynihan in those years was developing a family-assistance plan intended to provide an economic floor under the working and non-working poor). These scholars were charged with consciously betraying the effort to achieve greater equality and relieve the economic disadvantages of minorities. They were also criticized in some liberal circles and by black activists for helping to create and provide a rationale for a new “conservatism.” As a result, it soon became difficult for white scholars who departed from the conventional wisdom on these matters to analyze the problems confronting blacks without being denounced as apologists for the status quo or worse. And this in turn has contributed to the impasse at which American liberalism finds itself today.
Yet just as some white social scientists may have begun to hold back in public criticism of the faulty analyses and unsuccessful strategies of the recent past, a number of black social scientists have appeared on the scene who labor under no such inhibitions. The best known among them are William Julius Wilson, professor and chairman of the department of sociology at the University of Chicago; Thomas Sowell, professor of economics at the University of California at Los Angeles; Walter Williams, an economics professor at Temple University in Philadelphia; and Derrick A. Bell, Jr., professor of law at Harvard. These men do not share a common social or political philosophy. At important points, they differ sharply from one another. What permits them to be classed together, however, is that in their work on poverty they have avoided generalized indictments of American society and eschewed purely racial explanations of the plight of poor blacks. They tend to see society as an intricate mosaic of racial, religious, and ethnic groups as well as of social classes, and they have focused mainly on economic and structural analyses of the problems of blacks, to which they offer pragmatic responses.
Increasingly, the work of these men is receiving attention outside social-scientific and professional journals. Sowell, especially, has appeared in such places as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, with pieces critical of the favored current approaches of establishment civil-rights leaders. Articles by Williams have recently appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and the Reader’s Digest. On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Brown school desegregation decision last year, the Nation featured a debate between Bell and the psychologist, Kenneth Clark; the two differed sharply on the effects of the decision. Wilson’s book, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions, published in 1978, provoked considerable discussion in newspaper and magazine articles and editorials and led to a two-day symposium sponsored by the Afro-American Studies Department of the University of Pennsylvania that attracted a number of important white and black intellectuals. In his introduction to the proceedings of the symposium, Professor Joseph R. Washington, Jr. measured the importance of the book by “the extent to which many serious men and women throughout the nation have been pressed to evaluate the depth and breadth of social change bearing upon contemporary black Americans in response to the conclusions reached [by Wilson] by way of economic and sociological analysis.” Clearly, what these social scientists have to say is worth examining.
In The Declining Significance of Race, Wilson seeks to connect changes in black-white relations with changes in the overall American social structure. He describes three stages of American development—pre-industrial, industrial, and modern industrial—and shows for each period how shifts in the system of production and in government have influenced race and class relations. But it is his treatment of the modern era that has received all the attention. Summarizing his views, he contends:
[I]n the earlier periods, whether one focuses on the way race relations were structured by the economy or by the state or by both, racial oppression (ranging from exploitation of black labor by the economic elite to the elimination of black competition, especially economic competition by the white masses) was a characteristic and important aspect of life. However, . . . in the modern industrial period the economy and the state have, in relatively independent ways, shifted the basis of racial antagonisms away from black/white economic contact to social, political, and community issues. The net effect is a growing class division among blacks, a situation, in other words, in which economic class has been elevated to a position of greater importance than that of race in determining individual black opportunities for living conditions and personal life experiences.
As a result of the shift away from manufacturing to greater reliance on the service sector of the economy, Wilson argues, success has come to be increasingly dependent on educational criteria that did not apply in the pre-industrial and industrial eras. With the dismantling of most of the formal and informal machinery of segregation and discrimination in the 50’s and 60’s, opportunities became available to educated blacks to enter higher-paying professional and managerial positions. At the same time, however, the position of blacks at the lower end of the social and economic scale deteriorated further, as evidenced in high rates of unemployment, especially of the young, “slowing the movement out of poverty, increasing [the] number of female-headed households, and expanding welfare rolls.” The picture today is that “young college-educated blacks now receive roughly the same salaries as young college-educated whites,” while “young poor blacks earn substantially less than their white counterparts.”
An elaborate class structure has developed in the black community, Wilson suggests, with three distinguishable groups—an underclass population of largely unskilled laborers, domestic workers, and welfare recipients; a stable working-class population of largely semi-skilled, blue-collar workers; and a middle-class population of skilled blue- and white-collar workers. Wilson estimates that roughly 35 per cent of blacks today are in the underclass, some 30 per cent in the working class, and about 35 per cent in the middle class.
Thus, to talk about the “black experience” today as if it were a monolithic phenomenon is, according to Wilson, to commit a crucial analytical error. And to focus on the forces of segregation and racial discrimination that in the past helped to create the black underclass is to miss the salient point. For “even if all racial discrimination in labor-market practices were eliminated tomorrow,” Wilson writes, “economic conditions [of poor blacks] would not significantly improve because of structural barriers to decent jobs.” Wilson does not deny the continued existence of various forms of prejudice and discrimination experienced by the black middle class, but he believes that “for the first time in American history, class issues can meaningfully compete with race issues in the way individual blacks develop or maintain a sense of group position.”
As an economist, Walter Williams has paid particular attention to the problems of the black poor. He believes these problems have in large measure resulted from interference by government and organized labor. In an article, “Government Sanctioned Restraints That Reduce Economic Opportunities for Minorities” (Policy Review, Fall 1977), he cites the ability of blacks to move into more affluent white neighborhoods by outbidding others for housing there, and contrasts this healthy working of the market mechanism with government programs which from 1967 to 1971 “destroyed 538,000 units of housing, replacing them with only 201,000 units. Of the number of units replaced, less than one-half were for low-and moderate-income families. What the housing policy did do was increase housing for high-income people and increase the amount of land available for office space,” thus penalizing the black poor, the very people the program was intended to help.
Elsewhere Williams has decried the taxi-license requirements in New York City and Boston, which cost $60,000 and $45,000 respectively. In an earlier period, he argues, a poor immigrant could buy a used car and set himself up in the taxi business. In Washington, D.C., where the fee for owning and operating a taxi is $100, there are many more black taxi drivers than in New York and Boston—and the fares are cheaper. Williams is also critical of union requirements such as those embodied in the Davis-Bacon Act requiring contractors to pay “prevailing wages” on federally funded construction projects, a policy which inadvertently discriminates against black contractors, most of whom are non-union.
Williams’s most controversial example of “racially innocent laws [that] spell disaster” is minimum-wage legislation which, he asserts, has the effect of discriminating against young people, particularly young blacks, whose unemployment rates are appallingly high. In his Policy Review article, he notes that legislative bodies “have the power to legislate a wage increase, but unfortunately, they have not found a way to legislate a worker-productivity increase.” In smaller and more marginal businesses where jobs require less skill, an increase in wage rates beyond what is profitable for an employer to pay results in an increase in unemployment. The major bearers of the burden of the minimum wage are younger workers who are less skilled and therefore less productive or more costly to employ. Since most young people acquire skills by working at lower paying jobs, and since many young people do not yet need their wages to live on, Williams favors exempting them from the full requirements of the minimum-wage law.
To support his thesis that the various forms of interference with market mechanisms are the primary factors diminishing the prospects of blacks, Williams notes that in earlier periods, black and white youth unemployment was about equal. By 1976, however, the participation of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old blacks in the labor force was only slightly over one-half that of whites. It is difficult to maintain, he declares, that in the intervening period employers had become more racist; the answer “lies in the minimum-wage law.”
One of the sharpest attacks leveled by the new black intellectuals has been on current school-integration strategies, which place the greatest emphasis on racial balance and on busing programs designed to achieve it. The leading figure here is Derrick A. Bell, Jr., who handled over 300 school-desegregation cases as NAACP counsel before resigning to join the Harvard law-school faculty.
“Equating racially balanced schools with the right to an equal educational opportunity is a certain formula for losing both,” Bell has written. “There is simply too much evidence that integrated schools, even when achieved, do not bring [about] either interracial understanding or academic improvement for poor black children.” Bell is critical of the strategy employed in a Boston school case where the court, finding the school committee guilty of blatant and overt racial discrimination, ordered racial balance “even though this required the busing of hundreds of poor black children to blue-collar white areas, where, if anything, the schools were educationally inferior to those from which the black students came.”
In the fall of 1978, Bell convened at Harvard a group of eight educational specialists, both black and white. Robert L. Carter, Federal District Judge in the Southern District of New York, one of the lawyers who prepared and argued school-desegregation cases for the NAACP, declared flatly that black children “have derived little from the Brown decision.” “The problem, at least in part, was with our strategy,” he said. In believing that integration was the only means for achieving equal educational opportunity for blacks, “We were locked into an era that was already past.” Charles Hamilton, professor of government at Columbia, asserted that in the desegregation process, schools have been “overloaded” with social responsibilities beyond their primary mission of teaching; he urged, instead, greater involvement of black parents in their children’s education. Ronald Edmonds, senior assistant to the chancellor for instruction in New York City public schools and former director of Harvard’s Urban Studies Center, suggested that strict racial balance should “take a back seat” to greater emphasis on those characteristics in schools that serve the educational needs of poor children. He reported on several studies, including his own, which have shown that effective schools for poor children—both black and white—are orderly, have strong administrators, and entertain high expectations of their students.
The new black critics are not opposed to school integration as such. Bell, for example, feels that in certain situations, particularly in smaller communities, it works. But he prefers a greater flexibility of approach. Under some circumstances, the primary focus should be on improving the quality of education in predominantly black schools. In the necessary effort to dismantle officially segregated schools in the 50’s and 60’s, Bell has pointed out, “integrationists painted a far worse picture of the situation than even some pre-Brown black schools and their products deserved.” As a result, they helped to make many white and black parents reluctant to send their children to schools that were predominantly black.
“For the present, to focus on integration is a luxury only the middle class can afford,” Judge Carter declared at the Harvard symposium convened by Bell. The only way to protect the educational rights of thousands of poor black children is “to concentrate on having high-quality education delivered to the schools these black children are attending and will attend at least for another generation.”
Most of the new black intellectuals confine their analyses to their specialized fields. Thomas Sowell is an exception. In books like Black Education: Myths and Tragedies (1972), Race and Economics (1975), and Essays and Data on American Ethnic Groups (1978, with Lynn D. Collins), Sowell, who is by training an economist, ranges widely over the fields of American history, sociology, and social psychology. Much more than the others, Sowell writes out of a deep sense of anger. He believes that white liberals and black extremists have tacitly cooperated in devising policies that under the guise of helping blacks have actually done great harm.
Sowell is critical, particularly, of the “grand fallacy” that an ethnic group should be statistically “represented” in jobs, schools, and other areas of society. He shows that, quite apart from discrimination and disadvantage, such factors as the age of racial and ethnic groups, length of time spent in an urban economy, historical traditions, and “attitudes of self-reliance” play a major role in the relative income levels of different groups. “Even such major and blatant factors as color and slavery,” he writes in Race and Economics,
did not prevent American Negroes (who entered the economy in the 1920’s) from earning higher incomes than the Puerto Ricans (who entered after World War II). Similarly, in the closing years of the 19th century, the Northern urban blacks, largely descended from the antebellum “free persons of color,” were economically somewhat in advance of the white immigrants of the same period.
Sowell goes on:
[T]he greatest dilemma in attempts to raise ethnic minority income is that those methods which have historically proved successful—self-reliance, work skills, education, business experience—are all slow developing, while those methods which are direct and immediate—job quotas, charity, subsidies, preferential treatment—tend to undermine self-reliance and pride of achievement in the long run.
Thus it is, in Sowell’s view, that precisely those policies most favored today for advancing the economic and social prospects of blacks have not only failed to achieve their intended aims but have begun to wreak social and psychological damage on their supposed beneficiaries.
As the voice of the new black intellectuals has begun to be heard, a vigorous counterattack has gotten under way.
Wilson’s book has been criticized by Charles V. Willie, a professor of education and urban studies at the Harvard School of Education; by Kenneth Clark; by the Marxist historian Philip Foner; and by Marcus Alexis, a member of the Federal Reserve Board, among others. These critics marshal a great deal of statistical information on the growth of female-headed households, unemployment, and housing to challenge Wilson’s thesis of the declining influence of race. Alexis has referred to a study showing that the “cumulative impact of racial discrimination within the low-status male [black] population was estimated to result in an earnings loss of up to $1,499” yearly, and concludes that “the earnings of young black men could be increased by 31 per cent if the unexplained residuals that result largely from the various forms of racial discrimination could be eliminated.”
The Urban League has argued not only that family-income inequality within the black community has grown at a greater rate than for whites, but that there is no evidence of a significant rise in the number of higher-income black families. It reports that from 1972 to 1975, black families with incomes of $15,000 or more fell from 25 to 23 per cent, and the proportion of black families above the government’s higher-budget level dropped from 12 to 9 per cent from 1972 to 1976.
Wilson has responded to this by noting that the period cited by the Urban League was one of general recession, and that the proportion of white families with incomes of $15,000, and at the government’s higher-budget level, also dropped in those years. In fact, the number of whites with incomes of $15,000 dropped even more severely from 1973 to 1975 than did the number of blacks. Taking the decade 1967-77 as a whole, he argues that the number of blacks with incomes of $15,000 to $24,999 increased slightly and the percentage of black families with incomes above $25,000 almost doubled.
In fact, the depressing statistics concerning the black poor are largely irrelevant to Wilson’s case. He is well aware of the problems of unemployment and poverty in the black underclass. Nor does he deny the presence of “racial antagonism in the social-political order” or that this antagonism “feeds back to the economic sector.” What he does assert is that better-educated and -trained blacks can “offset the negative consequences of racial discrimination” and have, indeed, begun to work their way out of their disadvantaged state. As for the poor, Wilson argues, their problems will not be solved either by the elimination of discrimination or by the efforts of government. As he put it in a recent speech, “The predicament of the underclass cannot be satisfactorily addressed by the mere passage of civil-rights laws or the introduction of special racial programs such as affirmative action.”
Wilson’s critics have also focused on his remarks about housing. Charles V. Willie, for example, stresses the “association [among] economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and residential location.” When blacks are kept out of suburban areas by “snob-zoning” laws that are often disguises for racial discrimination, their opportunities for the educational advantages necessary for moving up are significantly curtailed. Wilson has given some ground on this point, conceding that “despite the sharply different patterns of occupational mobility exerienced by different segments of the black population, race concerns will continue to be more salient than class concerns for individual blacks.”
Most of Wilson’s critics, however, believe not only that race is one factor affecting the black condition but that, as Kenneth Clark has said, it is “the dominant factor in determining blacks’ chances in life.” Willie asserts that the significance of race is actually increasing, especially for middle-class blacks who, because of school desegregation, affirmative action, and other programs, are coming into more direct contact with whites for longer periods of time. He cites as an example “the response of white professionals to admissions policies by colleges and universities that are designed to reserve spaces for members of previously excluded racial population.” Clark dismisses as “tokenism” the economic and political gains cited by Wilson and warns against “wishful and premature optimism.” He has characterized the opposition to quotas manifest in amicus briefs filed in the Bakke and Weber cases as “contemporary racism” which “masquerades” as non-racism, and he holds “so-called liberal, Northern intellectuals” more responsible for maintaining the racial status quo than Southern racists in their time. At the University of Pennsylvania symposium on Wilson’s book, Clark said heatedly:
I must tell you quite candidly, as I read what you write . . . I do think of. . Wattenberg, of the Pat Moynihans, of that group that I, in my counter-racist way, describe as “white neoconservative liberals.” Sometimes when I try to mask my racism, I call them the “Charles River Crew” using and exaggerating alleged racial progress (among what I still believe to be a very small proportion of blacks who have made it) to affect social policy. . . . Bill, what I’d like to see happen is for you to make it very, very clear that you are not to be associated with that “Charles River Crew” of sophisticated racists. . . .
Wilson has struck out at this. Systematically playing down black achievement is insulting to many blacks, he contends, and demoralizing to both black and white advocates of racial justice. Although the upward movement of many blacks at a time of economic downturn has created frictions with whites which have sometimes spilled over into racial animosities, this is a far cry from an actual increase in racism. Describing opposition to quotas as racism is itself a form of irresponsible racial rhetoric, he says, and beyond this an attack on liberal democracy itself, which has provided major support for the black movement to secure equal rights and opportunities.
The attack on the new black intellectuals by other blacks goes beyond the insinuation that their work might lend weight to social and political reaction; its roots lie in the growing class conflict that is developing within the black community itself.
The civil-rights revolution was fought in the name of blacks generally, but its greatest benefits fell to the black middle class and those with the greatest potential for entering it. Very little is known about the feelings and attitudes of blacks at the lower end of the social scale; the widespread discussion of “black thought” tends to focus on leaders. There is reason to believe, however, that the new black intellectuals reflect the views and interests of the black grass roots more accurately than do their critics and detractors. It is perhaps no coincidence that Walter Williams grew up in the Richard Allen public-housing project in Philadelphia while Thomas Sowell was raised in segregated schools in Charlotte, North Carolina, and was later a Harlem drop-out.
Wilson has charged that it is in the interest of more privileged blacks to keep the focus on racial rather than economic justice. He does not elaborate on this in his book, but as the debate over it has heated up, he has begun to discuss the political and social implications of class divisions in the black community. Thus, he is sharply critical of the role of the black elite and black intelligentsia who, he argues, have been defining issues in such a way as to obscure class differences among blacks while at the same time advocating programs “that have . . . effectively dealt with the concerns of privileged blacks but have not been designed to alleviate the problems of the black poor.” Stung by the harshness of the attack on him at the University of Pennsylvania symposium, Wilson burst out at one point, “. . . I must confess that in the face of the growing problems of poor blacks, I get just a little bit impatient when a black social scientist who . . . drives a Mercedes and lives in a $100,000 house can still talk about the community, the uniform black experience. He has more in common with his white colleagues than he has with the ghetto black poor.”
According to Wilson, it is symptomatic of the skewed sense of priorities in the black elite that discussion of the Humphrey-Hawkins “full-employment” bill was overshadowed by the enormous attention given by black leaders to the Bakke case, which involved medical-school admissions:
Whereas the Humphrey-Hawkins bill is so designed as to address the problems of the poor, affirmative-action programs are designed to improve the job prospects for the more privileged minorities, in other words, for trained and educated minority group members. Whereas the black poor would gain from a shift in emphasis from race to economic dislocation, more privileged blacks tend to emphasize, and . . . have, for the moment, a vested interest in keeping race as the single most important issue in developing policies to promote black progress.
In similar fashion, Derrick A. Bell has declared that “. . . those who generally handle school-desegregation litigation do not always have the ongoing close community contact with members of the class they represent which is required to insure continuing sensitivity to client interests.” In recent years, he points out, black community leaders in Detroit, Boston, Fort Worth, and Atlanta have been highly critical of national civil-rights leadership for relying too heavily on busing rather than on efforts to achieve truly equal educational opportunity. Bell quotes a critique of a Boston desegregation plan filed by almost two dozen black community leaders directly to Federal Judge W. Arthur Garrity, and predictably ignored by Judge Garrity in his eventual decision to enforce massive busing:
In the name of equity, we . . . seék dramatic improvement in the quality of education available to our children. Any steps to achieve desegregation must be reviewed in the light of the black community’s interest in improved pupil performance as the primary characteristic of educational equity. . . . We think it neither necessary nor proper to endure the dislocations of desegregation without reasonable assurances that our children will instructionally profit.
Bell also cites with approval a compromise desegregation plan worked out by the local Atlanta chapter of the NAACP and the Atlanta school board, and later rejected by the national organization (which ousted the branch president).
Sowell is the harshest of the new black critics in his attacks on the civil-rights leadership. “Black leadership has come disproportionately from two highly atypical groups,” he wrote in an op-ed piece in the New York Times, “descendants of blacks free before the Civil War and West Indian immigrants.” This leadership “speaks in the name of a population from which it differs socially and economically.” He adds that many black leaders, “out of guilt but also expediency,” have taken “a more extreme political position” than that which obtains “among most of the black population.” Following the resignation of Andrew Young from his UN post last summer, Sowell wrote in an oped piece in the Los Angeles Herald Examiner that “his [Young’s] problems were not the problems of the poor, and his radical-chic outlook on the world today is very different from that of working-class black people.”
It is not yet clear where the class and ideological divisions in the black community may be leading. Wilson’s ideas, at least, have begun to make inroads into the thinking of a number of people. “There is no question that race has declined significantly as a separate and distinct barrier to black economic progress in the labor market,” writes Bernard E. Anderson, the distinguished economist, in the Urban League’s The State of Black America, 1980. And, again, “What seems obvious . . . is that strategies that move beyond race as a central focus will become increasingly important in formulating effective remedies to the contemporary problems of blacks in the American economy.” In education, the temper of the times, demographic patterns, and efforts signaled by Bell, Edmonds, and others may stimulate a shift away from the integrationist “numbers game” in large urban centers.
As for strategies for the future, the new black intellectuals are themselves divided. While Sowell and Williams lean toward freeing market mechanisms from government and union restraints in order to make more jobs available to black youth, Wilson seems to be moving in the direction of a form of socialism—he has called recently for the development of a national planning agency “to suggest the kinds of new strategies that black leaders and liberals, who recognize the shortcomings of a purely racial policy, might pursue in controlling the deleterious effects of basic economic changes on the lives of the poor.” Like Bayard Rustin and the late A. Philip Randolph, he has urged, tactically, a coalition with poor whites for “public-policy programs to attack inequality on a broad class front.” Wilson has also been critical of Williams (and Sowell) for their position on the minimum wage, writing that “the problem for poor blacks is not simply the availability of or access to menial jobs in low-wage industries, but the availability of jobs that pay decent wages and provide opportunities for advancement. . . .” In this he has associated himself with labor leaders like Albert Shanker and Gus Tyler in their opposition to Williams’s ideas on the minimum wage.
Overall, however, and despite their differences, what can be said about the new black intellectuals is that in their individual voices and from their varying perspectives they have cast a harshly illuminating light on the played-out analyses and policies of another era, while not neglecting the task of pointing out alternatives. This in itself, especially at a time when their white colleagues have been forced into mutedness, is a most welcome development.
1 “Black Progress and Liberal Rhetoric,” April 1973.