Sociology of Race

On Thursday, February 24, the Organization of Black Students brought famed and decorated social psychologist Dr. William Julius Wilson to deliver the 2009 George E. Kent Lecture. Dr. Wilson worked as a professor at the University of Chicago for twenty-four years, until 1996, and also served as the chair of the sociology department. He now teaches at Harvard University. Between teaching stints at two top-tier universities, he found the leisure time to write several critically acclaimed books, serve as president of the American Sociological Association, and receive forty-one honorary degrees from schools including Princeton University and Columbia University.

Dr. Wilson’s lecture discussed racial relations in the past, the present, and the future with freshly elected President Obama. He addressed a less-than-full audience, including some of his former students, for almost an hour and a half, followed by a Q&A session. Dr. Wilson showed off his sociology know-how in explaining why racism is a problem and why, in order to solve it we must change the way we approach it. The issue of racism, he says, arises from a combination of “cultural and structural inequalities” that not only create a schism between white and black, but keep the line of demarcation thick. Wilson claimed we should consider “cultural frames” that shape racism, such as poverty and welfare. Things like this keep African-Americans in lower socioeconomic classes, or in Wilson’s words, “inhibit social mobility.” Our part in the fight against racism is, therefore, to appeal to policymakers by addressing the systemic inequalities that keep black people who are already in the ghetto there for generations.

Unfortunately he did not offer much more resolution than that. He acknowledged Obama’s victory despite his racial setback, and sees this as a promise for a better future across racial boundaries. Besides this commentary, Dr. Wilson did not provide much to inspire his tepid audience, offered no torches to light or crosses to bear in the name of racial equality. It seems that he still typifies the University of Chicago: chock full of theory but lacking in workability.