An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2011

The Declining Significance of Race: Revisited & Revised

William Julius Wilson

William Julius Wilson, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1988, is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. His recent publications include When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor (1996), which received the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award; There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America (with Richard Taub, 2007); and More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (2009).

I published The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions thirty-two years ago, in 1978.1  Given the furor and controversy over the book immediately following its publication, I did not anticipate that it would go on to become a classic. Indeed, the book’s impact on the field of race and ethnic relations–its arguments have been discussed in nearly eight hundred empirical research articles, not to mention the nonempirical studies–lends credence to the idea of productive controversy and to George Bernard Shaw’s famous dictum: “[I]t is better to be criticized and misunderstood than to be ignored.” My motivation for this essay is to reflect on responses to the book that claim to provide an empirical test of my thesis. In the process, I indicate the extent to which important findings have influenced my thinking since the book’s publication.

The theoretical framework in The Declining Significance of Race relates racial issues to the economic and political arrangements of society. I argued that changes in the system of production and in government policies have affected, over time, black/white access to rewards and privileges as well as racial antagonisms. I advanced this framework to accomplish two major objectives: (1) to explain historical developments in U.S. race relations and (2) to account for paradoxical changes in the black class structure whereby, beginning in the last few decades of the twentieth century, the social and economic conditions of the black poor deteriorated while those of the black middle class improved.

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  • 1William Julius Wilson, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions (1978; 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980). I would like to thank Anmol Chaddha for his help in reviewing the literature on The Declining Significance of Race and for his thoughtful comments on a previous draft of this manuscript.
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