Toward a Framework for Understanding Forces that Contribute to or Reinforce Racial Inequality


For many years social scientists have debated the role of social structure versus culture in explaining the social and economic outcomes of African Americans. The position that one takes often reflects ideological bias. Conservatives tend to emphasize cultural factors whereas liberals pay more attention to structural conditions, with most of the attention devoted to racialist structural factors such as discrimination and segregation. In this article I develop a framework for understanding the formation and maintenance of racial inequality and racial group outcomes that integrates cultural factors with two types of structural forces—those that directly reflect explicit racial bias and those that do not. In so doing, I hope to spark greater interest and dialogue in the research and policy arenas around a more holistic approach to poverty alleviation.

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  1. 1.

    I first discussed the concepts of indirect and direct forces of racial inequality in my contribution to a co-authored introduction to the volume 1 of America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences (2001).

  2. 2.

    See Henderson (1975).

  3. 3.

    See Marshall (1994).

  4. 4.

    Based on an analysis of microdata—the Integrated Public Use Microdata Series (IPUMS)—from Current Population Survey (1962, 1970, 1980, 1990), as well as published data in the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2001, 2007).

  5. 5.

    See Nasar (1994) and Rose (1994).

  6. 6.

    See U.S. Bureau of the Census (1988, Table 4; 2003, Table D).

  7. 7.

    See Krueger (1993).

  8. 8.

    See Krueger (1997), Katz (1996), and Schwartzman (1997).

  9. 9.

    See Schwartzman, op. cit.

  10. 10.

    See Galbraith (1998).

  11. 11.

    See Schwartzman (1997). As Alan Krueger (1997) has remarked, “Whatever the role that trade has played in the past, I suspect that trade will place greater pressure on low-skilled workers in the future. The reason for this suspicion is simply that there are a great many unskilled workers in the world who are paid very little. One and a half billion potential workers have left schools before they reached age 13; half the world’s workers leave at age 16 or earlier. When these workers are brought into global economic competition (because of greater openness, more political stability, and greater investment in developing countries), the consequences are unlikely to be positive for low-skilled workers in developed countries.”

  12. 12.

    See Lieberson (1980) and Neckerman (2007).

  13. 13.

    See Schwartzman, op. cit.

  14. 14.

    See Wilson (1987, 1996).

  15. 15.

    See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (1999).

  16. 16.

    See Wilson (1996).

  17. 17.

    See U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (1999).

  18. 18.

    A more detailed account of the transportation and networking problems of poor black workers is provided in Wilson (1996).

  19. 19.

    See Levy (1998).

  20. 20.

    According to sociologists Bruce Western and Becky Pettit (2000), the recorded employment gains of low-skilled black men during the economic boom period of the 1990s were the artifact of the major expansion of mass black imprisonment during this period. And, according to their analysis, if the numbers of incarcerated blacks were added to the official employment statistics, the gains would disappear. However, this position has been challenged by University of Wisconsin sociologist Felix Elwert (2008), whose formal quantitative model suggests the opposite conclusion: that incarceration has likely increased rather than decreased low-skilled black unemployment rates.

  21. 21.

    In 2007, a single person with an annual income of $9,800 and a family of four with an annual income of $33,600 were classified as poor.

  22. 22.

    My discussion in this section on the concept of “culture” owes a great deal to the work of Michèle Lamont and Mario Luis Small (2008).

  23. 23.

    For a review of the literature on school tracking, see Free (2004).

  24. 24.

    See Bobo et al. (1997).

  25. 25.

    See Wilson (1996).

  26. 26.

    See Tilly (1998).

  27. 27.

    There is mixed evidence for the outcomes of “acting white” as it applies to education. One of the most well-known studies of this concept was published by Signithia Fordham and John Ogbu in 1986. They studied African American students at a high school in Washington D.C. and concluded that the fear of acting white was one of the major factors undermining student achievement. In contrast, Prudence Carter’s (2003, 2005) studies have not supported the idea that students who avoided “acting white” held lower educational aspirations. Roland Fryer (2006) presents yet another perspective. He found that a high Grade Point Average (GPA) presents a social disadvantage for Hispanics and blacks in integrated schools and public schools, but he saw no such effect in schools that were segregated (80% or more black) or private. He also noticed a marked difference in this effect among black boys and black girls; black boys in public, integrated schools were particularly susceptible to social ostracism as their GPAs increased, and were penalized seven times more than black students (including both genders) overall.

  28. 28.

    See Anderson (1999).

  29. 29.

    See Venkatesh (2006).

  30. 30.

    See Anderson (1999, p. 34).

  31. 31.

    Venkatesh (2006, p. 381).

  32. 32.

    Ibid., p. 377.

  33. 33.

    Ibid., p. 385. For another excellent study of how activities in the underground economy can adversely affect inner-city residents, see Wacquant (1998).

  34. 34.

    See Patterson (2006).

  35. 35.


  36. 36.

    See Wilson (2009).

  37. 37.

    Ibid. Also see Patterson (2000).

  38. 38.

    See Neckerman (2007).

  39. 39.

    Ibid., p. 174.

  40. 40.

    See Patterson (2006).

  41. 41.



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Correspondence to William Julius Wilson.

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This paper is based on my new book, More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (2009).

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Wilson, W.J. Toward a Framework for Understanding Forces that Contribute to or Reinforce Racial Inequality. Race Soc Probl 1, 3–11 (2009).

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  • Social structure
  • Culture
  • Ghetto
  • Poverty
  • Racism