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The "Underclass" and Structural Racism

William Julius Wilson, a sociologist, refers to the urban poor as the "underclass". The primary issue facing members of the underclass is "joblessness reinforced by an increasing social isolation in an impoverished neighborhood". (1) They not only suffer from lower socioeconomic status, minimal education, and lack of opportunities, but they are further victimized by a lack of community safeguards and resources. The underclass’s defining characteristic is the absence of job opportunities coupled with the absence of societal supports.

Wilson believes that social isolationism, "the lack of contact or of sustained interaction with individuals and institutions that represent mainstream society", is a result of decreased employment opportunities. (2) When joblessness becomes a way of life for a community, its citizens then "experience a social isolation that excludes them from the job network system that permeates other neighborhoods and is so important in learning about or being recommended for other jobs…thus a vicious cycle is perpetuated through the family, through the community." (3) Wilson argues that the problem of the underclass in America is not one of culture but one of isolation from community and necessary resources:

"The key theoretical concept, therefore, is not culture of poverty but social isolation. Culture of poverty implies that basic values and attitudes of the ghetto subculture have been internalized and thereby influence behavior…Social isolation…implies that contact between groups of different class and/or racial backgrounds is either lacking or has become increasingly intermittent but that the nature of this contact enhances the effects of living in a highly concentrated poverty area…To emphasize the concept social isolation does not mean that cultural traits are irrelevant in understanding behavior…rather, it highlights the fact that culture is a response to social structural constraints and opportunities." (4)

Problems in the inner city have roots in structural racism and economic inequality. Without attacking these core problems, community revitalization efforts will be ineffective. Relationships between citizens and their communities, the governed, and the governors are all conducted in systems rooted in structural racism. This system determines life in the inner city and the rules by which day-to-day operations are conducted. 

"The problem is that structural racism and social class inequality matter in that racialized ideas shape policies and practices that reinforce color lines and perpetuate the urban crisis. Consequently, as long as community revitalization fails formally to identify, attack and dismantle structural barriers to inner city development, this movement’s contributions and successes will not be sustained over time." (5)

Community revitalization endeavors have separated questions of race and class from economic development and housing initiatives. They have oversimplified existing problems by saying that a cure for urban ills rest in the residents' ability to change their community by simply identifying existing assets and building community capacity.

"Not only this, but over the past two decades community development fragmented into a series of uncoordinated, disjointed activities in which the sum is much less than the individual parts:  enterprise zones, community development corporations, community economic development, community building, social capitol initiatives, community policing, university-community partnerships, faith-based initiatives, and most recently comprehensive community initiatives.  Such a splintered movement is helpless in the face of the powerful forces of structural racism and social class inequality.  Of course, the community revitalization movement has brought benefits to some inner city neighborhoods and has done good things, but few initiatives have fundamentally transformed neighborhoods or changed the trajectory of older inner city places.  No harm, (no real money), no foul is the creed." (6)


  1. Wilson, William Julius."The Underclass." The Ghetto Underclass: Social Science Perspectives. Sage Publications: London: 1993, 20.
  2. Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 1987, 60.
  3. Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged. 57.
  4. Wilson, William Julius. The Truly Disadvantaged. 61.
  5. Cole, Sam and Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. "Structural Racism and Efforts to Radically Reconstruct the Inner-City Built Environment." 2.
  6. Cole, Sam and Henry Louis Taylor, Jr. 4.

this page last updated
April 13, 2002