The review itself is interesting, in that it contrasts Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's controversial paper from 1965, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action" with this new book.
The so-called "Moynihan Report" brought about a new language for understanding race and poverty: Now-familiar terms like pathology, blame the victim, and culture of poverty entered American thought as people debated whether Moynihan was courageously pointing out the causes of social ills or simply finger-pointing. Moynihan forced a nation to ask, "Is the culture of poor blacks at the core of their problems?"
In this way, a deep American schism was born. Liberals believed that black poverty was caused by systemic racism, such as workplace discrimination and residential segregation, and that focusing on the family was a form of "blaming the victim." Conservatives pointed to individual failure to embrace mainstream cultural values like hard work and sobriety, and intact (read: nuclear) families.
I describe this a little more bluntly. Liberals think people are stupid and must be controlled. Conservatives think people are merely ignorant and must be educated.
Comes now the insight of the book, which I find rather compelling.
Wilson wants to explain inner-city behavior—such as young black males' disdain for low-wage jobs, their use of violence, and their refusal to take responsibility for children—without pointing simplistically to discrimination or a deficit in values. Instead, he argues that many years of exposure to similar situations can create responses that look as if they express individual will or active preference when they are, in fact, adaptations or resigned responses to racial exclusion.
Consider a young man who works in the drug economy. Doing so doesn't mean he places little if any value on legitimate work. Employment opportunities are limited in the man's racially segregated neighborhood. There are few neighbors and friends who have social connections to employers, and most of the good jobs are far away. To complicate matters, many of his friends and neighbors are probably connected to the drug trade. Survival and peer pressure dictate that the man will seek out the dangerous, illegal jobs that are nearby, even while he may prefer a stable, mainstream job. Delinquent behavior? Certainly, but more than likely a comprehensible response to lack of opportunity.
It kills me that such a statement could be considered controversial, but that's a whinge for a different day.
Allow me to inject a little something from the gun control debate. My favorite bit of research, Brandon Centerwall's crowding based analysis of murders in US cities. To wit,
Brandon S. Centerwall, MD, MPH, "Race, Socioeconomic Status, and Domestic Homicide." JAMA 1995; 273: 1755-1758 and
Centerwall, Brandon S. "Homicide and the Prevalence of Handguns: Canada and the United States, 1976 to 198O" Am J Epidemiol 1991;134:1245-60.
Centerwall's discovery applicable to the argument here is that murder rates do not vary between blacks and whites once you control for socioeconomic status. So there is no "black culture of failure", there is no "systemic racism", there is no instrumentality effect from guns or living in cities or any of that.
Human beings are (among other things) problem solving machines. You present them with a problem and they will come up with a solution. What there is, obviously, is a set of conditions that some people solve with violence and "degenerate" behavior. Currently we have problems confined to the urban poor that they tend to solve with single parenthood, welfare dependence, crime, drugs, and etc.
I contend a lot of those problems are created and held in place by government. You take a look at Indian reservations in norther Canada, the social and physical situation in those places is 100% constructed by government. Food, fuel, vehicles, money, drugs, guns, ammunition, clothing, housing, EVERYTHING is flown in to a remote location at great expense and pretty much dumped on the people who live there. In return they produce pretty much nothing other than misery and self destruction. Maybe some soapstone carvings.
So you can look at that a couple-three different ways. Well meaning liberals assume the Indians can't be expected to rise above the lowest possible behavioral level without intervention because they're being victimized by systemic racism, so the answer is to give them stuff. That's got us to where we are now.
Previously, well meaning people assumed that the Indians were merely ignorant, and tried to educate them out of their cultural bondage so they could become productive citizens like everybody else. That was the systemic racism to which the liberals efforts became the "solution".
Both these views clearly don't encompass the reality, because nothing changed under either regime. The misery and self destruction continue.
A different way of looking at it, as per Mr. Wilson, is to assume that the "problem behaviors" are not the problem. They are rational solutions to the problem. When one considers drug use and indiscriminate sex as solutions to the problem of living in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do, where everything is delivered to you for free, they seem pretty rational.
In other words, if you pull your head out of your ass and start looking at people in a fucked-up situation with some respect, maybe you'll see something other than your own pre-judgments.
People are smart. Crime is the logical response to a set of pressures and opportunities. You need money, there's no real retribution against you, logically you're going to steal it. And you're going to keep stealing it until the risk/benefit ratio changes.