Fault Lines

William Julius Wilson
William Julius Wilson (Ted Thai / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)
Reviewed by John L. Jackson Jr.
Sunday, December 17, 2006


Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions

in Four Chicago Neighborhoods

and Their Meaning for America

By William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub

Knopf. 228 pp. $23.95

It was just a few months ago that CBS announced it would add a real-world wrinkle to this season's "Survivor" by dividing the show's "tribes" into competing racial groups -- blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos.

How has that been going, anyway? I've spent most of what spare time I have these days watching fantasy offerings such as NBC's "Heroes," a story about regular people who gain superhuman powers and attempt to save the world. Truth be told, it's probably reading books such as William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub's profoundly sobering There Goes the Neighborhood that drives me to such otherworldly fare. Their careful and convincing summary of research carried out in Chicago during the mid-1990s paints a picture of social intolerance and bad faith that makes wasting away on a desert island sound like a pretty reasonable alternative to scraping out a living in today's contentious American cities and suburbs.

Wilson, Taub and University of Chicago graduate students studied four demographically distinct neighborhoods in the Windy City: a predominantly white working-class community miles from downtown; two Latino areas, one serving as a first-generation working-class stepping stone to the other; and a lower-middle-class African American suburb not too far removed from the urban core. The book's thesis pivots on economist Albert Hirschman's discussion of "exit" and "voice" as the fundamental options for residents disgruntled with their quickly changing neighborhoods. They can either move away, conceding the area to newcomers, or dig in their heels for a fight.

The four-part study tries to determine why some neighborhoods' residents leave for new locales in substantial numbers, while community members in other places mobilize to beat back demographic changes. Each of the four neighborhoods represents a slightly different version of these possible responses -- e.g., white municipal workers who loudly protest that blacks and Latinos threaten their property values and the quality of their children's schools; poorer Latinos more interested in moving up and out of their ethnic enclave than in organizing themselves to defend it. Even with each neighborhood's seemingly distinctive reaction to its collective flight or fight options, some very important features characterize them all.

For one thing, many of the residents in each community seem more than comfortable using the inflammatory and offensive language of hate to ground their conceptions of belonging. Nostalgic talk about the benefits of living among one's own kind easily morphs into unabashed references to "niggers coming here to play basketball," simplistic and racist explanations for community deterioration. Struggling Latinos revel in the prestige that comes from the fact that they are not African Americans. And depictions of dreadful social maneuvering and group prejudice seem to pop up on almost every page of this study, highlighting how easily racial and ethnic scapegoats get concocted to justify everyday explanations for larger structural transformations. You can reclaim your neighborhood's basketball courts from unwelcome outsiders, but that still won't provide your family with better health-care coverage, stave off the government's privatization of community services or protect local jobs from outsourcing to cheaper Third World workforces -- all anxieties that seem to be percolating just below the surface of these chauvinistic tirades.

Ever optimistic, Wilson and Taub point out that racial and ethnic coalitions do form in certain very specific contexts. Residents organize on behalf of educational opportunity in ways that sometimes bridge chasms of social difference. Even so, each neighborhood conspicuously exemplifies the intractable power of racist doublespeak and small-mindedness, of social distrust and irrational bigotry. The book ends with a discussion of one lower middle-class African American neighborhood's comfortable sense of certainty about its own future racial make-up. Because few other groups are clamoring to live near African Americans, even middle-class ones, these residents are confident that they will remain the racial majority there for some time to come. And since they need not worry about whites moving in next door, they preoccupy themselves with the threat of poorer African Americans arriving and dragging down their otherwise healthy and striving community. The moral of the story: Class easily parallels race and ethnicity as an important galvanizing force for reactionary community politicking. These residents obviously don't talk about indiscriminately keeping out all blacks, just the ones lacking their middle-class backgrounds and resources.

There Goes the Neighborhood is framed as an analysis of community loyalty, and the authors are careful to point out just how such loyalty gets hardwired to xenophobic invective and impoverished notions of community, energizing political activism around exclusion and discrimination. The hostile bickering and race-baiting that plague the varied neighborhoods in this study are far more powerful renditions of nasty racial competitiveness than anything CBS would broadcast on a show such as "Survivor," whose current season started out as a weak parody of the fissures that define and confine American communities today. ยท

John L. Jackson Jr. teaches communication and anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. His most recent book is "Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity."

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