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Wilson, William Julius(1935–) - Sociologist, educator, writer, Early Years and Education, Influenced by Roles Models and Mentors

university sociology professor race

William Julius Wilson is a distinguished sociologist, teacher, and researcher; as well as a popular speaker and a prolific writer. Wilson’s research and published works have caused controversy and stirred strong emotions. He has been labeled a neoconservative; he has been called an ultra-liberal. He has received high praise and vitriolic criticism. His peers have honored him, and he has been on the short list to communicate with well-known politicians. Wilson’s views have been debated and used by both the political right and the left to promote some government programs and eliminate others. He has challenged liberal views about root causes of a permanent underclass in U.S. society and conservative views that attribute the state of poverty to a dependency on welfare, on cultural deficiencies, and to people who simply do not want to work. He has been criticized for deemphasizing the lingering impacts of discrimination and segregation and for pushing for programs that are race neutral. He was disappointed with and strongly criticized welfare reforms put in place during President Clinton’s first term because they provided no job training programs and cut social services. He recommends that government provide support for low-income women who want to go to college and create jobs programs comparable to that of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the FDR era.

Wilson turned down an invitation to the White House to meet President Reagan, after being labeled a neoconservative. In 1989, Ebony magazine identified Wilson as a pathfinder in a report on “Blacks as Leaders of Professional Organizations.”

Early Years and Education

Wilson was born on December 20, 1935 and spent his early childhood in Derry Township, Pennsylvania. He attended primary and secondary school with children from Irish, Swiss, German, Hungarian, and Italian families. Even though he and his siblings grew up in a predominately white environment, they had a strong support system of blacks throughout the community. During his childhood, his parents, Pauline and Esco Wilson, placed high priority on family, hard work, and educational attainment even though neither of them had completed high school. His father was employed as a steel worker and a coal miner. After his father’s death from black lung disease, his mother worked cleaning houses while raising six children.

Despite the family’s economic hardships, all the Wilson children graduated from college because of the expectations set by their parents. In 1958, Wilson
received his B.A. from Wilberforce University in Ohio, an institution where sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois taught. Wilson entered the university with the intent of studying business administration but discovered sociology and went on to obtain his degree in that field. Following graduation, he served in the armed forces from 1958 to 1960. Prior to leaving Wilberforce he developed an interest in urban sociology and a desire to continue studying at the graduate level. In 1961, he earned his M.A. in sociology from Bowling Green State University (Ohio) and five years later received his Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology from Washington State University. Neither his master’s thesis nor his doctoral dissertation dealt with race or racism. He was hired as an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) in its nationally recognized department of sociology before he completed his doctorate degree. When he left University of Massachusetts in 1971 he was associate professor of sociology and had become interested in racial politics.

Influenced by Roles Models and Mentors

Wilson’s most important influences were his parents and his father’s sister, Janice Wardlaw, a psychiatric social worker from New York. They encouraged him to achieve academically and to always work hard. His aunt provided him with cultural experiences and with financial support when he entered Wilberforce. His research methods and teaching styles were influenced by Maxwell Brooks, his sociology professor at Wilberforce; Richard Ogles, professor of sociology at Washington State University; Robert Park (one of the founders of the Chicago School of Sociology); sociologist E. Franklin Frazier; W. E. B. Du Bois; and John Hope Franklin. Wilson was invited to the University of Chicago in 2003 to participate in a symposium, “Race in the Making of American History: Perspectives at the Onset of a New Century,” that honored Franklin.

For nearly twenty-five years, Wilson was a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. He arrived at the university in 1971 as a visiting professor and advanced to associate professor in 1972. Three years later he became professor of sociology. Twice he served as chair of the sociology department between the years 1975 and 1996. He became the Lucy Flower Distinguished Service professor of sociology and before he left the university was the Lucy Flower University professor of sociology and public policy and was director of the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality from 1990 to 1996. During his years at Chicago, he gained a reputation as a dedicated teacher and scholar. He focused his research on race, class, and the study of the urban poor. From his published articles and books on racial politics, he gained recognition beyond academia.

His first book Power, Racism, and Privilege: Race Relations in Theoretical and Sociohistorical Perspectives , published two years after his arrival at Chicago, compares race relations in the United States and South Africa. In it, according to a review by Thomas F Pettigrew in Michigan Law Review , he “advances sociological thinking about race.” In 1973 he joined Peter I. Rose and Stanley Rothman in publishing Through Different Eyes: Black and White Perspectives on American Race Relations . One of his most controversial works, The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions , was published in 1978. This book of slightly over 50,000 words is described by Pettigrew as a “brief overview of American racial history that is provocative and engaging, if not novel and definitive.” The book received the American Sociological Association’s Sydney Spivack Award. The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy , published in 1987, deals with the plight of the urban poor. In it Wilson suggests that government needs to develop a plan for economic reconstruction for U.S. cities. From 1987 to 1988, Wilson and his students gathered research data for a study called the Urban Poverty and Family Life Study .

In 1989 Wilson served as editor of The Ghetto Underclass: Social Science Perspectives for the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. This book challenges the political views of neoconservatives who had sought to claim Wilson as one of their own. In 1995 he published a comparative study of inequality in Europe and the United States.

Joins the “Dream Team” at Harvard

Wilson joined Harvard in 1996 following twenty-four years at the University of Chicago. When he arrived it was announced in major news publications that the professor who was heralded for his explorations of the study of inner cities was joining two other African American scholars, Henry Louis Gates and Cornell West. The first title Wilson held was the Malcolm Wiener professor of social policy. Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser university professor at Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government. He is a member of the Department of Afro-American Studies and director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at the Kennedy School. He is also professor of social policy and the Andrew D. White professor-at-large at Cornell.



Born in Derry Township, Pennsylvania on December 20

1958 Graduates from Wilberforce University

1958–60 Serves in the U.S. Army; earns Meritorious Service Award

1961 Earns M.A. from Bowling State University

1966 Earns Ph.D. from Washington State University

1975–96 Serves as professor of sociology, University of Chicago

1978 Publishes Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions

1987 Publishes The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy

1991 Elected to the National Academy of Sciences

1992 Inaugurates the Center for the Study of Urban Inequality at the University of Chicago

1994 First winner of the Frank E. Seidman Distinguished Award by someone who is not an economist

1994–98 President’s Commission on the National Medal of Science, National Science Foundation

1996 Publishes The Disappearance of Work: The World of the Urban Poor; selected by Time magazine as one of America’s twenty-five most influential people

1998 National Medal of Science recipient

1999 Publishes The Bridge Over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics

2002 Publishes Youth in Cities: A Cross-National Perspective , edited with Marta Tienda

During his first year at Harvard, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor was published. This book was selected by the New York Times Book Review as a notable book of 1996, and it was selected for the Sidney Hillman Foundation Award. It deals with unemployment of African Americans in inner cities and was read by many public figures, including President Clinton. It was described in Time magazine as a “profound and disturbing book.” In 1999, Wilson wrote The Bridge Over the Racial Divide , an analysis of the socioeconomics of race. In 2001, he joined Neil J. Smelser in editing America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences , a two-volume study of evidence of racial disparities prepared for President Bill Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race. For the Jacobs Foundation series on adolescence, he co-edited Youth in Cities: A Cross-National Perspective in 2002.

Awards and Honors

Wilson has received many honorary degrees and prestigious awards. One of his first awards was a Distinguished Teaching Award at the University of Massachusetts in 1970. While at the University of Chicago he was a MacArthur Prize Fellow from 1987 to 1992. In 1991 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, one of the highest honors granted to American academics, an award that is usually bestowed on natural scientists. In 1994, Wilson was the first recipient not in economics to receive the Seidman Award. When he was elected president of the 12,000-member American Sociology Association, he announced that sociology had not received the kind of nationwide attention it deserves. At the time of his election, he was only the second African American to hold that position. (The first was E. Franklin Frazier who was elected to the office in 1948.) Wilson was awarded the National Medal of Science Award in 1998, which has been described as the U.S. equivalent of the Nobel Prize. Wilson was only the second sociologist so honored. In 2002, Bowling Green State named him the President’s First Visiting Scholar in Ethnic Studies. In 2003 he was the recipient of the Talcott Parsons Prize in Social Sciences.

Wilson is widely read and quoted, appears frequently on television, and testifies before Congressional committees. His books have been translated into many different languages, and he has taught at prestigious institutions of higher learning in the United States and the École des Hautes Études in Sciences Sociales in Paris. He was listed by Time magazine as one of twenty-five most influential persons of 1996 in the United States.

Wilson’s scholarship has shaped the focus of articles by scholars, including Sandra Smith at the University of California/Berkeley and social scientist Alford Young. At a symposium held in 2003, participants, who were his former students of color, presented essays and discussed race and racism, urban poverty, and social inequality. In 2004, Frank Harold Wilson (no relation) wrote a biography entitled Race, Class, and the Postindustrial City: William Julius Wilson and the Promise of Sociology . This book discusses Wilson’s political theories on race relations.

Wilson has spent much of his career studying and lecturing about crime, poverty, the unemployed, and the underemployed in urban environments. He has studied conditions that lead to the spread of concentrated poverty. He is respected for taking the study of sociology out of the classroom and introducing its concepts to the public and political arena.

Wilson is one of eighteen Harvard professors to hold a university professorship, Harvard’s highest professorial distinction. He has conducted seminars for members of the Congressional Black Caucus, advised Mayor Harold Washington, and consulted with Mayor Richard M. Daley, senators Bill Bradley and Paul Simon, governor Mario Cuomo, and former President Bill Clinton. He serves on many boards, including the board of trustees of Wilberforce. He is married to Beverly Ann Huebner and is the father of Colleen, Lisa, Carter, and Paula.

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