William Julius Wilson is the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University. His article this issue is adapted from The Bridge Over the Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics.
I have long argued for a multiracial, national political coalition to press for public policies to address the common concerns of families of all racial and ethnic groups in an era of rising social inequality. But I believe just as firmly that an entirely race-neutral agenda would be a mistake. Policies that explicitly address race remain crucial to a progressive strategy and to the continuing quest for racial justice in America. However, in an era of widespread opposition to affirmative action as we know it, these policies need to be redesigned so that a broad coalition can support them.
The election of Ron Brown as the first black chairman of the Democratic National Committee triggered a new round of soul-searching among Democrats. Was the party committing political suicide by becoming too strongly identified with the aspirations of minority voters? Had America become so mired in racism that whites would desert the Democrats because blacks seemed to be running things?
When I assert that many white Americans have turned not against blacks, but against a strategy that emphasizes programs perceived to benefit only racial minorities, I do not have in mind those who support racist or white supremacist views. To be against a strategy that emphasizes programs narrowly targeted to minorities does not automatically make one a racist. The white Americans I have in mind are those who could be potential members in a progressive political coalition to fight inequality, especially if the coalition's policy agenda would reflect not only the important concerns and interests of racial minorities, but the real interests and concerns of these non-minorities as well.