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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2000, Vol. 3 No. 2 .


The Bridge Over The Racial Divide: Rising Inequality and Coalition Politics
William Julius Wilson

Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999
173pp. Index. Bibl. Hb.: $19.95/12.50; ISBN 0-5202-2226-1



To separate or cooperate, that is the question for ethnic groups, whether it's consociational power-sharing vs. integrative power-sharing or identity politics vs. interest politics. William Julius Wilson, a leading black public intellectual in the U.S. and close advisor to President Clinton, knows which is nobler, or at least more practical; the title tells it all in this short political tract aimed at the general, educated public.

Lower and middle-class citizens of all ethnicities (Wilson uses "races") in the U.S. have common interests in decreasing economic inequality, but ethnic antagonism has masked these similarities and protected the interests of the wealthy. Minorities see racism as a reason for their poor economic position while affirmative action leads lower-income whites to blame minorities for "stealing" jobs. Wilson suggests that both perspectives have some merit, but miss the bigger picture; the racial scapegoating by both sides deflects attention from the major impact of economic globalization on lower-skilled, less-educated workers of all ethnic groups.

But the identity politics currently prevalent in the U.S. magnifies differences and minimizes similarities. Wilson argues that the only way to battle the rising inequality resulting from the globalizing economy is to build a multi-ethnic coalition that focuses on shared interests across ethnic groups. The biggest potential stumbling block to such a coalition is affirmative action. African-Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of it, while whites, especially those with lower-incomes, disapprove by a large margin. Wilson has a dilemma. The logic of his argument suggests a class- (instead of race) based affirmative action, but would that get the key support from African-Americans?

Wilson gets out of the quagmire with a linguistic turn worthy of identity politics - change the name to "affirmative opportunity" and base it on "flexible, merit-based criteria". But this rhetorical flourish will unite, not divide, the races because "the concept draws the focus away from a guarantee of equal results, which is how affirmative action has come to be understood. It echoes the phrase equal opportunity, which connotes a principle that most Americans still support, while avoiding connotations now associated (fairly or not) with the idea of affirmative action - connotations such as quotas, lowering standards, and reverse discrimination (111)." But why won't the meaning of "affirmative opportunity" be manipulated by opponents of race-based policies by any name just as affirmative action has? I only hope that the shared first name gives Wilson's words, along with those of his coalition, as much power - and endurance - as the Bard's.


L. Kendall Palmer; University of North Carolina



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