CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Seated in one of two offices he maintains on the Harvard University campus, William Julius Wilson points to the far wall and his framed citation for the 1998 National Medal of Science, only the second one given to a sociologist.
"When President Clinton introduced me, he proceeded to talk about my book 'The Truly Disadvantaged,' and all these national scientists saw that the president not only read my book but could talk about it and had been influenced by it," he says. Clinton knew the book so well he even mentioned the page count, 187.
As soon as he got back home, Wilson says, "I pulled the book off the shelf, and yeah, the book was 187 pages of text."
Sociologists rarely achieve fame beyond their peers, but Wilson's influence extends from the campus to the inner city to television to the White House. National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates has called him an intellectual deity, a "gawd." David Simon of "The Wire" has said Wilson helped inspire the second season of the HBO program set in Baltimore. Members of the Clinton and Obama administrations have cited his work and sought his advice.
Wilson, who turned 80 in December, spoke with The Associated Press about his decades of thinking and writing about race, class, education and poverty and about how his ideas run through today's news stories, whether on income inequality or the Black Lives Matter movement.
"We should be cognizant of the choices available to inner-city families and residents in high jobless inner-city black neighborhoods," he says, "because they live under constraints and face challenges that most people in the larger society do not experience, or can't even imagine."
Some of Wilson's books have become standards, notably "The Declining Significance of Race," ''The Truly Disadvantaged" and "When Works Disappears." Combining field work, historical research and ideas rooted in experience and scholarship, Wilson has shaped a clear narrative: Over the past 60 years, black neighborhoods have been devastated by the departure of the middle class, the elimination of manufacturing jobs, declines in wages and cuts in government support.
Income inequality among blacks, once relatively small, now surpasses the gap among whites. The poorest areas — what Wilson has called "extreme poverty" — suffer from a self-reinforcing absence of role models, networking opportunities, transportation and social and training skills. Affirmative action programs, he has written, are worthwhile, but only help those already in position to have a job.
"What's most overwhelming about urban poverty is that it's so difficult to escape," then-Sen. Barack Obama said in a 2007 speech widely believed influenced by Wilson's thinking. "If poverty is a disease that infects an entire community in the form of unemployment and violence, failing schools and broken homes, then we can't just treat those symptoms in isolation. We have to heal that entire community."
As president, Obama chose as his education secretary Arne Duncan, who says of Wilson: "He has influenced me more than anyone I could think of."
"Wilson virtually invented contemporary urban sociology and reinvigorated the study of the ghetto poor," says Michael Eric Dyson, the best-selling author and professor of sociology at Georgetown University. "Anybody who studies any aspect of the broad impact of race and class, and the topography of black and urban culture, is in his debt."
And Wilson's research continues. He is an energetic man with a remarkably unlined face and youthful, wiry build who credits genes (his mother lived into her 90s), diet and exercise — 10 hours a week. A recipient of dozens of honorary doctorates, he is busy with one of his most ambitious studies, "Multidimensional Inequality in the 21st Century," a research project on poverty covering everything from the labor market to criminal justice.
Born in Derry Township, Pennsylvania, he was one of six children sharing a single room. His father was a coal miner and steel mill worker who died of lung cancer when Wilson was 12. His mother supported the family, as best she could, by working as a housekeeper. He credits an aunt in New York with exposing him to books and culture and giving him the confidence to seek a college education.
Wilson was among the first generation of black scholars to benefit from the civil rights legislation of the 1960s — "right place, right time," he says — breaking into a field once almost exclusively white. He first joined the faculty of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and was recruited in the early 1970s by the University of Chicago, where he rose to national fame and remained until joining Harvard in 1996. He is now a University Professor, Harvard's highest ranking.
With Republicans holding majorities in Congress, Wilson said he has little hope that the lives of poor blacks will improve in the near future, but he does not want to "wallow in pessimism." Asked what programs he would like to see implemented, regardless of their likelihood, Wilson says that he'd like to see a substantial expansion of Neighborhood Promise funding and believes more solutions will arise from his "Multidimensional Inequality" project.
"One of the things that the Harvard researchers who are involved in this project have in common is that we all want our research to have some impact outside academia," he says. "We don't want to simply engage other academics."