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Chancellor Katherine Newman worked with William Julius Wilson at Harvard University.
September 23, 2018

Scholar William Julius Wilson Gives Personal Reflections on Inequality at UMass Boston Convocation


  • Boston
Harvard professor noted scholar on race, class, and culture

William Julius Wilson lost his father, who worked in the coal mines of Western Pennsylvania and the steel mills of Pittsburgh, to lung disease when Wilson was 12. Both his father and his mother had a 10th grade education. They had six kids. Wilson was the oldest.

“Given my family background, a black family deeply mired in poverty, the odds that I would end up as a university professor at Harvard are one in a million,” Wilson told faculty, staff, and students assembled for UMass Boston’s convocation on Thursday.

During his convocation address, Wilson, the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor at Harvard University, attributed his success as a noted scholar and author on race, class, education, and poverty to being in the right place at the right time.

“It is unfair that some individuals are given every conceivable advantage, while others never really get the chance in the first place to develop their talent,” Wilson said to a round of applause. “There is an interaction of what we call structural and cultural forces which have devastating consequences for most of the individuals and communities in concentrated poverty, and only a few people like myself have been able to escape.”

A MacArthur Prize Fellow from 1987 to 1992, the now 82-year-old Wilson in 1998 became just the second sociologist to receive the National Medal of Science, the highest scientific honor bestowed in the United States. Television writer and producer David Simon has said Wilson helped inspire the second season of The Wire. Books about former presidents Clinton and Obama say both are Wilson admirers.

Wilson graduated from Wilberforce University, a historic black college, in 1958, and said he benefited from the emphasis on affirmative action in the 1970s. Wilson was an assistant professor of sociology at UMass Amherst before going to the University of Chicago, where he finished his first book, Power, Racism and Privilege: Race Relations in Theoretical and Sociohistorical Perspectives.

“In the early of 1970s, the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology was actively looking for a black sociologist to become a regular member of the faculty,” Wilson said.

“They realized that I had potential and rather than eliminating me early in the review process, they decided to let me complete my book to confirm that initial impression.

“When I reflect on all the developments in my long and successful career, I have to end by saying that it all happened because I was provided the opportunity to succeed -- place and context where I could fully develop and maximize my talents. In short, I am where I am today in large measure because of such unique experiences, which began when I enrolled at Wilberforce University in the mid-1950s -- being in the right place at the right time.”