Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry


Kenneth W. Warren

My initial impulse upon reading Anmol Chadda and William J. Wilson’s rejoinder to my brief essay, “On ‘The Wire and Sociology’” was to do nothing.  After all, it seemed—and still seems—clear to me that any reasonably attentive reader would readily see that all Chaddha and Wilson had done in responding to my critique of ‘Way Down in the Hole’: Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire,” was to repeat claims from their first paper, fling a series of insults in my direction, and dismiss, as “irresponsible” and “ludicrous” my contention that Wilson’s work had something to do with the very conditions that their paper and The Wire, deplore—despite the fact that their own essay all but connects the dots in support of my argument.

            I will, in a moment, spell out that argument, but I need, first, to explain what led me to set aside my initial reluctance to say anything more about this.  In being invited to write for this issue, I was told by Critical Inquiry that it had decided to publish Chaddha and Wilson’s piece in part because it offers “information that will not be familiar to most humanists.”  I mention this because Chaddha and Wilson seem to count on the relative unfamiliarity of this information to the CI audience in contending that it is irresponsible of me to say that Wilson’s work, particularly The Truly Disadvantaged, has had anything to do with the dislocation and dispersal of the urban poor.  As they put it, it is a “misrepresentation” to “directly [associate] Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged (1987) with the policies that resulted in the dislocation of the poor following the destruction of public housing projects,” and to claim that “Wilson’s sociology is part of the process of dislocation generated by real estate developers is not only irresponsible but also ludicrous.”  In truth, however, it is impossible to see how one can come to any other conclusion.

To illustrate further, let me begin by quoting extensively from Wilson and Chaddha’s first essay:


The demolition of public housing projects was supported by federal assistance, including the HOPE VI program that replaced the buildings with mixed-income developments. Local officials typically promoted the demolition of housing projects by highlighting the problems of concentrated poverty and the need to improve conditions for poor residents. Indeed, in the opening scene of the third season of The Wire, the mayor of Baltimore addresses residents and the media just before the high-rise projects are demolished. With local developers at his side, he emphasizes the detrimental social conditions of poor families as the basis for tearing down the buildings.


Understood in the context of the pressures on local governments to generate sufficient revenue after the federal disinvestment from cities, the demolition of public housing projects was linked to urban economic development strategies. Many of the buildings were located near redeveloped downtown areas, which could attract middle-class residents who, unlike public housing residents, would pay property taxes on market-rate housing. In Chicago, for example, the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects were located less than one mile from downtown; they were demolished and replaced with mixed-income housing. Considering that many former residents of public housing in cities like Baltimore, Chicago, St. Louis, and Atlanta had not been relocated to other areas several years after their public housing projects were demolished, they were apt to question whether the discourse of deconcentrating poverty had been cynically employed to promote high-end real estate development instead.


Unless I’m mistaken, what Wilson and Chaddha describe here is the way that politicians, public officials, and real estate developers used programs like HOPE VI and the discourse of deconcentration that underwrote these programs to demolish public housing, oftentimes to make way for high-end development.   And what does HOPE VI have to do with Wilson and The Truly Disadvantaged?  Well, I thought from the paragraphs above the connection was obvious, but apparently Chaddha and Wilson disagree. So, perhaps it might help to have a scholar sympathetic to Wilson’s work make the case for me.  Xavier De Sousa Briggs, writing in a 2008 issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs (which is part of a heated exchange among scholars about the effects of deconcentrating and dispersing the poor and is worth a read) invokes Wilson in the following terms:


Sociologist William Julius Wilson, whose landmark book, The Truly Disadvantaged (1987), helped generate major media and policy attention, after the late 1980s, to the extreme spatial concentration of poverty, crime, unemployment, and related problems in inner-city minority neighborhoods—attention that made it possible to launch a small but important housing experiment called Moving to Opportunity (MTO), as well as the much larger HOPE VI program to redevelop distressed public housing into mixed-income developments.[1]


Likewise in a recent volume, Henry G. Cisneros, who served as President Bill Clinton’s Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, credits Wilson’s notion of “concentration effects” in The Truly Disadvantaged as having created the reform context that led Cisneros to orient urban policy housing around the “rise of concentrated poverty and its racial composition.”[2]   In that same volume, Alexander Polikoff asserts a causal relation between The Truly Disadvantaged and HOPE VI, and notes, “Deconcentration made its first statutory appearance in a 1996 HOPE VI appropriations bill that set a goal of building replacement housing ‘which will avoid or lessen concentration of very low-income families.’”[3]

            Although Wilson and Chaddha identify HOPE VI as “a centerpiece of Clinton’s urban policy” that “was implemented in partnership with local governments,” nowhere do they acknowledge that sitting somewhere on this centerpiece was Wilson’s work.  Their reticence on this point is hard to explain, given policy makers’ frequent recourse to Wilson’s arguments, and given that an acknowledgement of this fact on Wilson’s part would neither imply nor constitute an admission that Wilson endorsed HOPE VI (which was not my claim, although it would be useful to know which aspects of that program Wilson believes reflected his social analysis and which represented a distortion of it).  It is however, undeniable that acknowledging the connection between The Truly Disadvantaged and HOPE VI would require that Wilson and Chaddha admit the truth of my observation that “federal and local officials sought to deconcentrate poverty not only because they felt it was in their best interests to do so, but also because sociologists like Wilson had presumably demonstrated that it was in the best interests of the poor to do so.”

            However, rather than admit what is patently undeniable, Wilson and Chaddha up the ante of my observation by alleging that I charge Wilson’s work with implying or recommending involuntary displacement of poor black public housing residents.  Against this presumed allegation they assert that Wilson’s “argument about the structural (political and economic) causes of concentrated poverty does not imply that these neighborhoods should be deconcentrated by displacing poor residents” and that, “Nowhere does Wilson suggest the forced relocation of the urban poor from housing projects or other centers of concentrated poverty as a policy option.”   Of course, since my response to their article nowhere makes these charges (to say that Wilson’s work played a role in the dislocation of the urban poor is not tantamount to saying that Wilson either implied or argued for “forced relocation”), I found myself wondering why he and Chaddha felt compelled to mount this defense.  Lo and behold I discovered (without a great deal of effort) that even among scholars and policy advisers who interpret Wilson’s work favorably are those who conclude that a dispersal of the poor for their own good is the only logical policy implication that can be derived from Wilson’s work.

            For example, in 2002, Polikoff, whom I quoted above, defended the demolition of public housing, even at a moment when there was a demonstrable shortage of affordable housing for the poor, by citing Wilson’s work prominently:


The research of Harvard’s William Julius Wilson and other scholars has demonstrated conclusively that concentrated poverty environments blight the lives of most residents. It cannot be sound public policy to perpetuate through physical rehabilitation the gang-controlled, drug-infested conditions of our public housing high-rise enclaves. If as a society we are forced to choose between perpetuating such conditions through rehabilitation, or tearing down our high-rises at the cost of a reduction in available public housing units, I believe we are making the correct, albeit painful choice.[4]


Even more to the point, in a 2003 email to Professor William Quigley at the Loyola School of Law in New Orleans and to various editors of the New Orleans Time-Picayune, M. Pres Kabakoff, CEO of HRI Development in New Orleans, directly credits Wilson’s The Truly Disadvantaged for shaping his support for dispersing public housing residents.  Kabakoff writes:


My emphasis on illuminating the destructive impact of the social, economic and physical isolation experienced by those living in public housing by dispersing the residents utilizing section 8 vouchers to neighborhoods with a connection to the American mainstream comes from my review and understanding of the scholarly research on the subject.

            While serving on the Public School Board in the early 80's and researching issues facing "at risk" children I came upon the seminal work of William Julius Wilson "The Truly Disadvantaged."[5]


More recently, Herbert J. Gans (who lauds Wilson for having jettisoned the term “underclass” when it became subject to misuse by policy makers) describes HOPE VI as the “primary involuntary program” that has “brought about the destruction of ‘distressed’ public housing projects all over the country.”[6]  With this in mind, Chaddha and Wilson’s reticence about the relationship between The Truly Disadvantaged and HOPE VI becomes more understandable and more deplorable.  If HOPE VI led to the involuntary dispersal of urban poor, and Wilson’s scholarship was used to justify HOPE VI, then the displacement of the black poor as depicted in The Wire does have something to do with the deployment of (even if the misappropriation of) some of Wilson’s key concepts. Of course, scholars cannot be held responsible for all of the ways in which their work is used, and I did take pains in my initial essay to include careful qualifications regarding this matter.  But the following observation by Gans is worth noting:


Hope VI and the nationwide destruction of public housing it undertook was publicly justified in part as a reduction of concentrated poverty. Whether the concept led to the federal policy or was brought in afterward to justify the policy is an empirical question that ought to be addressed by urban historians. Nonetheless, social scientists had invented the idea of concentrated poverty, and they should have criticized its use in policy making.[7]


Rather than acknowledge the importance of sorting out these issues, Wilson and Chaddha instead pretend that one can understand what has happened to urban policy over this period without giving some attention to the way that Wilson’s sociology has been interpreted, appropriated, deployed, and possibly misused by those who made and enacted the policies that have affected so dramatically the lives of public housing residents over the last quarter of a century.  It isn’t enough for them to note, as they do in a curious circumlocution in their first essay, that displaced public housing residents were “apt to question whether the discourse of deconcentrating poverty had been cynically employed to promote high-end real estate development.”  None of the people quoted above appear to be acting cynically.   In fact, Patrick Jagoda’s essay, which they claim to endorse as a supplement to their argument, asserts a networked view of social relationships that would not permit them to account for the broader effects of Wilson’s scholarship by merely resorting to a list of other things Wilson has said and written.

            Perhaps I should have developed these points further in my essay, but as I have already said, some of this struck me as so obvious that further elaboration would not be required.  It might be worth mentioning, though, that at the copyediting stage, before I was aware of Chaddha and Wilson’s response, I submitted a slight change that included the above quote by De Souza Briggs, but was told that Chaddha and Wilson had already written a rejoinder and therefore it wouldn’t be right to “surprise” them with any “new material.”  In fairness to them I didn’t push the matter, but I also noted in my email to CI that if Wilson wished to “contend that his arguments had nothing to do with Hope VI” it would be “a howler.” Clearly I overestimated him.

My essay as published withstands any charge of “shoddy scholarship,” but it would have been a disservice to readers of CI not to make clear that all of the shoddiness and disingenuousness here lies with Wilson and Chaddha.




[1] Xavier de Souza Briggs, “Maximum Feasible Misdirection: A Reply to Imbroscio,”Journal of Urban Affairs 30.2 (2003):  132.

[2] Henry G. Cisneros and Lora Engdahl, eds. From Despair to Hope: Hope VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America's Cities (Brookings Institution Press, 2009), p. 14. 

[3] Alexander Polikoff, “Hope VI and the Deconcentration of Poverty,” in Cisneros and Engdahl, From Despair to Hope: Hope VI and the New Promise of Public Housing in America's Cities, (pp. 63,64).

[4] Alexander Polikoff, “To Demolish or Rehabilitate,” Institute for Policy Research News, 24.1 (Fall 2002) [url=][/url]

[5] For reference to this email see, Adolph Reed, Jr., “Three Tremés,”, 4 July 2011, [url=][/url]

[6] Herbert J. Gans, “Concentrated Poverty: A Critical Analysis,” Challenge 53.3 (May/June 2010), p. 94.  Not so incidentally, in this essay Gans also notes, “The notion of concentrated poverty contains enough shortcomings that its adoption and use by social scientists, particularly as a causal concept, is hard to understand.

“First, there is no persuasive empirical evidence to suggest that the level of concentration of poor people in a particular neighborhood causes their poverty-related problems and the behavior patterns that upset the larger community.” (p. 85)

[7] Ibid.  94-95.