To follow the career of William Julius Wilson is to trace the evolution of the national conversation on race and class in America over the past half century.
That was the overarching theme of the first full day of a three-day symposium celebrating the career of the Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor Emeritus at the Knafel Center on Thursday.
“One of the great functions of the University is to be a loving critic of society and of our country. Few people on our faculty have done that better,” said Harvard President Larry Bacow of Wilson, a MacArthur Prize Fellow who joined the Harvard faculty in 1996. “You have held a mirror up to our society. You have asked the toughest questions. You have challenged us as a nation, as a society, as a community to be better.”
Bacow joined Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Claudine Gay and Dean of Social Science Lawrence D. Bobo in praising the eminent sociologist before a capacity crowd.
The Thursday-morning program began with a panel on “Race Relations/Inequality in Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” chaired by Mary C. Waters, the John L. Loeb Professor of Sociology. Panelists began with tributes and personal stories before engaging in a discussion of Wilson’s work.
Jennifer Hochschild, the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and professor of African and African American studies, tackled the questions raised in Wilson’s 1978 book, “The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institution.” Looking at the book’s central assumption, Hochschild focused on context, asking, “Compared to what?”