As described in the last post, Professor john powell gave a webinar recently through our colleagues at the Leadership Learning Community. In the webinar, a recording of which is available on line, powell talked about how systems thinking and a structural lens can inform our work for racial justice and deepen our understanding of racial disparities.
In the last post we looked at his example of the GI Bill as a supposedly generally beneficial policy that actually exacerbated inequality by being implemented in a system where access (to the military in this case) was limited or nonexistent for some groups.
In an article powell describes a similar example, the Interstate Highway Act:
it is possible, even likely, that universal programs will exacerbate existing inequalities. Some universal programs were designed to benefit whites more than non-whites, but let us consider programs where this was not the clear design. Defined as one of this country’s greatest accomplishments, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 used federal dollars to subsidize the creation of the suburbs. This was the largest public works project in American history at the time. It gave impetus to waves of migrating middle- and upper-class families to abandon the central cities for the suburbs. At the same time, many downtown regions were surrounded or demolished by massive highway construction, and the revenue generated by these projects did not return to the communities that were losing their churches, schools, and homes. As one author put it, “[h]ighways made suburban housing available on one end while destroying urban housing on the other.” The ensuing arrangement of racially isolated urban dwellers and equally racially isolated suburban residents, hastened by the white flight that followed Brown v. Board of Education’s integration mandate the same year, is a pattern we live with today. Simply put, ostensibly universal programs have no less potential to exacerbate inequality than to ameliorate it. Treating people who are situated differently as if they were the same can result in much greater inequities.
His solution? Targeted Universalism. In its simplest definition, targeted universalism alters the usual approach of universal strategies (policies that make no distinctions among citizens’ status, such as universal health care) to achieve universal goals (improved health), and instead suggests we use targeted strategies to reach universal goals. Targeted strategies in universal health care would look at access, because if poor communities of color don’t have access to decent health care (lack of facilities or medical staff in their neighborhoods, lack of consistent quality care – both likely to be true), then insurance not only won’t help that much, but the increased demand in the suburbs resulting from universal insurance could actually reduce access and quality of care.
A targeted universal strategy is one that is inclusive of the needs of both the dominant and the marginal groups, but pays particular attention to the situation of the marginal group. For example, if the goal were to open up housing opportunity for low-income whites and non-whites, one would look at the different constraints for each group. Targeted universalism rejects a blanket universal which is likely to be indifferent to the reality that different groups are situated differently relative to the institutions and resources of society. It also rejects the claim of formal equality that would treat all people the same as a way of denying difference. Any proposal would be evaluated by the outcome, not just the intent. While the effort would be universal for the poor, it would be especially sensitive to the most marginal groups.