Learn to build a world where everyone belongs. Take free classes at OBI University.   Start Now

This is an excerpt taken from this May 2022 webinar in which OBI Director john a. powell explains the concept of Targeted Universalism. This excerpt was originally published here.


john a. powell: What happened in terms of the application of equity: people started focusing on disparities. So, in practice, equity became closing disparities between groups. And so, the benchmark in terms of the goal was to get whatever the favored group has, or to close the gap between the less favored and more favored group.

That does a couple of things. First of all, it puts groups in competition. And because oftentimes the assumption is, in order to get there, we have to take from the more favored group and give to the less favored group.

In racial terms, that means oftentimes, taking from whites or white men and giving to women and people of color. And, not surprising, the favored group, or whatever is designated as the favored group, oftentimes objects. And part of the objection is they’re still holding onto the first concept of equality.

But secondly, oftentimes they’re not doing all that well themselves. Take, for example, the suicide rate. By some recent data, the suicide rate among white men is higher than [among] African Americans. There’s still a gap. The gap is, we need to have more Black men killing themselves in order to close that gap. Of course, no one wants that. That’s not what we want. The goal is not just to get what white men have, or white people have. And in some cases, they may not even be the favored group. The goal is to do what? The goal is to end suicide.

So, the goal should be designated without it being necessarily attached to what any particular group has. And that takes us to targeted universalism.

So targeted universalism says the goal is universal, is something we all want—what Gary [Cunningham] just laid out beautifully—and the strategy to get us there has to be targeted, because we’re situated differently. So, we’re not all in the same situation, but we are all trying to get to the universal goal.

So that’s the difference between targeted universalism and equity. Targeted universalism is Equity 2.0. It’s basically saying, we’re trying to get everybody what they need to thrive and prosper in our country. And yes, whites may be closer to that. And they may be closer to that for a number of reasons, including the history of slavery and Jim Crow.

But other times, they’re not there. And then when you disaggregate whites, you see whites are distributed. So, think about this. Let’s say we’re in a room. Gary and I are in a room, and a white person, and Bill Gates are in the room, or Elon Musk. The disparity in terms of wealth in that room racially is huge. But I dare say, if Bill Gates left, that disparity shrinks substantially.