Targeting within a Targeted Universalism Framework

THE PREVIOUS SECTION of this primer outlined and described the steps by which a targeted universalism policy or program might be designed. Going through the work and moving all groups to the universal goal, will likely require a multiplicity and range of implementation strategies. Moreover, the universal goal reflects a collective aspiration, not simply the needs or demands of marginalized groups or those further off from the goal. 

The different needs, situatedness, and circumstances particular people confront does not resolve the question of how targeting occurs within a targeted universalism framework. This section is meant to clarify this crucial ambiguity. The targeted universalism framework seeks to support all people while also being sensitive and responsive to the extreme suffering some people experience. 

To begin, a targeted universalism process does not assume which groups are most marginalized or further off from the universal goal, but conducts an assessment in each case to determine this. In one situation or policy context, group A may be the most marginal. In another situation, it may be group B. The implementation strategies derived through the targeted universalism framework is inherently sensitive to these differences, without assuming who is most marginalized in any context or what they require to achieve the universal goal. 

Relatedly, while groups A and B may change places in terms of the most marginal depending on the situation or policy context, they may both be significantly marginalized relative to a more favored group, group C, or much better off than another marginalized group, group D, in a different context. Universalistic policies that are insensitive to group positionality within deep social and economic structures have a tendency to benefit dominant groups, exacerbating intergroup inequalities. In contrast, targeted efforts that focus on the most marginalized, without accounting for the needs of others, may make the targeted groups slightly or even significantly better off, but may be less politically sustainable. 

Moreover, a targeted universalism process does not presuppose how groups are defined either in terms of the assessment process or in developing implementation strategies. To underscore this, it rejects an essentialism that fixes a group in terms of situatedness, stratification and marginality, but also in terms of identity, which we regard as dynamic rather than static.45 In one context, a particular identity, such as a racial or ethnic identity, may be most salient both to the groups involved but also to explaining or understanding inter-group inequality. In another context, a religious or cultural identity may be more salient.

When groups are targeted through the targeted universalism framework, however, the group targeted isn’t a group with a single group identity, or even people who can be described with a number of different identities. In fact, the group of people who are benefited by a particular targeted strategy is more diverse than a single group. This is especially the case when a targeted strategy makes significant durable structural change. The targeted group can include people who have very different identities—either racial, religious, sexuality, gender, national origin, and other markers that can describe group identity. In this way targeted universalism moves beyond the identification of groups of people as categorically different—for example, Hispanic or Latino people, African American, and non-white Hispanic groups. These distinctions are inherited from a long history of racial formation in the United States and is a structural formation that solutions to belonging should exceed. Much of what we think of as a difference between groups and identity is a difference between situatedness in structures.46

In the end, a targeted universalism platform differs from a targeted policy approach in that no group is ignored. The goal is to get all groups to the explicitly articulated universal goal. So while there may be different implementation strategies developed for different groups, the framework supports the belonging of all groups, from the most dominant to the most marginalized. 

For example, instead of a targeted strategy that seeks to increase the enrollment of Black students into a university’s undergraduate student body, a targeted universalism strategy might seek to change the admissions criteria that disadvantage Black students in the admissions process. It could do this by de-emphasizing one criterion in favor of another, or reforming the committees that set or review applications. The Texas Ten Percent Plan is a good example of a statewide policy that promotes undergraduate student body diversity in spite of underlying patterns of interdistrict racial segregation.48 This policy automatically guarantees admissions to the University of Texas (UT) to every high school senior in the state graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class.49 In so doing, it changed the admissions criteria that UT considered. Even better, one implementation strategy derived from a targeted universalism framework might seek to reform primary and secondary education policies that disadvantage students of color in the university admissions process. 

This sensitivity, however, does not mean that targeted universalism implementation strategies must or even have a tendency to target groups. In fact, this is one of the most persistently misunderstood areas of targeted universalism. In general, targeted implementation strategies derived from a targeted universalism framework focus on structural change—in systems, structures, and institutions rather than people or groups as such.47 In this regard, targeted universalism is sensitive to all groups rather than targeting everyone. 

For example, instead of a targeted strategy that seeks to increase the enrollment of Black students into a university’s undergraduate student body, a targeted universalism strategy might seek to change the admissions criteria that disadvantage Black students in the admissions process. It could do this by de-emphasizing one criterion in favor of another, or reforming the committees that set or review applications. The Texas Ten Percent Plan is a good example of a statewide policy that promotes undergraduate student body diversity in spite of underlying patterns of interdistrict racial segregation.48 This policy automatically guarantees admissions to the University of Texas (UT) to every high school senior in the state graduating in the top 10 percent of their high school class.49 In so doing, it changed the admissions criteria that UT considered. Even better, one implementation strategy derived from a targeted universalism framework might seek to reform primary and secondary education policies that disadvantage students of color in the university admissions process. 

This is not a trivial point. The goal is to have structures and systems that advance all the groups to the universal goal. If an implementation strategy gets Black men to the goal but not Black women, it suggests that the strategy is not adequately serving Black women. For example, African American students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests. Black girls are 15 percent of the enrolled student population—37 percent of arrested students and 28 percent of girls who are referred to law enforcement. While Black girls and boys may share many of the same structural disadvantages, there are also gender differences that they do not share. Thus, a blanket strategy targeted to Black children may be inadequate to address the disparate gender dynamics, let alone additional dimensions of difference such as learning disabilities or special needs. Additional strategies are needed, as well as greater attention to the systems and structures themselves. 

We acknowledge that the driving force behind support for targeted universalism approaches may be to address incredibly unjust gaps in identity group outcomes—for example, college graduation rates by race or wealth inequalities by race and/or gender. But further in the process, when analyzing structural problems and barriers, strategic interventions that redesign institutional arrangements will affect many groups simultaneously. Although the primary target is the institutional arrangement or structures, in another sense, “targeted” groups are composed of individuals who are facing the same barriers and who are similarly situated relative to systems, structures, and culture. 

This is where coalition building can form. Other targeted strategies may benefit and serve a less diverse group of individuals—perhaps students who are almost entirely students of color. The idea is that targeted universalism allows for greater potential for building political and community power. It also enables a practicable movement that exceeds the erasure of difference through an appeal to “shared interests” in making all students safer and the way this can neglect the need for deliberate leadership and participation on creating, designing and implementing targeted strategies. 

People on the policy side of targeted universalism correctly say that targeted universalism reflects that “we are all connected.” And advocates and grassroots activists often focus on the ways different groups have radically different day-to-day experiences. Both of these are true, and targeted universalism bridges these two realities in a meaningful way that has the potential to build grounded applications of the very unique experiences of people who exist in a mixed state of multiple identities which makes their experiences quite exceptional relative to other people who face different relationships to similar systems, structures, and institutions.

This is an important part of targeted universalism. By going through the full process of articulating a universal goal and designing targeted universalism implementation strategies—not a single, onesize-fits-all implementation strategy—it becomes clear that many more people have a stake in these changes than the least well-off. In this way, broader coalition building can be realized and greater political will created. Ultimately, the practice and habit of thinking in broader coalitions can foment greater common concern for groups that are traditionally othered. 

We must again emphasize that setting a universal goal is a process that must be thoughtful and intentionally involve people who are traditionally excluded in decision-making and their “participation” should be accompanied by sharing decision-making power and acknowledgement of their expert knowledge. It’s different than what participation usually looks like where information is usually extracted from impacted groups without vesting any authority or meaningful influence in a process. The universal goal setting is such a process, one that has to be designed carefully and very differently than existing policy or decision-making processes. The universal goal may seem ambitious—more ambitious than one group or one policy can work toward realizing. However, articulating that ambitious goal and designing a specific implementation strategy to achieve that goal should be explicit.

There may not be immediate expressions of common concern and empathy between groups in this coalition. It may be necessary and appropriate for some coalition groups to take a greater lead than others—providing a directive and more vocal role in implementing and organizing changes. The coalition may exist simply out of intergroup concerns. However, the long-term goal of sustaining the coalition over time, of working together for immediate and longer-term changes that are included in the targeted universalism platform, can lead to greater affinity and concern across groups. Ultimately, building common concern is a long-term project and the necessary condition for transformative changes. 

And as transformative changes continue to pile up, greater conditions for this shared concern for different groups of people can build. For example, we must also consider what groups need to effectively participate to both articulate their aspirations and help identify dysfunctions within systems or structures that impeded progress toward the universal goal. How we take cognizance of group needs and aspirations is a critical part of establishing the universal goal. Working in the vein of targeted universalism promises to operationalize what is often an abstract goal to create alignment and coherence. Investing in the long-term goal of creating a world in which everyone belongs cannot be approached with individual fragmented efforts.

Step 4 in implementation of a targeted universal framework requires an assessment and understanding of structural barriers or system relationships that explain outcomes for different people facing different barriers. Step 5 requires the development of strategies that can help all groups realize the universal goal as one of affirmative inclusion. However, the targeting mechanism should focus on those structures that are inflicting great harm or failing to sustain groups in their pursuit of the universal goal. In fact, the targeted universal framework suggests that there are profound differences in the way people are treated, the advantages or disadvantages they face, and even the physical health and life span influenced by these circumstances—targeted universalism is not color-blind; it is not blind to these vast differences. 

Attending to group outcomes rather than groups may seem to be a semantic detail; however, it is essential to understanding why the goal is described as universal—a term that is frequently used to describe color-blind approaches or policies that do not respond to the unique ways people are situated. Focusing on group outcomes and structures—rather than groups themselves—also enables a flexible and comprehensive analysis that serves to improve outcomes for groups who suffer in different ways and experience different harms. 

Those individuals belonging to groups outside of the targeted group within any strategy devised through the targeted universalism process are not neglected. If a change strategy for a particular group, a targeted strategy, is advanced within the aspiration to reach a goal with universal appeal, those groups who do not necessarily benefit are not left out. The universal goal will be understood to apply to the targeted group while also being held out as a goal for other groups. In this way, while other groups may not be explicitly mentioned as a targeted strategy is advocated, universally appealing language will signal the outstanding work that remains to be done. It might be more accurate to say that all groups are targeted within targeted universalism, except that they are targeted differently. 

Dedication to advancing targeted strategies in a language that holds promise for all groups can invite other groups to complement the change agenda, or highlight targeted strategies that other resources could “pick up” in the cause of all groups reaching the goal. Targeted universalism can build coherence and alignment within long-term systemic change agendas to create belonging. 

When targeting a structure rather than merely focusing on a group or members of a group, targeted universal policies unlock transformative change potential that is often masked by either universal or targeted policies, even if well-intended or designed. 

Although targeted policies may sometimes contain structural or prophylactic measures, such as the ADA, a myopic focus on groups or members of those groups will inevitably elide the deeper forces that shape group outcomes in some respect. Targeted universalism does not suffer this deficiency. 

  • 45. There are studies to suggest that our identities are largely a result of our circumstance and not essential or independent. See: Anthony W. Marx, Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of South Africa, the United States, and Brazil (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  • 46. See: Iris Marion Young and Danielle S. Allen, Justice and the Politics of Difference, Paperback Reissue (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2011).
  • 47. There is, however, a complex relationship between structures and identity that is beyond the scope of this primer. Suffice to say, what is perceived as identity is often the result of different positionality within structures. That means that the distinction between targeted structures and targeting people may be, in some larger sense, a false dichotomy.
  • 48. http://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/sites/ default/files/amicus_brief_fisher_v_texas_social_and_organizational_psychologists_0.pdf
  • 49. Not technically a 10% plan, since the plan was subsequently capped at 75% of UT’s undergraduate body. In practice, it functions as a top 8 or 8.5% plan.