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Editor's note: For a more recent article by professor john a. powell on the same topic published in response to the killing of George Floyd click here.


July 15, 2015
By john a. powell

At a recent training on implicit bias and targeted universalism that I was leading for a foundation and a number of its grantees in North Carolina, one of the speakers noted that while we were going to be focusing on implicit bias, it was important to note that explicit bias and structural bias continued to be very much alive in the United States and that all these expressions of bias were interconnected.

I could not agree more. These comments are an important reminder of the many faces of racism as we lay to rest this week the last of the victims of the mass killing at the Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. These killings were an overt act of terrorism designed to reassert white supremacy and to terrorize the black community.

As one Reverend reminded us, the perpetrator has been caught but not the killer.

The Charleston perpetrator chose the historic black church not just to kill nine innocent black people, but to send a message. And while his method was vicious and extreme, there are still many messages and symbols driven by the anxiety of the decline of white dominance and the growing population of those considered “other.”

Senator John McCain was honest enough to acknowledge that his support of the confederate flag, a symbol of white supremacy, was a crass political calculation to pursue votes and stoke the racial anxiety of whites. We know there are many elites who continue their careful parsing of the issues into coded messages about the racial Other for the gain of political support. They trade on the lives of blacks and others for political gain. This is an important subject to be explored in more depth, but for now I will refer readers to Ian Haney Lopez’s work in Dog Whistle Politics, Rick Perlstein’s work on the rise of the right wing, and the book Deeply Divided by McAdam and Kloos.

For this piece, I want to turn my attention to a question that came up after we finished the day’s training. An attendee asked an important question about the BlackLivesMatter movement and targeted universalism. She asserted that when she, as well as others she knew, proclaimed “Black Lives Matter,” that there is often a rejoinder from liberal whites to reject that phrase and instead insist upon and declare that “All Lives Matter.” She asked me how I would respond to this exchange from the perspective of targeted universalism.

Before sharing my answer, I will take a minute to talk about the concept of targeted universalism. In my teachings and writings, I have long asserted that we should be universal in our goals and aspirations, but targeted in our strategies based on our where we are situated in our structures, our cultures, and our environment. Too often our strategies are universal under the claim that we are treating all people and groups the same.

Consider if we are trying to get everyone from the first to the third floor. This is the universal goal. We may build an escalator to take people from the first to the third floor. The escalator is the structure. Now someone comes along in a wheelchair. The escalator does not work for her. She is situated both differently to the structure of the escalator as well as from those who can walk. The strategy that we might use for the group is, therefore, to build an elevator. Some could claim she is asking for something special–after all everyone else was ok with an escalator. But while an escalator and an elevator would both get everyone to the third floor, an elevator would take into account the different situation of someone in our group.

Two other quick examples. What if we want to raise everyone up, so we use the metaphor of the structure of a rising tide? It turns out that some folks may not have a boat and the rising tide does not raise them up but instead drowns them. Consider the universal goal of getting everyone out of New Orleans as the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina. The strategy was: get in your vehicle and drive to safety. But as it turned out many people, a disproportionate many of whom were African American, did not have cars. The universal strategy — safety for all — turned out to not be attainable for many.

Targeted universalism acts like the proverbial canary in the coal mine: drawing our attention to structures and how different groups are situated with the structures so that we can develop strategies and pathways to get all to the universal goal.

Back to the question of the lives that matter. The universal aspiration is a society where all lives matter. But if we just proclaim that and stop there, we are ignoring the reality in America. All lives do not matter in America and some of this difference is how whites and blacks are differently situated not only in our geographic and psychic structures, but also in relationship to police and other institutions. Blacks lives have been constrained and cut short.

When one replaces “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter,” one may be slipping into a false assumption that we are all similarly situated. We are not. As Justice Kennedy noted in the important housing decision last week from the Supreme Court, discrimination in our housing practice and in our unconscious prejudice remains a reality in America.

Some have cautioned that by saying Black Lives Matter, we are evidencing concern for blacks and no one else. This is apparently seen as being targeted without also stating the universal. There might be times when we choose to be universal without targeting, or targeting without being universal. But I would suggest that these times are rare and need to be done with some careful consideration.

So back to the question at hand. How would we apply targeted universalism in this situation? We might respond, All lives should matter — however, there are many expressions in our society that make it clear that black lives do not matter as much as whites.

It becomes especially problematic when people are aggressively killed solely because of their blackness. When we adopted the concept of a hate crime, we were acknowledging specific types of crime that, when attached to race or another group characteristic, are somehow different. As we mourn the loss of all lives lost, we must also recognize when someone is killed solely because of their group membership and the hurt is particularly painful as it is often intended to be for the entire group.

Of course it is a mistake to suggest that only black lives matter. And these questions may also lead us to ask: what about Latinos, Native Americans, the disabled community, our transgender brothers and sisters, and many other groups who are treated as Other in our society? These are legitimate questions and an approach from the lens of targeted universalism could help. But I will leave that for another blog. For now, I will just say the circle of human concern should have none outside the circle as evidenced by our words, our deeds, and our stories.

All lives should matter but in this America — from Ferguson to Charleston — we are constantly reminded that blacks lives have not mattered as much as whites lives. And by proclaiming our target of fully embracing that black lives matter, we come closer to our aspirations of a society where all lives matter.

john a. powell is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.