Amidst escalating double-digit unemployment among blacks (almost twice that of whites), and a perception that too many of the Obama administration’s economic policies have benefited Wall Street rather than Main Street, reports suggest that the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) is becoming increasingly vocal about its impatience with the President’s policy priorities. The CBC insists that the administration do more to help the communities most impacted by the recession and the housing and credit crisis.

The President has defended the administration’s approach, arguing that he ‘must represent the entire community, not any one population, and the best way to help low-income communities is to improve the overall economy’: “I think it’s a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together,” President Obama said.

Note that President Obama does not reject helping the black community but insists that the best way and the most appropriate way is to focus on the overall economy. But what if a focus on the overall economy does not help the black community, or the Latino community, or the rural community or several sub-communities in the United States? I believe that President Obama would be concerned. What does America truly stand for if it fails to address the needs of these groups?

What President Obama is suggesting in his statement is that a universal approach will deliver fair support for everyone, including blacks and other sub groups. Unfortunately, there are a number of clear empirical examples which suggest that universal approaches almost never deliver equal benefit to marginal groups without some more deliberate focus. I call this universal approach a false universalism.

False universalism assumes that the targeted policies that address the needs of certain populations become at worst a divisive wedge, at best a distraction from addressing the needs of everyone. But truly, addressing the needs of those marginalized communities most impacted by the recession is no more a distraction than addressing the particular needs of rural areas or of women. An approach that is sensitive to the needs of particular communities ensures that everyone’s needs are being addressed.

False universalism also assumes that everyone benefits from universal approaches. But universal approaches that are not sensitive to the needs of the particular are never truly universal; they tend to have an uneven impact, and can even exacerbate racial inequality at times. Consider the Social Security Act, a quintessential universal program. Because unpaid household labor and exclusions for agricultural and domestic workers did not count towards Social Security earnings calculations, and because those calculations were based on contributions previously paid into the system, women, African-Americans, and the elderly were in large part excluded from the program’s benefits at its inception.

In fact, universal approaches are never truly universal. Universal approaches always begin with some assumption about what is universal, and this assumption tends to be most sensitive to the more favored group. Thus, the ‘universal’ for Social Security was the able-bodied, working white male. Consequently, universal approaches fail to account for the differential position of different groups in society by assuming that people are similarly situated.

Consider the impact of foreclosures. Foreclosures impact everyone by depressing nearby property values. However, the frequency of foreclosure has been geographically uneven. Certain communities have seen much steeper property value declines as a result of the scale of foreclosures and vacant properties. Moreover, there are cumulative effects that aren’t captured by the numbers. For example, the problem is not just the cumulative property value effects from foreclosures, but the attendant ills that accompany large-scale foreclosure and property abandonment, such as arson, vandalism, crime and increased policing costs. Addressing the housing crisis without addressing the ways in which these effects are uneven will fail to benefit everyone evenly.

Similarly, there is an assumption that because African-Americans are more likely to be unemployed or poor, the policies designed to create jobs will benefit them evenly or in proportion to their disadvantage. This is not always true. For example, whites and Latinos tend to dominate the construction industry. Stimulus monies designed to create construction jobs will not produce many jobs for African-Americans.

When the Congressional Black Caucus worry and voice their critical opinion of the administration, they are wary of universal strategies which would not adequately benefit the black community. They are suggesting that policies do not produce outcomes because they do not take the situational context of the black community into account. Having a universal goal of health care for all, or adequate employment, or foreclosure prevention, can only work if there is real acknowledgment of how different populations are situated.

There is hope; this type of targeted-universalism is something that this and other administrations have acknowledged in other contexts. We need to be universal in our goals but not in our process. This is what fairness requires. So the Black Caucus request should not be dismissed as only being concerned with blacks but should be heard as a larger message that asks for universal goals and targeted approaches. Anything short of this would not serve all Americans and would further delay building an inclusive more perfect union.

This blog post was also posted on the HuffingtonPost.

Comment