This essay was co-authored by UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute Director john powell.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd last summer, there appeared to be a moment of new consensus – a crystallization in public understanding of the reality of systemic racism and the political will to do something about it. Surveys showed record percentages of Americans supporting the ensuing protests and Black Lives Matter movement. A Monmouth University poll found that 76 percent of Americans consider racism and discrimination a “big problem,” up 26 points from 2015, and a similar number found the protests to be either fully or somewhat justified.
Some observers claimed that the 2020 Black Lives Matter demonstrations were the largest mass protest movement in American history, extending into hundreds of heavily white counties and communities, far beyond the spate of uprisings in 1967. Little wonder pundits and media organizations labeled the moment “a national reckoning on race.” Op-ed column headlines by high-profile race scholars hopefully declared “America, This is Your Chance” and “Is this the Beginning of the End of American Racism?”
Local governments initiated unprecedented reforms and top-tier candidates for the presidency were speaking unabashedly about racial inequality and offering bold policy proposals. In his campaign for the presidency, Joe Biden declared “root[ing] out systemic racism in this country” as one of his top priorities, a pledge he reiterated in his acceptance speech.
With a new Congress and President, the federal government will once again become the focus of advocacy and attention for advancing a racial equity agenda. The question before us is simple yet profound: What can the new Congress and Biden administration do? Perhaps more importantly, what should be done?
There is hardly a dearth of plans, proposals, policies, priorities, recommendations and demands to draw from. If anything, the problem is the opposite: structural racism touches so many aspects of contemporary life that you can find reasonable recommendations and actionable ideas for nearly any arena, from health care to housing, to education, to the criminal justice system, and so on.
The more difficult part is prioritizing among them and determining the shape that a policy initiative might take. In some circles, for example, “reform” has become a dirty word, associated with incrementalism and insufficient political courage, or worse.
Undergirding any proposal or attempt to prioritize among them are assumptions, and often sharp disagreements, about the best path forward. Beyond the “reform v. abolition” debate, there is also discussion on whether to pursue an agenda that is primarily race-targeted or a set of universal policies that would benefit racially-marginalized communities, whether to emphasize race or lead with class (economic inequality), and whether race-targeted policies need to be race-specific or merely race-conscious.
On the question of race versus class, op-ed columnist Jamelle Bouie captured the spirit of the debate in a column entitled “Beyond White Fragility,” arguing that the fight for racial justice must also be a struggle for economic justice, harkening back to the Reconstruction era to not simply eliminate the vestiges of slavery, but to create a more economically inclusive society.
This is consistent with the recommendations of a range of prominent Black economists, such as Lisa Cook’s “Hamilton Project Proposal,” Derrick Hamilton’s Postal Banking plan or Federal Jobs Guarantee, or Hamilton and William “Sandy” Darity Jr’s “Baby Bonds” proposal, which would give every American a government-backed savings account at birth. These policies are universal but advanced with a recognition that they would help reduce the racial wealth gap.
This is not to say that these scholars recommend only universal programs. On the contrary, Sandy Darity is one of the nation’s leading scholars on reparations and has written a book making the case and outlining the form it might take, which includes a proviso that a reparations check only be granted to a person who has identified as Black in the preceding ten years. But there are scholars and politicians who deliberately shy away from race-specific or race-targeted policy ideas and lean more towards universal approaches.
Barack Obama, for example, self-consciously embodied this approach. Foreshadowing the Affordable Care Act, Obama explained in The Audacity of Hope that “a plan for universal health-care coverage would do more to eliminate health disparities between whites and minorities than any race-specific programs we might design.” Whether this assertion is technically true or not, it probably is true that a universal policy is an easier political lift than a race-targeted approach, as he further argued there.
Scarred by the collapse of the coalition that supported Harold Washington as mayor of Chicago, Obama reflected in his latest book, A Promised Land, that he saw firsthand how a “political campaign based on racial redress, no matter how reasonable, generated fear and backlash that ultimately placed a limit on progress.” Keenly aware of the power of demagogues like Donald Trump or simply cunning politicians like Richard Nixon, who actively mined white resentment, Barack Obama strived assiduously to avoid providing them fuel. Whether he succeeded or not is debatable, but he makes “no apologies for de-emphasizing any topic that might be labeled a racial grievance.”
And while it is true that, as a candidate and ultimately as president, Barack Obama emphasized national unity and foregrounded universal policies, he quietly chose among them on race-conscious grounds (with an awareness of potential impacts), oversaw executive branch policies that sought to promote racial diversity, and ultimately adopted or endorsed limited race-targeted measures, such as the “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative.
Nonetheless, Obama clearly preferred universal policies (even if race-conscious) over race-targeted ones, fearing that they may be achievable in the short-run if the “costs to whites aren’t too high, but they can’t serve as the basis for the kinds of sustained, broad-based political coalitions needed to transform America.”
Unsurprisingly, Obama’s approach has been widely criticized, along with his dismissal of “defunding the police.” As the journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote on Twitter (in a now-deleted post), “You can’t use race-neutral policies to fix race-specific harms.” As she explained, universal policies can reduce racial disparities, but they also maintain them. Other scholars have developed arguments demonstrating how well-intended universal economic policies can exacerbate racial disparities, citing New Deal programs as a case-in-point.
One relatively recent eruption from this debate was the cancellation of a Black Marxist scholar’s presentation at a local DSA chapter in New York City. The invited presenter, Adolph Reed Jr., was planning to argue that the chapter should de-emphasize racial disparities, especially as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. His argument is that emphasizing racial disparities risks playing into a right-wing divide-and-conquer strategy and that a better approach, much like Obama’s, would be to emphasize issues of broad or common concern. Issues such as wealth inequality, police brutality and mass incarceration, which affect not only Black and Brown Americans, but also large numbers of working-class and poor white Americans. From that place, Reed suggests that it is easier to build the coalition capable of tackling these enormous problems. His fear is that leading with race undermines the potential strength of that coalition.
Even on the communicative or expressive facet of the debate, other scholars dispute the role that race-specificity has in diminishing or dividing a potential coalition. They argue that leading with race can galvanize young people of color who might be less responsive to a colorblind message. Furthermore, they argue that it misunderstands the goal and the path to racial equity. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a professor of African-American studies at Princeton University in New Jersey, explained, “we want to win white people to an understanding of how their racism has fundamentally distorted the lives of Black people,” not paper over race to avoid potentially alienating them.
Although some of these disagreements are matters of strategic framing, narrative, and public discourse, there are also analytical disagreements on the role of race at play as well. Some arguments on behalf of race-neutral universal policies implicitly, and sometimes explicitly (as is the case with some Marxists), assert that racial inequities are derivative of economic or class issues, and therefore if we address the economic inequality, the race problems would also be solved. Even more pointedly, some argue that focusing on race splits the coalition between whites and people of color, leaving both the economic and racial issue unaddressed.
Toure Reed, a Black historian, for example, has argued in his book Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism that “identity politics,” and race in particular, have been used by liberals to stymie or deflect redistributive class-based policies which might upset the donor class of the Democratic Party without solving racial or economic inequality. Flipping the critique of universal policies on its head, Toure Reed counters that race-specific policies like affirmative action and anti-discrimination laws have also failed to eliminate racial disparities. Rejecting the language of a “national reckoning,” Reed fears that a moral framing is ill-equipped to advance a bold policy agenda over one that is replete with “modest reforms at best and symbolic gestures at worst, when what we need is fundamental structural change.”
As is evident, these debates are not new, but they have acquired greater urgency and intensity in light of the sky-high expectations and aspirations for change in this moment. Unfortunately, these debates have produced more heat than light. This is because they are based, in part, on faulty binaries and a misunderstanding of race and class, race-consciousness and race-neutrality, and the alternatives to targeted and universal policy-making.
To begin resolving them and chart a path forward, we must first recognize that there has never been a racial justice agenda that is entirely race-specific, race-targeted, or universal. Every racial justice movement has called for a mixture both universal and race-targeted policies.
Consider, for starters, the Movement for Black Lives platform. It calls for reparations and decries the profiling of Black youth, two race-specific proposals. But a much larger part of the platform, including abolishing the death penalty, ending cash bail, reforming pre-trial detention, ending the war on drugs, and “banning the box” of using past criminal history are universal, even if they are race-conscious, developed with an acute awareness of the disproportionate racial impacts of these policies. These policies would address problems experienced by people of all races.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s produced a similar mixture of demands and policy achievements. Although anti-discrimination legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968 each contained specific protections for people of color, there were also clearly universal or economic policies adopted. One of the signal legislative achievements of the movement, the 24th Amendment to the US Constitution, was clearly a race-conscious measure, designed to thwart decades of disenfranchisement in the Jim Crow south. Yet, after considerable debate, the final measure was framed in unmistakable universal terms rather than race-specific terms. It prohibited poll taxes regardless of race rather than more narrowly prohibit the use of this mechanism as applied to Black voters.
Similarly, one of the pillars of the Civil Rights movement, the Southern Leadership Conference, under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., launched the “Poor People’s Campaign” in 1968, whose centerpiece was a set of economic demands at the same time that King led the sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis up until his assassination. It is also not a coincidence that the War on Poverty was launched in the middle of the Civil Rights movement.
Similar admixtures can be found in nineteenth-century movements for racial justice. Antebellum abolitionists not only called for immediate emancipation, but also social, political, and economic freedom and equality, embodied in voting rights, land redistribution (resulting in Sherman’s Special Field Order 15), and anti-discrimination laws. The post-Civil War Freedman’s Bureau was a welter of race-specific and economic programs, but the three Reconstruction Amendments, the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution and the various Force Acts were generally framed in universal terms, even though their unmistakable purpose was to protect emancipated people their descendants.
Even the simple distinction between economic and race-based policy proposals begins to break down upon closer inspection. Some policies do not neatly fall into a strict race vs. economics binary. Reparations may be both a racial justice and economic justice policy. Nor are all universal or race-neutral policies economic in nature, as the poll tax amendment illustrates. Similarly, the Texas Ten Percent Plan, which was adopted after the University of Texas’ affirmative action policy was struck down, is both race-conscious and universal. It was designed with the goal of promoting student body racial diversity, but it does not target individuals on the basis of their race. Rather, the plan classifies individuals on the basis of class ranking.
The obsessive insistence in some quarters on class-based economic policies, as opposed to race-specific policies or vice versa, is fallacious. We need a multiplicity of approaches and diversity of implementation strategies if we are to achieve our ultimate goal of racial equity.
But part of the fallacy lies in a deeper misunderstanding of both race and class. Even as we struggle to address racial inequality and more particularly racism in the United States, we remain conflicted and even confused as to what we mean. Racism is a practice, a verb, that is constantly changing and being contested, as the evolution of institutional and systemic racism as distinguished from interpersonal racism illustrates.
We have written before on how race and racism help give shape to class in the United States and how class historically and at present is used not only to distribute resources in a racialized manner, but also gives meaning and shape to racial identities. Class in the United States has a very different meaning than it does in Europe, and certainly means something different than the relationship to the means of productions, as was understood in some strains of Marxist thought.
As some have asserted, in the United States class, and one might also say race, is largely about being (or identity) and not just about what we have. This helps to explain why the interest associated with class can only do limited work. Interest is a different valence than identity, and why there has never been a broad-based class movement in the United States, even though there have been many other social movements. Race clearly plays a role independent of class, or else it would have no explanatory value.
We should be concerned with strategies and policies that divide, and of course, we want to be careful to focus on the right problem, even if it is masquerading as something else. But we would assert a more nuanced understanding of race and anti-Black racism requires an understanding of the economic reality and institutions and structures that impact us all. In other words, racism, including anti-Black racism, is not just about Black people nor even just about people of color. It is also about structures, culture and indeed American ideals.
Similarly, the economy, how we make and distribute resources in society, is not just about money or income. It encompasses institutions, regulations and law, networks, status, and social capital. Deeply structured economic inequality cannot be fully addressed in the US without understanding how race and racism has shaped our political economy. The assumption that white workers by and large care about the economy and Black people mostly care about racism and not the economy is misguided at best.
Even the heatedly debated differences between “reformism” and “abolitionism” in relation to policing may be slightly overstated. Consider the “8 to abolition” (a response to the much-maligned “8 that can’t wait”) policies. When you dig into the specifics, many of the recommendations, such as ending “broken windows” policing, easing access to police disciplinary records, eliminating cash bail, and ending zero-tolerance school discipline policies, to take but a few, are all policy ideas that can be found in many “reformist” publications such as the Ferguson Commission Report and the Department of Justice’s Ferguson and Baltimore Reports. Undoubtedly, there remain differences, but there is also significant overlap.
One of the ways to cut through these dualisms and areas of disagreement is by finding common ground in ultimate goals. Although the abolition movement sets as an objective the abolition of policing and prisons as we know them, it shares the ultimate goal with the reform movements of creating safe and healthy communities free of racialized disparities and inequities. Given the significant overlap in both ultimate goals and specific policy prescriptions, there is much that can be accomplished before arriving at areas of deep disagreement.
Along similar lines, our colleague at the Institute Ian Haney Lopez recently put out a book advocating for a fusion between race and class approaches that is deliberate in pointing to the disparities between the experiences and outcomes of racial groups while emphasizing that the fates of all groups are inextricably linked. Only then, he argues, can we understand racism as a tool by the elites to divide us, and that people of all races could fare better, economically and socially, if we bind together.
A focus on goals can also be used to bridge the divide between universal and targeted policies. We call this “targeted universalism.” This is an approach that sets universal goals, but then designs targeted implementation strategies to achieve these goals. The universal goals are things that all communities need. They are core capabilities and essential needs, such as literacy, education, shelter, health care, or the ability to participate in the community. But the strategies need to be targeted based on how groups are situated in relation to the universal goals and the culture we live.
At the core of our approach is a simple concept: We acknowledge the reality that racism is deeply rooted in society and needs to be named, but our policies need to go beyond addressing the harms experienced by a single group. They need to uplift everyone in society.
To be clear: We do not recommend the adoption of superficially universal goals, which may be only universal in name, while ignoring how marginalized groups are situated. Black people are situated differently than whites as a group in relation to the economy and to the virus. To deny this is to ignore the specific harms and experiences of Black people. To take cognizance of the Black experience is not to ignore white people, but rather part of an effort to explicate how whites, or Asian, Latinx, Indigenous populations or disabled or queer peoples are differently situated. In short, we need to understand how groups are performing relative to the universal goal in order to develop targeted strategies to reach it. In this sense, targeted universalism is a hybrid approach, both universal and targeted.
The emphasis on the universal goal can be leveraged to build broad support for policy change. We should not pretend that a meaningful structural change agenda can be pursued and accomplished without broad support. Because structural racism touches so many different arenas of life, the policy will require broad support and political will to meaningfully enact it.
And, like it or not, research and polling does suggest that race-conscious policies with a universal frame draw considerably more support than race-targeted policies. For example, redrawing district lines to promote racial integration in primary and secondary schools polls at 75 percent support among white Democrats while race-based assignments and affirmative action admissions policies poll below 50 percent among the same group.
Despite all of the areas of disagreement, perhaps the clearest area of consensus is for the need to pursue substantial, structural changes. A “reckoning,” after all, requires real change. Battle-scarred veterans of racial justice advocacy saw in the uprisings an unparalleled opportunity for change, but recognized that change had to be more than symbolic or superficial.
However, not every meaningful change has to be structural or transformative. In the early days of the Biden administration, the immediate task will be revoking misguided executive orders, rolling back agency regulations and rules, and re-issuing Obama-era guidance letters. These changes are important, and should not be dismissed as trivial matters.
At the same time, we should also be careful about assuming that structural or transformative changes must all be economic, as some commentators noted above seemed to suggest. The Voting Rights Act’s provisions requiring pre-clearance for any proposed change in voting procedure and Brown v. Board of Education mandating desegregation of primary and secondary schools were monumental transformative changes to society. But neither was inherently economic. Similarly, some economic policies, even if race-conscious, may not be transformative, but merely transactional fixes to enduring problems. That is not to diminish them, but to acknowledge the reality.
Ending the war on drugs and the era of mass incarceration, moving toward universal pre-K, and curbing extreme gerrymandering along with an updated Voting Rights Act are policies that each have transformative potential and would dramatically reduce racial inequities in the criminal justice system, education system, and access to the ballot box.
The point should be obvious by now: the binaries by which we develop or sort policies into one category or another are not always helpful. These distinctions are nuanced, and we should embrace nuance rather than shy away from it. But mainly, we must move forward, and not become trapped by them or the endless debates they spawn.
Whether a policy is universal or targeted, transformative or transactional, race-specific or merely economic cannot be the ultimate criterion of whether it is worthy of support or should be adopted in relation to a racial justice agenda. Rather, what should ultimately be the judge is whether it moves us closer to our goals of a fair, racially just and inclusive society where everyone belongs. At the end of the day, a racial justice agenda worthy of that name will likely include a bit of “all of the above.”