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john a. powell

 

Excerpted from: john a. powell, Post-racialism or Targeted Universalism?, 86 Denver University Law Review 1 (2009) (footnotes omitted).

 

The United States made history on November 4, 2008 by electing Barack Obama as the first African-American President of the United States. This remarkable event has generated a sense of pride and a collective celebration that is shared worldwide. The installation of a Black President, whose election was supported by a significant minority of white American voters, is an occasion imbued with meaning. The political, social, historical, and cultural significance of the election has been expressed in many ways and interpreted differently in different quarters. Over the next several months, if not years, Americans will be trying to determine its contours, synthesizing its various strands. As we engage this consequential process, different segments of society will undoubtedly continue to express and promote different meanings, each of which will have important ramifications. Questions will emerge, such as how are we to understand racial conditions in society, and what is the proper role of public policy and law for addressing or avoiding racial questions? These questions about where we are as a society on the issue of race are not just factual or descriptive, but are deeply political, having implications for how and when we respond to existing racial conditions and the scope of our collective obligations.

In exploring this set of questions, I employ a different terminology than what is normally used to discuss this issue. Instead of using the standard nomenclature of race and racism, I will use the term "racialization." I do so because the language of race and racism is understood in a way that is too limited and specific to help us acquire greater insight into the important questions posed at the outset. By racialization, I refer to the set of practices, cultural norms, and institutional arrangements that are both reflective of and simultaneously help to create and maintain racialized outcomes in society. Because racialization is a historical and cultural set of processes, it does not have one meaning. Instead, it is a set of conditions and norms that are constantly evolving and interacting with the socio-political environment, varying from location to location, as well as throughout different periods in history. These processes are not just uniformly present or static. They respond to what we collectively do and think and are therefore highly contested. However, this is not typically how we as a society think about race and racism. Rather, we see them as well defined and a limited set of discrete practices that remain constant over time, in spite of social changes.

Even as we use the term 'racialization' to connote the fluid nature of the phenomenon we are describing and the broader context in which racial outcomes manifest and are understood, the use of this term will not automatically break us from our reflexive thinking and mental habits around race and racism. In this country, the cultural understanding of racism is most closely associated with Jim Crow, and in the individual context it is imagined as the conduct of racist individuals consciously engaging in discriminatory activity directed at a particular victim. This is the point at which most Americans became self-conscious of 'racism' as a problem. Issues of race and racism came to be understood as an explicit set of laws and policies by institutional actors such as school boards or municipal governments, or explicit action on the parts of individuals.5 This overly individualistic approach to race, racism, and racialization fits well with our overall individualistic approach to many life issues. Consequently, issues of race are likely to be seen primarily as deliberate psychosocial events, instigated by institutions managed or directed by bad actors, or individual actors themselves. Even though the Jim Crow system was a highly institutionalized and extensive formal regime of racial oppression, a system that was only partly legal, in the popular imagination much of this system is reduced to the individual bigotry of bad state actors, whose policies can be simply purged or reversed in an election cycle or by excising the offending de jure rules. According to this individualistic point frame of analysis, if one does not engage in conscious acts of racism, or better still does not see race as a reality, then there can be no racism or racialization.

At the same time, we have more consciously embraced a public position of racial equalitarianism. Virtually all sectors of society eschew racism. To call someone racist does not just impugn the legality of his or her actions, but also the morality of the person. To call someone racist today is seen as incendiary and a form of character assassination. The good American not only refuses to engage in conscious racially motivated behavior, he also refuses to see race or call it out. In other words, he is race-blind. This is a principle purportedly embraced in the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The good American can claim that, to the extent that others share his blindness, race does not matter.

The conservative mode of race blindness has been at times extremely callous. Consider the plurality's opinion in Parents Involved. From this perspective, racial hierarchy is legally irrelevant to the Constitutional principle of Equal Protection unless state-sponsored, conscious discrimination is directly implicated and is a proximate cause. The conservative uses colorblindness not just as a bar to engage the issue of race, but also as a justification to preclude any intervention. It is a narrative that not only supports the racial status quo, but also easily blames marginal groups for it. Colorblind conservatives purport not to be concerned with racial conditions, but only with purity of mind with respect to intent. They see the evil to be guarded against as the noticing of race--the psychological state, not the condition of racial groups and the distribution of opportunity itself. Justice Thomas is not only indifferent to racial arrangement, practices or conditions, he believes that there is a real harm suffered when we see race, whether our intentions are benevolent or malign.

This is not the position of the liberals that supported President Obama. The phrase 'post-racialism' has been adopted to describe their race blindness. Like their conservative cousins, they also believe that racialization is primarily a psychological event17 and that good Americans are beyond race. Race does not matter--much. Unlike colorblind conservatives, they are willing, under some conditions, to be race sensitive. But they also agree that a frontal attack on racial conditions is divisive.

In the wake of President Obama' s victory, the question of where we are with regards to race has surfaced again and again. The answer that both the conservative colorblind proponents and the liberal post-racial proponents assert is that we are all but beyond race. According to this perspective, a few old-style racists may remain, especially in the South, but they, like many civil rights activists, are still stuck in the old paradigm from the past. Apparently, neither of these groups has realized how much conscious racial attitudes have changed, even since Barack Obama was elected President. The post-racialists see the civil rights activists and the explicit racists as locked in a struggle that is already antiquated and outmoded. According to this view, it is not just a distraction, it is a divisive. The alternative to this old, tired battle is post-racialism. The question of where we are with regard to race then becomes binary. We are either in a divisive space from the past where we continue to assert the dominance of conscious racism, or we are in a post-racial world where race really does not matter to most Americans.

To post-racialists, white Americans' support of President Obama is proof positive that we are in, or rapidly approaching, a new, post-racial era. They argue that young people do not even see race, and that only those persons over forty are still likely to think in racial terms. All we must do is wait patiently, and post-racialism will grow as the older generations pass on. They further assume that there is a direct connection between improved racial conscious attitudes, meaning race-blindness and ending racial inequality.20 While there is a certain intuitive logic to this assumption, it turns out that is often clearly wrong.

One way of expressing this racial blindness is to be neutral on issue of race. There are several problems with this approach. The proponents of this position are apparently most interested in race blindness or neutrality in the design of policy and programs. Less attention is paid to the administration or implementation of policies and programs, and more importantly their effects. It is clear that something that is neutral in design is not necessarily neutral in its effect. Yet, the courts and the public are all but obsessed with the design, and even more narrowly with the intent of the design, but not the effects of these policies. If an otherwise neutral program is overlaid on practices that are themselves racially unfair, it is likely to not only leave such arrangements undisturbed, but perpetuate and exacerbate them. Consider the fact that black veterans returning from World War II received federal monies to attend colleges that were highly segregated and uneven in quality. Awarding federal college grants to all soldiers on a racially neutral basis would only exacerbate inequality in educational outcomes as whites receive a greater advantage for the same tax dollar. Fairness is not advanced by treating those who are situated differently as if they were the same. For example, it would make little sense to provide the measured protections against hurricanes for Midwestern communities as coastal communities or to provide the same degree of health resistance investment for diseases such as malaria where an outbreak is much less likely. But even the goal of race neutrality in the effect is too narrow to redress racial disadvantage. Even if the institutions where such resources will be used are themselves neutral, it may not be enough to aim for neutrality in effect if the beneficiaries of such efforts are situated differently. Equality of effect can produce very different holistic outcomes depending on the needs of the beneficiaries.

With those considerations in mind, what are we to do with our existing racialized conditions and arrangements, from schools, to housing, to the criminal justice system? Will these issues be automatically addressed by the passing of time? Many conservatives say that the proper response--the only possible response--is to do nothing. They argue that colorblindness prohibits us from doing anything that would be either sensitive to race or require the use of racial classifications. Other conservatives argue that we must convince racially marginalized groups to adopt the proper cultural values so that they may take advantage of the new race-blind landscape. The opportunity is there; if Blacks and Latinos fail to take advantage of this new arrangement, it is their own fault. For the conservatives, it would be a moral and legal mistake to have the state intervene. The post-racialists are more likely to support state intervention, but they are reluctant to do much unless it can be framed in a universal manner where an explicit consideration of race is largely off the table. This has the apparent advantage of helping those who have been historically excluded while avoiding being race-specific, which is seen as divisive.

There are a number of problems with this approach, which I will call false universalism. One concern is conceptual, another is empirical, and still a third is problematic from a legal or policy perspective. Given the constraint of space, I will focus primarily on the first two problems. Universal programs begin with a conception of what is universal based on background assumptions that are non-universal. Virtually all universal approaches are de facto targeted or particular. The Social Security Act, often described as the quintessential universal policy, was universal, only insofar as the universal was a white, male, able-bodied worker. In its early years, the elderly were excluded since they did not have a history of paying contributions into the system. Under the cultural norms of the era, men were the primary wage earners, and women typically worked in the home. As a consequence of discriminatory patterns, they were often kept out of most areas of the labor force. Unpaid household labor and child rearing responsibilities are not counted toward Social Security earnings. Even today, women who take time off to raise children or select careers with more flexible working hours will earn less, on average, then their male counterparts, and will therefore have lower social security benefits upon retirement. And because of exclusions of agricultural and domestic workers, exclusions built-in to appease Southern resistance to the Act, 65% of African-Americans were denied its protections.

The following question helps to expose the conceptual problem: Why is it divisive to focus on race-specific programs or talk about race? The stock explanation is that race does not matter. But even if race does not matter why is such an approach seen as divisive? The very intensity of racial feelings in our society belies the assertion that race does not matter. The energy and need for race not to matter to whites in and of itself suggests that race does indeed matter. There is an assumption that racially targeted programs create white resentment because there is a sense that whites that are playing by the rules are having things taken from them and given to undeserving non-whites who do not play by the same rules. This resentment is, apparently, not of the Jim Crow form. These whites are willing to accept any non-white that plays by the rules. What they object to is helping what they perceive as rule-breakers. This has more promise for racial fairness, but also turns out to be wanting.

Consider something issues such as fair housing, school integration, or reform of the criminal justice system. Why should these efforts be controversial and divisive? George Lipsitz suggests that what is being challenged is not a material zero-sum policy, but instead what he callsn the "possessive investment in whiteness." The need to keep the racial 'other' out of schools and neighborhoods and controlled by the criminal justice apparatus can only make sense if race does matter. What the overused resentment argument conceals is how concern for white resentment is employed to protect white prerogative and privilege. But why would whites vote for Obama and still insist that schools, neighborhoods, and other opportunities continue to be racialized? Are they racist or not? I will return to this question below.

There is also an empirical problem with the false universal approach as well. The empirical issue is not one of design or administration but outcome. What is it that we are trying to achieve in our universal efforts? There is no single answer to this question. Some are trying to achieve racial blindness; others are trying to achieve racial justice or fairness. While the two goals could work in tandem, in practice they are often in conflict. Dona and Charles Hamilton look at many efforts to use universal programs. They conclude that to the extent we are concerned with racial justice, for a number of reasons, virtually all of them fail to promote this outcome.39 Ira Katznelson looked at some of the most popular universal programs coming out of the New Deal and World War II and concluded that these programs by and large benefited whites disproportionately. While the programs may have still benefited non-whites, they often exacerbated the disparities between whites and non-whites. In many instances, universalism will not work to address the needs of marginalized racial and ethnic groups.

In fact, it is possible, even likely, that universal programs will exacerbate existing inequalities. Some universal programs were designed to benefit whites more than non-whites, but let us consider programs where this was not the clear design. Defined as one of this country's greatest accomplishments, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956 used federal dollars to subsidize the creation of the suburbs. This was the largest public works project in American history at the time. It gave impetus to waves of migrating middle- and upper-class families to abandon the central cities for the suburbs. At the same time, many downtown regions were surrounded or demolished by massive highway construction, and the revenue generated by these projects did not return to the communities that were losing their churches, schools, and homes. As one author put it, "[h]ighways made suburban housing available on one end while destroying urban housing on the other." The ensuing arrangement of racially isolated urban dwellers and equally racially isolated suburban residents, hastened by the white flight that followed Brown v. Board of Education's integration mandate the same year, is a pattern we live with today. Simply put, ostensibly universal programs have no less potential to exacerbate inequality than to ameliorate it. Treating people who are situated differently as if they were the same can result in much greater inequities.

Consider also the Veterans Administration (VA) programs. These programs helped millions of Americans attend college, acquire homes and start businesses. Veterans Administration mortgages paid for five million new homes. It was under the GI Bill that interest rates and thirty-year loans that Americans, for the first time, became more likely to purchase a home than rent. From 1945 to 1954, the United States added 13 million new homes. Equally impressive were the educational benefits of VA programming. By 1950, the federal government spent more on schooling for veterans than on expenditures for the Marshall Plan. For the first time, millions of Americans acquired a college degree. These programs were race- and gender-neutral in their design. Yet, in practice, they increased disparity between Blacks and whites and between white men and white women. In fact, there was no single greater instrument for widening the racial gap in postwar America. The Bill provided for local and state administration with Congressional oversight, which was controlled by Southern congressmen. As a result, Blacks were excluded, rejected, and discouraged from partaking in the benefits of a generous federal program.

This disparity was challenged by women in an important Supreme Court case, Personnel Administrator of Massachusetts v. Feeney. In that case, women were able to show that 98% of the benefit for some portions of this policy went to men. The Court found there was no discrimination because there was no proof of an women were not likely to be veterans, was coincidental and not legally or morally significant. And while the disparities were not as stark, there were also a disproportionate number of white men that benefited from this program. This universal program that helped create the middle class was insensitive to the conditions of women and non-white men. This is what Ira Katznelson calls an affirmative action program for white men. There are several reasons why the program worked out this way. One was that white men were disproportionately represented in the military. The reason for this was the racialization and sorting of benefits in other parts of our society. Among other things, there was an explicit discriminatory barrier for non-whites trying to join the military. But there were also impediments from other non-military institutions that impacted their ability to join the service. For example, the service had reading and writing requirements for enlistment. Given the state of black education, this disproportionately limited the number of Blacks who could join the military.

Even the black men that did join the military did not receive benefits on parity with their white counterparts. As Amartya Sen notes, they were not able to utilize this benefit to the same extent as whites. This was partly because in the area of education, Blacks could only use the educational benefits from the VA in a limited number of poorly equipped historical black colleges. One of the major assumptions today is that if universal programs focus on an area where a marginalized group is overrepresented, such as poverty, then the benefit will disproportionately benefit the marginal group. This would allow race-blind universal policies to do race-sensitive work. This approach is not only favored by policy makers but also by the Supreme Court, which has limited the remedial efforts to those where the harms are most visible. While the idea is intuitively appealing, in fact it is often wrong. A number of efforts to use income as a soft proxy for race simply do not deliver. On closer examination the reason is clear.

As Gunnar Myrdal noted in 1944, poor Blacks and poor whites are not similarly situated. Blacks suffer from cumulative causation or mutual reinforcing restraint. Let us assume for simplicity that there are ten constraints reducing opportunity for group A, and two of those constraints are reducing opportunity for group B. Suppose that the presence of any of the constraints is sufficient to deny opportunity. Let us also assume that group A is over-represented on constraints 1 and 2, which are also the constraints holding back group B. A universal policy that removed constraints 1 and 2 would vastly increase the opportunity movement of group B. It would not, however, change the conditions of group A because there are still eight remaining constraints reducing opportunity for that group. Yet the failure of group A to translate the policy into opportunity might be seen as a failure on the part of group A, and not a failure of policy. What this false universalism fails to address is that groups of people are differently situated in relation to institutional and policy dynamics. If one only looks at one or two constraints, one is likely to inaccurately assume that groups who are in very different circumstances are in fact similar. The flaw in this false universalism is not overcome by anti-discrimination policies. One could argue that the disfavored group is not being discriminated against in a traditional sense. Instead, their situatedness is the cause of the disadvantage.

Race was a central issue in the Mt. Laurel suit brought to address the needs of low-income home seekers. For the sake of comity, the case was reframed as a case about class instead of race. It was assumed that because Blacks and Latinos were in greater need of affordable housing, policy makers could address the issue of race in a less divisive universal frame of class or socioeconomic status. The program proved successful in producing affordable housing. But it also increased the racial isolation of Blacks and further segregated them from opportunity. Like the VA program and the New Deal, it increased the material and social distance between poor whites and poor non-whites. The housing program failed to understand the importance of the situatedness of different groups in relation to institutional interactions and processes. To fully understand the importance of this situatedness, one must look at what the interaction of institutions does in creating and distributing opportunity benefits and burdens. The political philosopher Iris Young observed that the more complex society becomes, the more our relationships and opportunities will be mediated through institutional arrangements. This is not just true in relationship to non-whites but for all groups in society.

As we consider the importance of this insight, at a rudimentary level, it is not particularly profound. Most of our modes of commerce, from the purchase of groceries to banking, have been depersonalized. Instead of buying produce from the farmer or taking a loan from the local banker, we mediate these exchanges through ATM machines and supermarkets. At a deeper level, we know that the neighborhood we live in may be more important than the house we live in.61 We know that where we live will impact the schools our children go to, our safety, and our access to not just jobs, but also to people and both material and social wealth. A middle-income person living in a poor neighborhood is not similarly situated to a middle-income person living in a middle-income neighborhood. The importance of institutional arrangements and the interactions within these structures for the distribution of opportunity in our society is only increasing.

Universal programs often operate on the unstated assumption that the particular conditions of the more favored group are universal. Thus, the Social Security Act, a quintessentially universal program, began with a conception of a recipient that was a working, white male. The development of a policy or program with an ostensibly universal norm that favors or disfavors a particular group is likely to be an unconscious and unintentional process, but no less harmful. When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, there was a great deal of confusion. Were we not already in a largely colorblind society, where if race mattered at all, it mattered only very little? Why then were so many Blacks stranded? I received several calls from media outlets asking me if I thought President Bush was racist. It is not that we do not know that there is still persistent racial inequality in our society, but we have a story line that allows us to justify and explain this fact when it rudely intrudes into our otherwise public stance that race does not matter. We tell each other stories about the culture of poverty and the lack of personal and collective responsibility in racially marginal communities. We talk about segregation from opportunity in terms of choice, of people just wanting to live with their own. We become armchair sociologists, uninterested and unconcerned with the facts and even less aware of institutional arrangements and the work they do. What made Hurricane Katrina particularly difficult is that these stories of institutional racialization were less available. We never asked why Blacks in New Orleans are so segregated and so poor. We never asked how they came to be in harm's way. We never asked why the disinvestment in their communities and lives had been extended to those shameful levels. We never asked ourselves why a universal evacuation plan required cars when many Blacks were carless. We assumed. And if there was some unjustified racial play at work, we looked for the conscious racist.

The final problem for the post-racial position is what I would call a legal and policy limitation. Once a race-blind position is adopted, it becomes difficult to justify race-sensitive or race-specific polices or laws. The colorblind proponents who oppose considering race at all are on firmer ground. If race is irrelevant, what is the justification legally or otherwise for using it? The conservative position, while concerned about the socially explosive consequence of using race, is not concerned about racial conditions. But the very assertion that the use of race is explosive belies their claim that race does not matter. The conservative position would not only reject the use of race, it would also be very skeptical of race-sensitive policies. Consider the issue of voluntary integration measures implemented by democratically elected school boards struggling to overcome legacies of residential separation. The plurality makes the colorblind case in Parents Involved, arguing that no matter how well intentioned, the Constitution absolutely forbids the use of racial classifications. Furthermore, according to the plurality, this is the clear meaning of Brown. According to them, Brown was not about racial conditions or subordination, but classification. Fortunately, this position is not the law at this point because Justice Kennedy, the tie-breaking vote, rejected that claim that the Constitution is colorblind. But the post-racial proponents have not stated a justification of when and why race should be considered in this post-racial world.

Consider also how post-racial advocates might argue for maintaining Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which the Supreme Court has agreed to review. Overall the VRA prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate on the basis of race, color, or membership in one of the language minority groups. Section 5 requires that certain state and local governments, mostly in the South, obtain permission, or "preclearance," from the Justice Department or a federal court before making changes that affect voting. A Texas municipal utility district has challenged the application of this section to itself, arguing that Congress did not take sufficient account of more than four decades of progress toward racial equality, proven by the recent election of the nation's first black president. Does this historic moment mean that the central justification for the VRA has now dissipated? It might be easier to adopt a conservative approach and question the VRA in its entirety than attempt to show that this is one of the instances in which race still matters. Perhaps the issue will be decided by Chief Justice Roberts, who opposed efforts to expand the voting rights law in 1982 as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration, and who currently and clearly challenges governmental use of racial classifications.

Even if post-racial liberals can make an argument for maintaining the VRA, or addressing racial isolation in schools or neighborhoods, such an exercise is likely to be seen as inconsistent with the more fundamental position that race does not matter. Of course we could take a more nuanced position that race matters under some circumstance and not others. And of course this is right, but it flies in the face of our attraction to simplistic answers and our eagerness to be done with race, a position that is markedly less concerned with extant racial conditions.

Today the country faces a housing and credit crisis that disproportionately impacts Blacks and Latinos.72 But they remain largely invisible except for the occasional blaming of those communities for taking out loans they could not afford. We know that these communities that have been under-capitalized since World War II, when affirmative action was white.73 With little residential or commercial lending from mainstream banking institutions for decades, isolated communities of color were prey for high-cost credit institutions that face little competition.

Things have indeed changed since World War II. We could not have had a Black President a decade ago, let alone in the 1940s. Conscious racial attitudes have greatly improved. But it would be wise for us to remember the euphoria after the Brown v. Board of Education decision, when many American thought racialization and racism would be dead within ten years.

Today many pundits are asserting that racialization is or soon will be a thing of the past. Thomas Friedman has stated that the civil war is finally over and the North has won. Others are asserting that the country is now going through a major realignment that will put an end to the Southern Strategy of appealing to white resentment. But the writers making these assertions have failed to take into account that only a few years ago most Americans had not even heard of the Southern Strategy, and that conservatives have been claiming for decades that we are beyond race.

The process of racialization has changed and is changing. We continue to have some old-style explicit racists, but their numbers are declining. Even though we talk about white and non-white attitudes, there are a range of attitudes and conditions reflected in each racialized group. What may be more interesting is that most of us carry conflicting racial attitudes within ourselves. As President Obama accurately described, "None of us--black, white, Latino, or Asian--is immune to the stereotypes that our culture continues to feed us, especially stereotypes about [Blacks]." But it is a serious mistake to define racialization narrowly, only to then dismiss it. There are more possibilities than the Jim Crow racial practices of the 1950s and 60s, the colorblind position, or post- racialism. We are in a space where our old way of thinking about race does not serve us well and can easily lead us to misunderstand the opportunities and challenges that are before us.

There are two emerging sites for the practice of racialization today and they are related. The first site is in the processes and practices of inter-institutional arrangement that continue to distribute racialized outcomes in part because of our different situatedness. The second site is ambivalence that unconsciously impacts our racial meaning and prac tices. The first is called structural racialization and the second is called implicit bias. To start with the latter first, implicit bias research suggests that most of us have implicit biases that can impact our behavior and understanding. Though most of us are completely unaware of their influence on our subconscious, these biases affect how we perceive, interpret, and understand others' actions. Because these attitudes-- unrecognized on the conscious level but powerful at the subconscious level--influence choices and decisions, individual and institutional discrimination can occur even in the absence of blatant prejudice, ill will, or animus. This bias has been measured and documented in the Harvard Implicit Association Tests. This does not mean that we are all secretly racist. It does suggest, however, that we are complex and conflicted and that this conflict can be organized to make either our biases more salient or our equalitarian aspiration more salient. The Southern Strategy was designed to mobilize racial resentment and worked well from 1968 until the election of President Obama. We can challenge the nefarious effort to make our biases more salient, but we cannot do so by being race blind. As President Obama reminds us:

If an internalization of antidiscrimination norms over the past three decades--not to mention basic decency--prevents most whites from consciously acting on [negative racial] stereotypes in their daily interactions with persons of other races, it's unrealistic to believe that these stereotypes don't have some cumulative impact on the often snap decisions of who's hired and who's promoted, on who's arrested and who's prosecuted, on how you feel about the customer who just walked into your store or about the demographics of your children's school.84

To address structural racialization, we must understand the work that our institutions and policies are in fact doing, not what we want or hope for them to do. In order to understand this, we must take seriously our group situatedness. I have already argued that a universal approach is likely to be ineffective. Others argue that targeted racial efforts are likely to fail in part because of the continuing racial resentment that targeted efforts create and preserve. For a sincere policy maker this suggests a difficult choice. Either avoid race and leave much of the existing racial practices and arrangements undisturbed, or deal with race and excite racial resentment that will undermine the policies and the electability of the politician. But there are powerful and effective alternatives to these two choices.

One alternative is to learn a great deal about how to talk about race in ways that are not divisive. The second alternative is to make sure our institutions do the work we want them to do. This is done by adopting strategies that are both targeted and universal. A targeted universal strategy is one that is inclusive of the needs of both the dominant and the marginal groups, but pays particular attention to the situation of the marginal group. For example, if the goal were to open up housing opportunity for low-income whites and non-whites, one would look at the different constraints for each group. Targeted universalism rejects a blanket universal which is likely to be indifferent to the reality that different groups are situated differently relative to the institutions and resources of society. It also rejects the claim of formal equality that would treat all people the same as a way of denying difference. Any proposal would be evaluated by the outcome, not just the intent. While the effort would be universal for the poor, it would be especially sensitive to the most marginal groups.

Because institutions interact and impact the effects of each other, it will also be necessary to be mindful of the interaction of institutions. This is an approach that we have adopted at the Kirwan Institute under the rubric of opportunity communities or opportunity structures. This was also one of the key issues in Parents Involved where a majority of the Court acknowledged the interactions of institutions, and softened its requirement of conscious racial infraction to support race-sensitive policy intervention.

At the same time, targeted universalism sees marginalized populations in American society as the canary in the coal mine, to borrow a metaphor developed by Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres.86 It recognizes that problems faced by particular segments of American society are problems that could spill over into the lives of everyone, just as the lower Ninth Ward was not the only part of New Orleans to suffer in the wake of Katrina. Likewise, the subprime credit crisis did not end in poor, urban communities, but has spread far beyond and has been felt throughout the global economy. In a time of economic crisis, the dangers are never greater that a commitment to racial fairness will be jettisoned to expedience or ostensibly universal concerns. This is a mistake. As the President has written, "[N]owhere is it ordained that history moves in a straight line, and during difficult economic times it is possible that the imperatives of racial equality get shunted aside."87 As the experience of the New Deal initiatives illustrate, even universal policies, if not well designed, can exacerbate rather than ameliorate racial conditions. Many of the current proposals for spending the infrastructure funds look to divert much of the funding to existing road proposals across states. This broad and regressive use of the infrastructure stimulus funds may produce jobs in the short term, but it is just a replication of existing models of public investment which have produced inequitable and unsustainable growth. What are truly needed are strategic investments which produce economic development at a broad scale while strategically transforming communities and cities.

The manifold crisis we now face as produced a rare opportunity to transform our present institutional and regulatory arrangements. The policies we promulgate will set the course of development for generations to come just as the post New Deal and post WW-II arrangements laid the groundwork for generations that followed them. This window of opportunity will remain open only for so long. In this moment, we can work towards building a more equitable future, or repeat the mistakes of the past. If we fail at this, we will be trying to correct our missteps for years to come.

Targeting within universalism is also the approach supported by President Obama in his book The Audacity of Hope. He writes: "We should support programs to eliminate existing health disparities between minorities and whites . . . , but 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." Although President Obama expresses support for race-targeted polices designed to "eliminate" certain disparities, he prefers universal policies which are race-sensitive in pursuit of the same end as "good politics" that is less likely to arouse the flames of racial resentment.

There will still be an issue of possible racial resentment, even with targeted universal programs. Racial resentment does not simply represent racist attitudes; it also represents both ambivalence and confusion. A more sophisticated understanding of implicit bias and how the mind works will be important in learning how to effectively communicate in a way that makes our sense of fairness and connectedness salient. The fact that this kind of communication is even possible suggests that we have made progress. But it should not be overstated. Ambivalence on matters of race is a deep part of United States history. Thomas Jefferson hated slavery and worried about what it was doing to the country and the psyche of whites. He had a long-term, intimate relationship with a slave and yet was one of the major architects of the ideology of racial inferiority. Lincoln supported the end of slavery but did not believe that the races could ever live together. Our very concept of freedom is bound up with the concept of slavery and unfreedom.

In analyzing how Obama's ascendancy to the presidency has changed and will change the process of racialization, we should congratulate ourselves. But we should also be deliberate and thoughtful about how to make the most of this important opportunity. The popular media and culture like the idea of post-racialism and colorblindness. Some have suggested that we are entering into a new era of colorblind racial dominance. Some have suggested that we are moving from a white and non-white society to a black and non-black society where educated and professional Blacks will be embraced as non-black, while those who are considered black will be extremely marginalized.94 The struggle for racial justice and fairness will need to focus on two related areas--the two emerging sites of racialization that are discussed above.

First, we must develop a more sophisticated understanding of the working of the human mind, building on the research on neurolinguistics and implicit bias. Second, we must focus on the institutional arrangements and policy interactions and the work that they do with sensitivity to our situatedness. Where we are, and where we are going, in terms of racial justice is in flux and fluid. We are changing both as a matter of demographics, but more importantly as a matter of our history and practices. Where this journey and process will lead us is not predetermined. As we develop as a pluralistic nation, we must acknowledge that the racial binary is not a useful way to think about our journey. The language of race and racism does not adequately express all that needs to be conveyed in our discussion of race. We need a new way to talk about race and racialization, and a meaningful way to analyze racialization. A universal approach for inclusion requires sensitivity to our particular conditions. The approach focuses on outcomes not just inputs or design. Our communication strategy must be tailored to garner support for policies that are sensitive to the particular, but broadened to encompass universal concerns.

In the final analysis, we should not allow this important milestone to blind us to the important work that needs to be done. We are not there, wherever there is. Race matters, but not in the same way as it did forty years ago. And maybe most important--what we do and what our institutions do matters. If we do not change our institutions to reflect our expressed attitude, our attitudes will change to reflect our institutions.

 

 
 

 
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Monday, March 23, 2009  

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