Equity is critically important, and it’s very, very messy

Dear President Biden,

Was it really a coincidence that you wore your very cute blue dog socks to the meeting with the 10 Republican Senators about the COVID relief bill? That’s apparently what your staff told the WP. I kind of think, though, that you were doing a little low-key Madeline Albright move there. You probably don’t have nearly as many pairs of message-socks as she has message-pins, but it would be pretty great if you were to wear some peace-sign socks, or heart socks, or maybe duck or grizzly socks depending on the occasion. Nothing flashy or over-the-top, just a little something to give yourself a boost, lighten things up a tad, and send a message that you’re earnest and sincere about whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish (not that you don’t telegraph those qualities anyway).

Switching gears, the other day I wrote to you about the equality/equity conflation and want to circle back to it. Because I often find definitions helpful, here are the standard definitions of each word:

Equality: “the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities”
(similar: fairness, impartiality, justness, even-handed)

Equity: “the quality of being fair and impartial”
(similar: fairness, justness, justice, fair-minded)

As you might have guessed, I’m not finding this definition of equity very satisfying since it basically does conflate it with equality. Brandeis’s social justice equity definition is much better:

“Equity” is often conflated with the term “Equality” (meaning sameness). In fact, true Equity implies that an individual may need to experience or receive something different (not Equal) in order to maintain fairness and access.”

I would make one adjustment to the above – I think it should be “….in order to maintain or attain fairness and access.” “Maintain” by itself really does a disservice because in inequitable situations it’s often the case that fairness and access were never reality; they must be attained before they can be maintained.

The Brandeis definition of equity is reflected in the cartoon with the boxes and the fence that I told you about Friday – while it was superficially “fair” and arguably “impartial” to give each of the three people a single box to stand on to look over the fence, the tall person didn’t need a box at all, the middle person needed just one, and the shortest person needed two boxes, which means that it makes the most sense for the boxes to be distributed as 0:1:2.

I’m sorry to rehash these basics, but I needed to get them set before I could lay out why I think equity is such a booger. From an aspirational standpoint, it’s great – it’s critically important and necessary. But from a practical standpoint, it’s a mess. For example, what if there were four people who wanted to see the ballgame on the other side of the fence, two of whom needed two boxes to see over the fence, but there were still only the three boxes. Maybe the tall person could lift one of them up or maybe the two short people could take turns, but it’s not hard to see how easily equity can become super challenging, super fast.

Then there are all the myriad situations where the relative degree of need is hard (or impossible) to measure and/or is disputed. In these situations I think there’s a tendency for those of us who are unable to see our privilege and our problematic sense of entitlement (i.e., most White people) to freak out when people who’ve been oppressed are afforded opportunities and resources in ways that don’t seem “fair.” It’s like we have grown so accustomed to getting more of the pie than is truly our fair share (for centuries) that when there’s the least bit of correction, many of us go ballistic.

We’ve got a long, rocky row to hoe here, don’t we?

May we all be safe as we lurch toward real conversations about equity.
May we be willing to grapple with equity’s inherent challenges.
May we have the strength to right historic wrongs.
May we accept that these conversations are going to be messy and hard.

Tracy Simpson

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