The Equity Trap

In the wake of last year’s global Black Lives Matter protests, there’s been a lot of talk about how to achieve equal opportunities for Black people in the America. The dilemma of whether to strive for equality or for equity has preoccupied a lot of pundits. The people who consider themselves to be “allies” of Black people tend to support equity, while those who believe the status quo works just fine for them tend to support equality. According to the definitions that I present below, I intend to demonstrate that both groups are not only wrong, but are being disingenuous in deliberately dodging the real issues.

In a blog post, the social research and campaign company Social Change UK explained the difference between equality and equity as follows: “Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need.”¹ In other words, equality ensures everyone receives the identical treatment, while equity ensures that extra support is given to those who need it.

For example, in education equality may mean that every applicant to an Ivy League university is assessed and admitted, or rejected, based on identical qualification criteria. Equity in this case may mean that applicants who are poorer or who are minorities may be given more consideration based on their background. The same type of approach may be applied to promotions at work. Not applying corrective measures (i.e. embracing “equality”) is assumed to result in ever-increasing social disparities and instability. The application of “equity” corrective measures is expected to mitigate and eventually erase the drawbacks of a disadvantaged background (based on income, ethnicity, gender etc.). But is this true?

For racial equity corrective measures to be needed and sustained, the following conditions must be true:

  • There is persistent and unmitigated inequality that works against Blacks
  • Blacks are permanently disadvantaged as a result of this persistent unmitigated inequality
  • Without the application of equity corrections, Blacks can never realise their potential or compete in society

I see a few undesirable consequences that would inevitably arise if these conditions were assumed to be true:

  1. Blacks will be permanently relegated to the status of beggars. The quality, magnitude and frequency of the equity interventions are entirely at the discretion of the privileged elite. This is because society will have quietly adopted the implicit assumption that Blacks are by their very nature incapable of making progress without “help”. Consider this parallel example: if I see a beggar on the street, only I get to decide whether I give him money or my leftovers, how much to give him, and whether I’ll give him every day or once a year.
  2. Blacks will be rewarded for maintaining a position of disadvantage. They would receive no benefit from the system if they attempted to step out of this position. Meanwhile, these scraps and crumbs of “help” would only apply to a tiny minority of the Black population, because it would be both fiscally unaffordable and politically unachievable to extend the benefit to everyone.
  3. The focus would not be on the benefits and advancement achieved by Blacks because of these equity programmes, but on the benevolence of the programmes themselves. Therefore, the privileged can feel better about themselves without being accountable for any real change.
  4. The underlying conditions that cause inequality remain comfortably unchallenged and unchanged.

I commend the good work that is being done by some groups to make things better. I wholeheartedly agree that certain temporary measures need to be put in place urgently to mitigate the havoc that systemic racism has wrought, and continues to wreak, in Black communities. To this end, I support the equity interventions. However, they must be a stopgap arrangement, and not a permanent condition. I am hearing a lot about how to make things easier for disadvantaged Blacks. That is a comfortable conversation for privileged people to have. I am hearing almost nothing about how to eliminate the racist systems that create and sustain these disadvantages for Blacks.

After the American Civil War, there was a period called Reconstruction. The American government defeated the racist Confederacy, and in a singular paroxysm of morality, implemented Constitutional Amendments that ended slavery and gave Blacks full citizenship rights. Between 1865 and 1877, the American government maintained a military presence in the defeated Confederate states to ensure that they would not revert to their old ways and enslave the newly liberated Blacks again. In that period, blacks were able to vote freely. Of eligible Black voters, 90% were registered. Mississippi sent two black U.S. senators to Washington and elected several black state officials, including a lieutenant governor.² Blacks opened businesses, embraced education and were on track to commence their recovery from centuries of brutal and inhuman enslavement and degradation. Unfortunately, the Confederate racists were playing the long game. When the American army left, they launched a campaign of terrorism, rape and murder to disenfranchise Blacks and restore the familiar order of White supremacy. The little progress that had been made was swiftly reversed, and the effects are being seen up until today.

As I described in greater detail in my article Dismantling Systemic Racism (If you’re interested in systemic racism, I strongly, yet modestly, urge you to read this article), there are four elements that support systemic racism in the United States:

  • Segregated education
  • Segregated housing
  • Unequal application of criminal justice
  • Voter suppression

Instead of treatises on racial equity and handouts, what Black people in America need now is the implementation of laws that address these pillars of systemic racism.

Education

American schools were legally desegregated in 1954 in a convulsion of conscience, the like of which has not been seen since then. Part of the desegregation law mandated busing (the practice of assigning and transporting students to schools within or outside their local school districts in an effort to reduce the racial segregation in schools). Nevertheless, American schools remain heavily segregated today. In 1974, the Supreme Court limited the power of federal courts to order integration across school district boundaries. In the late 1980s, busing was quietly dropped by the US Department of Justice.

The New York Times has reported that “school districts that predominantly serve students of colour received $23 billion less in funding than mostly white school districts in the United States in 2016, despite serving the same number of students.” On average, non-white school districts received $2,200 less per student than white school districts³. No amount of equity correction will erase this disadvantage that has been baked in from the start.

Housing

The excellent and enlightening book “The Colour of Law” by Richard Rothstein describes in sometimes intolerably painful detail how racial segregation has been built into the laws, policies and plans of the United States. Redlining limits access to services for residents of defined areas, based on race. Redlining in housing policies created black ghettos. The practice has been outlawed, but it is still very much in force and experienced daily by Black people. As a result, Blacks are exposed to poorer health services, fewer recreational facilities, higher crime, higher pollution, poorer employment opportunities, poorer schools and all the other disadvantages that arise from living in ghettos. CNN reports that “for nearly a decade, homes sold in mostly Black neighbourhoods have been undervalued by an average of $46,000, according to a Redfin analysis”. Redfin is a real estate brokerage, which examined the valuations of over 73 million single-family homes listed and sold between January 2013 and February 2021. In Indianapolis this year, the valuation of a Black woman’s house increased by $100,000 when she removed Black family pictures and got a white man to pose as the owner.

In 1968, The Fair Housing Act was passed in response to Civil Rights protests. Because no one was complying and the Act was not being enforced, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule was passed in 2015. Neither the Act nor the Rule apply measurable consequences for non-compliance, nor do they prescribe any steps that need to be taken to achieve integration. Again, no amount of equity correction will erase this disadvantage that has been built into the American system.

Criminal Justice

Consider the following facts:

  • One in every three Black boys will be sentenced to prison in their lifetimes. For White boys, the number is one in seventeen.
  • 5% of illicit drug users are Black. 33% of those incarcerated for drug offenses are Black.
  • Blacks constitute 13% of the American population, and 34%, of the American prison population.
  • The 13th Amendment to the US Constitution passed in 1865 classifies imprisoned people as slaves.

With these facts in mind, and considering the devastating consequences on the Black family of the wrongful incarceration and execution of Black fathers and sons, can anyone propose in good conscience that equity corrections are going to right these wrongs? Perhaps the corrections can begin by tossing the many wrongful convictions, and immediately releasing all the Black people who have been unjustly imprisoned for marijuana related offenses in the states where marijuana is now legal.

Voter Suppression

The 14th and 15th Amendments to the American Constitution were passed in 1868 and 1870 respectively. They granted American citizenship and voting rights to black people. Domestic terrorism, intimidation and voter suppression efforts by politicians have been deployed ever since to roll back these rights. Polling centres in Black counties are being closed and felons are disenfranchised. More than 25% of Black Americans are banned from voting in some cases.

At present, there is a massive, coordinated country-wide assault on voting rights. In many cases, the new proposed laws and measures that are being passed by state legislators target Black Americans with surgical precision. Yet again, I assert that equity measures will do nothing to fix the permanent disadvantage that this system creates.

In conclusion, I will repeat that I support equity measures as a stopgap solution to help Blacks in America who have been disadvantaged by a racist system. The advocacy for identical treatment for everyone (equality) in place of equity is based on the wrong assumption that the American system does not put anyone at a disadvantage, and everyone can achieve “The American Dream” just by working hard. As shown in the examples presented above, that is simply not true. However, it can become true in the future if efforts are made right now to dismantle the elements of systemic racism that keep Black Americans in a perpetual position of disadvantage. Selfish and racist interests would like to believe that it’s a zero-sum game, and someone will have to lose. They refuse to understand that enabling 13% of their population to participate fully in their society and economy would greatly and sustainably increase their GDP, consolidating their position as a global power rather than a declining Confederate spectre, tragically in constant denial.

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