Have you noticed how everyone is saying “it’s an equity issue.” Every time I hear the phrase a part of my soul grows darker and more cynical. The poor term equity has become the diversity of the 1990s and the equality of the 2000s. Equity is now a popular and overexposed term and people are using it incorrectly. We need to stop labeling every problem as an equity problem and begin to use the word correctly. One way to begin to use it correctly is to link a root cause and identify a structural barrier to the equity problem statement.
Let me break this down into less wonky talk. Often when there is a policy problem or an advocacy group wants to make an ask, someone will say “It’s an equity issue! The poor kids need [fill in the blank] because they don’t have enough [blank]. Everyone, especially poor kids of color, will benefit when we do this [because rising tides lift all boats or when they do better we all do better].” For fun watch the public testimony during a school board meeting and someone, probably a white person, will use this formula as they make their ask. What this statement formula fails to do is make the connection back to race and the racialized formation of the problems. White people (and some pocs) become lazy and don’t do their work around understanding how race is connected to root causes and how it is tied to institutional and systemic racism.
Root Causes and Structural Barriers
If you want to make an ‘equity’ argument do your work to understand how the problem came about. The problems facing people and communities of color and marginalized communities (e.g. disabled, LGBTQIA, etc.) today are often rooted in past decision making. Peter Senge’s famous line in the book the Fifth Discipline says: “Today’s problems come from yesterday’s solutions.” Today’s racialized problems can be traced back to decisions made in the past.
Understanding root causes of today’s problems means looking at how problems evolved for communities of color. As examples segregation is a byproduct of red-lining which traces its roots to white people not wanting people of color in their neighborhoods because of fear and elitism, achievement gaps are rooted in how the education was originally designed to serve (white businessmen who spoke English), unemployment for people of color is often tied to education levels and we’ve already established the public school system was originally designed for white people.
In unpacking the root cause of the problem you’re looking at, you might determine the problem you’re working on isn’t really an ‘equity’ problem. Don’t use the equity word because you want to get some points towards the Woke Awards, like the Academy Awards for Wokeness. And definitely don’t use the word equity to get street cred in the Woke Wars, look at me I’m so badass for working on this hard ‘equity’ project.
Once a root cause is determined, look at the structural barriers in place that need to be undone. The structural barriers are the policies, practices, beliefs, and norms in place. Often data can help to identify barriers, and with some solid thinking, the structural parts can be identified.
Stop Calling Things Equity When They Aren’t
Not everything should be called equity. I spent most of yesterday and today working on advocacy around school buses. Many are calling it an ‘equity issue’ because it impacts low-income students of color. While students of color will be dispropriately impacted by the problem, it is a district wide problem. The solutions proposed by the parent activist are not rooted in principles racial equity. The solutions are equality based, spend money to give everyone the same; in this case, spend $2.3m to provide buses for students. It is a misnomer to label it is an equity problem when we’re not also talking about the root causes and the structural barriers students of color are facing around getting to school.
It also annoys many of us when the ‘equity’ solutions presented are not actually equity-based. Providing a bus/book/thing to everyone isn’t equity, that is equality (giving everyone the same). If we look at the root cause of the problem and the structural barriers in place an equity based solution would determine people of color may need and want something different than a universal/same/equal solution.
Equity is Special, Stop Calling Everything Equity
Please, I implore you, to stop calling everything equity. The word equity means something special and let’s continue to let the word be exceptional in decrying its needs. If you need another word to use, then stop and think hard before choosing something to use in its place.
If you need something that will get people’s attention learn how to call out racism, especially institutional racism. There is a lot of that going around and institutional racism could use some labeling and shout outs instead of equity. Maybe by calling out racism, we’ll begin to see more equity based problem solving happen.
Posted by Erin Okuno, hat-tip to Heidi for the topic
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