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How to Sell Social Equity to a Skeptic

The definition of equity is the quality of being fair and impartial. Unfortunately, in our world, we have a tendency to be highly unfair and very partial.

It’s so ingrained in us to accept this truth, we tell ourselves as often as possible that life isn’t fair as a buffer for our expectations and hopes. It’s fine to push for better but only so long as we remember that, as adults, it’s our responsibility to maintain a cynical worldview to avoid having our feelings hurt. With that kind of belief system baked into us from the time we’re young, it’s no wonder why so many of us turn our noses up at the idea of special treatment. So much so that many people are even against social equities designed to remedy systemic inequality. Aren’t we all disadvantaged, after all? Who's to say what groups deserve more For the sake of argument, I’d simply like to put forward that, while we can’t promise sunshine and roses for every person, we have an obligation as a society to make life livable.

As we advance toward truer acceptance and acknowledgement of human rights, we’re constantly bombarded by meritocracy loving folks who don’t understand that making things equitable is not giving preferable treatment to select groups. If you need to see how sometimes things that seem unfair are not, look no further than a running track.

Running track illustration with straight and staggered start lines
Left: Staggered starting line; Right: Straight starting line

(Staggered starting lines in this illustration are not to scale)

Numbered lanes indicate the paths the runners follow. When the race is run along a straight section of track, with the start and finish lines at a ninety-degree angle, runners are on equal footing and travel the same distance. When the race includes part of the track that is curved, however, the runners on the inside lane have an advantage due to the track's smaller radius of curvature. In other words, the distance around the inner most lane is shorter than each of the outer lanes. The International Association of Athletics Federations (the IAAF) compensated for this undue advantage with staggered starting lines. The runners on the outside lanes get a proportionate ‘head start’ which makes the distance to the finish line equal for all athletes.

The runners on the outside lanes are just like marginalized groups. Can you imagine telling those athletes that they have the same opportunities as the athletes on the inside lane even though, mathematically, they have to work much harder to achieve that goal? Staggered starting lines are an example of equitable treatment in track and field that make true equality possible. If we apply the same concept to marginalized groups of people, we begin to see that it isn’t special treatment at all. Equitable remedies are actually the minimum requirements that allow people access to a fair shot.

Equitable treatment faces a lot of criticisms, such as the belief that equity is a campaign for an equal outcome achieved by unequal or preferential treatment of some. This is patently false. Bad faith takes such as this one imply that nothing exists between inequity and biased equal outcomes. True social equity lies in the middle, commonly referred to as equality of opportunity.

Infographic explaining the difference between inequitable, equitable, and equal outcome actions. Inequitable: special preference is shown to a privileged group. Special preference gives an unequal and unfair advantage. Equitable: Allowances afford an underprivileged group an equal starting point. Effort and skills determine individual outcomes. Equal outcome: special preference is shown to an underprivileged group. Special preference seeks to assign equal outcomes regardless of effor.

Sometimes things that seem fair and level are actually putting people at a disadvantage (keep in mind the race track example.) We need to be able to take a look at who equitable treatment is serving, and why, and determine its merit that way, not based on how we feel about so called 'special treatment.' Many people have advantages built-in to their daily life in that they don’t have disadvantages in areas that need addressing with social equitable remedies.

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