Sunday, July 3, 2016

Equity and Equality

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz on June 16, 2016, at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post, which discusses changes in the arts education landscape, here.

Equity is not Equality
There is little doubt that issues of equity, inclusion and diversity are front and center in our political and cultural landscape. While Black Lives Matter may be the most visible embodiment of this movement, we have seen growing attention to the topic in mainstream publications such as The Atlantic (Ta Nahisi Coatescry for reparations) and The New York Times (Nikole Hannah-Jones’ story about choosing a public school for her daughter). In the arts field, organizations of all stripes and colors are adopting statements to address the issue(s). Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), for example, has adopted a statement on racial equity in philanthropy. Not only has Dance/USA embraced and adopted equity, inclusion and diversity as core values, it actively uses them as a filter through which all of their operations pass. And, most recently, Americans for the Arts (AFTA) issued a Statement on Cultural Equity. While all of these are important steps in acknowledging critical issues, they do not go far enough. Why? Because without an active assertion of what equity, inclusion and diversity really means -- what these should look like in practice -- the barriers to their existence have little impetus to bend or fall.

When we talk about "equity," we don’t really mean equality, which would deliver the same result to everyone, and would necessitate a totally different social, economic and cultural system. Barry Hessenius, an author and former executive director of the California Arts Council, puts it this way:

Very likely there will never be absolute equity. As individuals, as a sector, as a society we all need to live with that reality. And equity doesn't necessarily mean absolute equality. Rather it means policy and practice that is fair and just. That doesn't mean that progress doesn't need to be made where it can so that we get to a point where we are closer to equity. And I think more people understand that we remain too far away at this point in time. We have to do better than we have.
Herein lies the central dilemma that is raging around our society's discussion of equity. Without a clear definition of what “fair and just” means, we cannot possibly hope to reach a resolution that satisfies all of us, let alone some of us.

Issues of language and its meaning have been critical to addressing the major topics of our society throughout our nation's history. Efforts to control debate through language have been very effective at times, and at least in the public arena it is now common to both the left and the right. We also know that if we do not put forward our own definitions and language, then others will put forward definitions and language for us. For anyone pledged to the cause of equity, it would be advantageous to try to control the conversation. In this regard, just as we strive for greater equity, we need to also ask what does "inequity" mean? Those who already have resources and/or power (that is, "privilege") are usually loathe to see their allocations of these things diminished and one can assume, therefore, that those with privilege are not going to “solve” this dilemma and may not be interested in the discussion. So it falls to those seeking fair equity to propose a new way to allocate resources, with all the pros and cons on the table, for there to be a basis of discussion.

Put another way, those who call for redressing inequity -- and here I'll expand this discussion to include diversity and inclusion, which suffer from the same definitional complexities -- must propose ways to achieve the equity they seek. Standing at the Lincoln Memorial facing a sea of people, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously described his own dream of equity. Dr. King also understood that he who commits to the idea of building a bridge must also offer the path to its construction. Should we fail to follow Dr. King's example, we are left as people standing on opposite sides of a river shouting at each other, with no real means to cross the river or to meet in the middle.

Read the entire fully developed post in Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report here.

1 comment:

  1. Ken, thanks for the great post! Your take on these issues reflects some of my own thinking, and it seemed worth running some ideas by you in case you might be interested. I couldn't find a way to contact you directly so I will leave these thoughts here. This is a comment I left to a similar post on Doug McLennan's Diacritical blog on Arts Journal:

    Once upon a time it was suggested that to know the good was to do the good, and that our failing to do the good was a failure in knowing. And it seems almost certain that equity is a good, inclusiveness is a good, and diversity is a good, but we have an almost impossible time not just implementing these things but understanding what they look like together in a given situation.. Moving from the ideal to the practical gets messy real fast. Knowing in itself seems insufficient. Sadly, knowing that equity is a good is not much help in making the world more equitable.

    One of the practical issues seems to be that if diversity and equity are not exactly incompatible they are at least somewhat at odds. It seems more and more likely that we can aim at diversity at the expense of equity, or we can aim at equity at the expense of diversity, but we can’t do both *well* at the same time. The more inclusive and diverse we make things the harder it is to make sense of equity, and the more equitable and fair things are the less room there seems to be for true differentiation. Equity and fairness are leveling. Diversity and inclusiveness are multiplying (if not in fact fracturing). I’m not saying these ideals are necessarily mutually exclusive, just that in practical terms they create difficulties for each other.

    So perhaps its a real question whether we can have our cake AND eat it too. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t want to, just that ideals are what we strive for, the values that motivate us, and that their rightness is no measure of their attainability. Ideals are an important aspect of human beliefs and behavior, but there is also the messy reality of the world in which we seek to impose them. Perhaps it resembles the quantum problem of measuring *either* the position of particles with precision or their momentum, but not both at the same time. Is there a clue here about the fundamental nature of our ability to establish values in the world? The brighter you shine a light the deeper the shadows? The tighter the focus the more things get left unaccounted for?

    Maybe we simply need to face up to the condition that the different ways we have of measuring the world, the different values we attach to it, are not all lined up for us to accommodate at the same times. Yes diversity. And yes equity. Can we really do them both well at the same time?

    We don’t need proof that diversity and equity are good things and worth pursuing. What we need proof of is that they can coexist in the world to an exemplary degree at the same time.

    Any thoughts? (This seems part of a much larger discussion of how we identify and implement values in the world. Aspirational values can play definite roles in our lives without themselves being manifest, but we get confused thinking that in some verifiable way they must be realized for it to make sense using them. Misunderstanding that issue seems to be at the heart of so much of our confusion.....)

    Thanks again for addressing these issues so thoughtfully!