On Aug. 28, we will mark 50 years since the March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech. With the recent not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for having shot and killed unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin, racial tensions and familiar questions are bubbling to the surface, and many are questioning how much progress has been made in diversity and inclusiveness since 1963.
One of the ways we can move forward and change the old scripts is to focus on equity, not equality. Equality, according to Webster’s Dictionary, means “as great as,” “the same as,” or “like or alike in quantity, degree, value, etc.” King only mentioned equality twice in his “I Have a Dream” speech, and while he was likely referring to the “as great as” meaning of the word, it’s the latter definition — a sense of uniformity and sameness — and its lack of desirability that seems to be coming out in many opinions lately regarding race in the U.S.
While most people profess valuing human differences to some degree, and decry any attempt to make us all “the same,” few truly believe or comprehend the real and profound differences in people’s perspectives and lived experiences. We assume that people are like interchangeable machines, believing that the justice system metes out objective decisions equally to all, and that had Zimmerman’s and Martin’s roles or races been reversed, the outcome of the trial would have (should have) been the same. We assume that the N-word uttered by young black males to each other in friendly social settings is the exact same N-word spoken by white celebrity chef Paula Deen to her husband and employees.
However, these assumptions are naïve at best and dangerous at worst. We are not apples and apples. Even when we speak the same words and perform the same actions, they are not the same. There is a different context, history and impact in those scenarios depending on who the players are. Arguing about whether or not it should be that way is moot.
Equality is a “universalist” approach, centered within oneself, applying one set of rules to vastly diverse people and situations. It focuses on keeping my behavior consistent. It says “I treat everyone equally.” Equity, defined by Webster’s as “the quality of being fair or impartial” and “that which is just,” is centered on others, on keeping the impact of my behavior on diverse others consistent. For instance, my parents had one set of rules for all three of us kids about how old we had to be before getting our first watch, first bicycle, first bra, etc. The well-intended, theoretically “fair” uniformity (equality) of those rules turned out to be very unfair (inequitable) in their practical application given that we had different needs and maturation rates.
King didn’t mention equity in his speech, but he did mention justice eight times, and injustice three times. I suspect he’d think that fairness and justice (equity) is preferable to sameness (equality). And I suspect he’d believe that regardless of our good conscious intentions, it’s the impact of our words, actions, policies and systems, and whether or not those are equitable, that matter more. Besides, “equity” also refers to a security representing an ownership interest in an investment. And isn’t it time we all held more equity in D&I and its dream deferred of excellence and brilliance?