In 1903 sociologist W.E.B Du Bois wrote in his classic book The Souls of Black Folk that “the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.” Now that we have examined race and ethnicity in the United States, what have we found? Where do we stand 118 years after Du Bois wrote about the problem of the color line?
On the one hand, there is cause for hope. Legal segregation is gone. The vicious, “old-fashioned” racism that was so rampant in this country into the 1960's has declined dramatically since that tumultuous time. People of color have made important gains in several spheres of life, such as occupying some important elected positions in and outside of the South, a feat that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Perhaps most notably, Barack Obama has African ancestry and identifies as African American, and on his election night people across the country wept with joy at the symbolism of his victory. Certainly progress has been made in U.S. racial and ethnic relations.
On the other hand, there is also cause for despair. In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in 2020, demands for racial justice and reform were pervasive as hundreds of thousands of people protested all over the country. These demands highlighted the work that remains to be done. The old fashioned racism has been replaced by a modern, symbolic racism that still blames people of color for their problems and reduces public support for government policies designed to address their struggles. Institutional discrimination and racial profiling remains pervasive, and hate crimes remain all too common.
Over one hundred years after W.E.B Du Bois wrote about the problem of the color line, racial and ethnic inequality remains a persistent and pervasive issue in the United States. Therefore, the question of how to achieve racial and ethnic equality is an important one. How do we promote equality in an unequal world? One suggestion is to encourage policies, practices and laws rooted in equity.
Equity vs. Equality
Equality entails giving everyone the exact same resources. Equityentails directly addressing barriers to equality while also providing intentional support, specifically to groups who have been historically and systematically disadvantaged. It is the guarantee of fair treatment, access, opportunity, and advancement for all while at the same time striving to identify and eliminate barriers that have prevented the full participation of some groups (Armstrong, 2019). What is the difference between equity and equality? Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but it can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things.
The principle of equity acknowledges that there are historically underserved and underrepresented populations and that fairness regarding these unbalanced conditions is needed in order to achieve true equality (Armstrong, 2019). Efforts in achieving equality that do not specifically address the existing gaps in opportunities and resources that exist between racial and ethnic groups in the United States only serve to recreate and reproduce the existing inequalities.
In the past decade, equity has been infused into the dialog of higher education. According to the Center for Urban Education (CUE), equity refers to achieving parity in student educational outcomes, regardless of race and ethnicity. Further, equity moves beyond issues of access to higher education and centers instead success outcomes for students of color. (Student success outcomes may be measured by completing a course with a passing grade, completing a degree or certificate, transferring to a 4-year university).
Many institutions of higher education, including faculty members, have strived for equity-mindedness: the perspective or mode of thinking exhibited by practitioners who call attention to patterns of inequity in student outcomes (CUE). Rather than place the blame of unequal student outcomes on the shoulders of students, equity-minded practitioners instead take personal and institutional responsibility for the success of their students and strive to critically reassess their own practices. To become equity-minded requires that practitioners are race-conscious and aware of the socio-historical context of exclusionary practices within United States higher education (CUE). In finality, in order to achieve equity, or equality of outcomes, students must be provided additional resources and support to counter the inequality they have experienced in their previous schooling, socialization, and life experiences.
In the following sections, we will focus our attention on the status of some of the equity-driven policies in the United States, namely affirmative action and reparations.