Wednesday, August 8, 2018

On Equality, Equity and a Few Other Things

"The world is just too complicated.  Life was so much simpler back in the old days."  Ruth Kolman (my grandmother)

I loved my grandma so much.  She is one of the very special people in my life who always believed in me - even in the times when I was full of self doubt.  She is among my personal heroes.  But when she made statements like the one quoted above, I tended to think these were the musings of an elderly person whose bucolic and sanitized memories had become more vivid and real than what was actually going on at the time.

Then again, my grandmother saw and lived through so much change in her 91 years.  She witnessed our world devolve into two global wars and countless other deadly conflicts.  She lived through Prohibition, the Great Depression, McCarthyism, the assassination of a President and near assassination of another.  She lived to see everyone carry cellphones and own microcomputers.  The Wright Brothers touched the sky just a few months before she was born and she died decades after Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.  She once lived in a home where the deed of trust prohibited her and my grandfather from selling it to a person of color.

Indeed, my grandmother saw the world change pretty dramatically from the time Theodore Roosevelt won his first Presidential election in 1904.

I now stand at a point where my grandma once stood.  It is that stage in life where those of us lucky enough to get here, realize the road behind is much longer than the road ahead.  I now know, as she did, that this journey and all it entails, rewards its travelers with priceless experience, opportunities to learn and the time to develop perspective.  Is this what people refer to as wisdom?  I don't really know.  What I do know is that while my grandma may have been justified in worrying about a world moving too fast, I believe we've gone the opposite direction in terms of how we communicate information, concepts, constructs and ideas regarding the complexities of the ever-changing landscape around us.

The world today is arguably more complex than it was in the early years of the last century, but paradoxically the ways in which we communicate information about it has become simplified to the point where meaning and context are diminished, distorted or even lost.  Two examples are the news media in general and social media in particular.  Nowadays everything seems to be communicated in sound bites or 140 characters on a Twitter feed.  Dense and complex information, important topics and deep meaning are constantly distilled to a few short words, a headline, a tag line, a Facebook post, a cartoon and yes, even a blog.

To illustrate, below is an image that has been floating around the web for a few years now.  It is intended to communicate, through two simple frames, the complexities of equality and equity.

The frame on the left is intended to illustrate what happens when students are given the same level of support, resources or whatever the boxes may represent.  Clearly, though each figure stands atop a equal sized box, the figure on the right is still unable to see over the obstacle, a fence.  In the frame on the right, the boxes are redistributed and now everyone can see over the fence.  We've simply, efficiently and succinctly communicated the concepts of equality and equity without having to get into a long, detailed and complex explanation.

Or have we?

As a person with a disability I do not see equity here.  And if I were a person of color I think I'd be shaking my head while wondering, "Is the world ever going to get it?"

From my perspective, achieving equity for people with disabilities is accomplished chiefly by one learning how to compensate for his/her disability.  Receiving an accommodation, no matter how helpful, is not the same thing as learning to compensate.  It's like the difference between being given a fish and learning how to catch them.  As the old saying goes, the former satisfies hunger for a day and the latter for a lifetime.

I cannot tell from the drawing above if the student on the right figured out on his/her own, how to rearrange the boxes (compensation) or if someone else did it for him/her (accommodation).  And if someone else did redistribute the boxes, did the student learn from this experience so he/she could successfully transfer the strategy to other situations?  Was this student given a fish or taught how to catch one?  In other words, with regard to disabilities, I think this image vastly oversimplifies the concepts of equality and equity, while completely ignoring the importance of compensation and accommodation.  It fails in its simplicity, to communicate the whole story.

But what about equality and equity in regard to race?  Doesn't this image help us see that some people of color need more of something in order to, for example, "bridge the achievement gap?"  Actually, there are many (myself included) who see this image as a perpetuation of the myth that racial inequities are somehow physical in nature.  Look at the image again.  The student on the right is experiencing inequity because of his/her physical size.  He/she needs the box (a metaphor for some resource or other) to accommodate his/her height disadvantage.  By extension, in order to achieve equity for people of color, do they need some resource or other to make up for a physical and/or intellectual disadvantage?  Author Ijeoma Oluo would likely say such a notion perpetuates a system of racism.  Oluo defines racism as, "any prejudice against someone because of their race, when those views are reinforced by systems of power." (2018, p. 26).  The notion that people of color are somehow inherently "less than," ultimately supports a system of power that cyclically reinforces the original erroneous notion (Rothstein, 2017).

As with disabilities, I think this image falls woefully short in terms of accurately communicating the complex meaning of equality and equity as they pertains to race.

I've seen this image or one of its many iterations, used to help explain the massively complex system of educational funding in California.  I've also seen it used to illustrate how the "achievement gap" can be narrowed or closed.  Again, these are vast over-simplifications that communicate incomplete or wholly inaccurate information.  The funding of California's public schools has never been, and still isn't, either equal or equitable. And what if the so-called achievement gap is really (as many suggest) an opportunity gap?  What if we don't need to accommodate people by resourcing them with additional boxes, but instead teaching them how to compensate by tearing down the fence that is the real obstacle in the first place?

Oversimplifying the complex deprives us of important context, dumbs us down, distorts the truth and causes us to lose sight of the forest for the trees.  Much as my grandma may have wished it to be the case, the road ahead is not circling back to meet the road we've left behind.  Likewise, our quest to communicate the complex in simple and theoretically more efficient ways, is not going to guide us in the direction we really need to go.


  • Oluo, I. (2018). So you want to talk about race. Hachette UK.
  • Rothstein, R. (2017). The color of law. New York: Liveright.