Winning against all odds in a deliberately rigged process is not evidence of fairness. Should this be the standard expectation for people of color?

Robert Livingston

When I was in the fourth grade, I attended the high school track meet of my older cousin, Terry. I remember being confused and upset by the “head start” given to the other runners on the track. You see, Terry was on the inside lane so his starting point was several feet behind the runner to his right, with the “lead” steadily increasing for each runner in the adjacent outside lanes. In my eyes, all the runners should have had the same linear starting line, regardless of their location. How could the officials let this happen?

I was expecting an equal starting line, so the staggered starts seemed unfair. What I did not realize at the time is that these different, but equitable, starting lines guaranteed a fair race despite the illusion to the contrary. If the meet’s officials had given all the runners the same linear starting point, then Terry would have had a big advantage over the runners in the outside lanes. It turns out my fourth grade understanding of geometry distorted my perception of the situation.

Equity versus equality 

Many people fail to realize that injustice can be created or perpetuated when everyone is treated the same. Those who believe that white people and people of color should be treated the same are looking at the world in the same way I looked at that oval racetrack as a fourth grader. They don’t realize that people of color are running a very different race – being relegated to track’s outside lanes, with no staggered start. Some people lack sufficient understanding of geometry, and are simply unaware that an equal starting line handicaps runners in outside lanes. Others are perfectly fine with a rigged race because winning is more important to them than fairness.

In the recent burst of commitment on the part of many organizations to “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” it’s the middle word whose nuanced meaning is too often overlooked. It’s critical for individuals and organizations to begin having candid conversations about the difference between equality and equity. Equality involves treating everyone the same. Equity means treating people differently, but in a way that makes sense. If we look beyond race, examples of equitable treatment abound.

Parents often claim that they treat all their kids the same. But, even for the well-intentioned parents of multiple children, is that really true? A six-month-old demands a different level of care than a six-year-old. Children with special needs may require more attention than children without special needs. And children with timid and diffident personalities have different challenges than children of similar age who are more independent and confident. Parents adapt interactions to the unique wants or needs of each child.

Organizations also treat people differently, in ways that make sense. Executives who bring in more profit receive larger bonuses. Employees who have a longer tenure with the organization often enjoy greater job security. And individuals with physical disabilities have access to more proximate parking spaces than those without mobility challenges.

Making people with physical disabilities use the same parking spaces as everyone else is equal treatment but it’s not equitable. Equity would mean creating accessible parking closer to the building, with ramps that provide equal access. In short, fairness often requires treating people differently—but in a way that makes sense. The hardships of people of color do not reflect inherent disabilities but rather structural disparities. Although runners in the outside lanes are not innately slower, the structure of the racetrack makes it harder for them to compete when the starting line is equal rather than equitable.

Treating people differently in a way that makes sense

When organizations commit to racial equity, they also must commit to the process and practice of treating people differently – but in a way that makes sense. This represents a new way of thinking for many leaders who have spent their entire lives thinking that fairness requires treating everyone the same. Of course, all of this assumes that there is sufficient knowledge that systemic racism exists in the first place.

Even among those who acknowledge the existence and impact of racism, some will argue that runners in the outside lane just need to sprint harder. Indeed, they might occasionally win the race in spite of having a longer distance to run. Even so, a successful outcome is not evidence of a fair process. Should winning against all odds, in races that were deliberately rigged, be the standard expectation for people of color? If not, what are we doing to make the race more fair? Let’s talk about it.

Robert Livingston, a social psychologist on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of « The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Transform Individuals and Organizations. »