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Equity is Democracy in Action

Virginia Civil Rights Memorial at the state Capitol. Courtesy Times-Dispatch

Susan T. Gooden, a member of MDC’s board of directors, recently authored the op-ed, “Equity Is Democracy in Action” for the Richmond Times-Dispatch

The word “equity” has taken center stage recently with questions about its meaning and application. While it is appropriate to seek clarification of terms, it is not appropriate to arbitrarily redefine the meaning of words. A simple dictionary search reveals that the word equity is about fairness and justice. Equity, fairness and justice are not terms ripe for exclusion in our lexicon, but rather words to elevate and aspire to achieve.

The supreme law of the land, the U.S. Constitution, begins with the words “We the people ….” But, for more than a century, the term “we” did not extend inclusion to African Americans until after the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, and still years later, the inclusion of women via the 19th Amendment. It was the quest for equity, fairness and justice that made these accomplishments so. Fundamentally, equity is democracy in action.

Over the years, many leaders have advanced the attainment of equity. One such example is the Americans with Disabilities Act. When President George H.W. Bush signed this act into law on July 26, 1990, he poignantly shared, “Our success with this act proves that we are keeping faith with the spirit of our courageous forefathers who wrote in the Declaration of Independence: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’ These words have been our guide for more than two centuries as we’ve labored to form our more perfect union. But tragically, for too many Americans, the blessings of liberty have been limited or even denied. The Civil Rights Act of ‘64 took a bold step toward righting that wrong. But the stark fact remained that people with disabilities were still victims of segregation and discrimination, and this was intolerable.”

A key feature of the ADA is that it requires businesses to provide access to their goods and services to those with disabilities, such as installing ramps and making buildings accessible for persons using wheelchairs. The passage of this law improved equity for millions of individuals relative to accessing jobs, schools, transportation, governmental agencies and private businesses.

Equity is an essential concern as government agencies, private-sector corporations and elected officials seek decision-making that is fair and just for the people they serve. Deborah Stone’s classic book, “Policy Paradox,” aptly captures the complexities of equity. In it she challenges the reader to fairly divide a chocolate cake. The first answer that emerges is to give each person one slice, but then other factors, such as allergies, hunger, preference and influence, quickly come into play. The solutions become more complicated. Should slices be allocated based on membership, merit, status, need, competition, lottery or election?

True to reality, the resources available in society are not infinite and the solutions will inevitably result in varying degrees of gains and losses. It is our commitment to democratic values that compels us to work toward fair solutions that consider overall context. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when vaccines first became available, we prioritized vaccinating the elderly living in congregate settings over the general population at large. Why? Because they were exceedingly vulnerable to the most negative outcomes of the virus, and the goal was to save as many lives as possible.

But COVID-19 isn’t our nation’s only pandemic. In every facet of public governance, we encounter profound questions of fairness that demand our attention. For example, what can we do to effectively bridge the persistent academic learning gaps among our nation’s youth, which have been further exacerbated by a pandemic? How can we work to ensure a just response to natural disasters that disproportionately affect communities that already have limited capacity to recover and rebuild? And, how can we address inadequate funding for historically Black colleges and universities that have been systematically denied resources for generations?

Addressing these crucial societal questions demands an unwavering commitment to advancing equity and fairness. It demands that we place an even greater emphasis on the concept of equity, not less. The democratic pursuit of fairness remains a guiding light that should drive our actions. As Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, now deceased, appropriately surmised, “What the people want is very simple — they want an America as good as its promise.”

Our America includes a promise of equality and justice for all. We cannot truly achieve justice without a language that fosters its realization — and this requires deliberate use of the term equity.

Susan T. Gooden, Ph.D., is dean of the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. Contact her at [email protected].
Read more at Richmond Times-Dispatch, 5/21/23