Since officially becoming Growing Community Media’s equity editor and ombudsman, I’ve been thinking a lot about what the position entails.

It may seem surprising that I’m thinking about the purpose of a role to which I’ve already been named. Why, a reader may ask, is this position not already defined and fleshed out? Why are you feeling your way in the dark? 

Well, for one, because the idea of equity has no generally agreed upon definition, despite the term’s current trendiness in corporate boardrooms and school boardrooms and municipal boardrooms. 

Since George Floyd’s death last year, terms like racial equity, racial justice, diversity and inclusion have been all the rage. 

According to a 2020 McKinsey report, roughly a third of the 1,000 largest U.S. companies by revenue made statements in support of racial justice between May 25, 2020 (when Floyd died) and Oct. 31, 2020. 

Roughly 1 in 5 of the top 1,000 companies made either external commitments (i.e., through donations, strategic investments, etc.) or internal commitments (i.e., requiring diverse candidate pools, increasing spends with Black suppliers, etc.) to promote racial equity. 

Google Trends shows that searches for the term “racial equity” increased exponentially from May 2016 to April 2021, with search interest during that period peaking in January (Google was among those companies that made various racial equity and racial justice commitments).  

And yet, despite all of these efforts, real racial equity is still elusive, as “racial disparities are produced, reinforced, and amplified across sectors,” McKinsey explains, without a hint of self-awareness.

The famously amoral consulting firm, which has reportedly advised the Sackler family on increasing its opioid sales and reportedly advised the Trump Administration on its deportation policies (all of this, of course, for a hefty fee), recommends  “five key elements [that] would boost the effectiveness of ongoing racial-equity efforts.”  

Stacey A. Gordon, CEO and chief diversity strategist of ReWork Work, writes in her new book, UNBIAS: Addressing Unconscious Bias at Work, that the “number one question” she is asked by companies is, “How will we know we’re doing the right thing?”  

It seems everyone wants to jump on board the racial equity, racial justice, diversity and inclusion train, but no one seems to know where it’s going — myself included. 

So what is racial equity? 

I think of equity beyond race (it’s also about gender, class, wealth, physical ability, etc.), but in order to maintain my current strain of thought, I’ll isolate the concept to race (insofar as race can be isolated from other issues, particularly class and wealth). 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation offers a clear definition in its “Race Equity and Inclusion Action Guide,” written in partnership with Oak Parker Terry Keleher, a leading thought leader in the racial justice and racial equity field. 

Step one in the Action Guide is to establish an understanding of race equity and inclusion principles. 

“Often, race-focused conversations derail because people are using the same terms in different ways,” the Guide explains. 

“Equity is defined as ‘the state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair.’ The concept of equity is synonymous with fairness and justice,” the Guide adds. “It is helpful to think of equity as not simply a desired state of affairs or a lofty value. To be achieved and sustained, equity needs to be thought of as a structural and systemic concept.” 

In order to communicate effectively about race, in general, the Guide states, we need to move “people from the narrow and individualized definition of racism to a more comprehensive and systemic awareness. To illuminate racism we need to ‘name it, frame it and explain it.’” 

Beyond critiquing and reacting to race inequities, the Guide explains, we need to know how to “create and proactively build racial equity” and that requires establishing “a shared language to present data, describe conditions and outcomes and identify root causes of inequities. A common language creates a narrative that makes it easier to communicate the commitment to racial equity.” 

The Guide gives some of the best practical advice I’ve come across so far in my early research, but I’m afraid it doesn’t address what I fear is a much deeper reason for why conceptualizing racial equity, let alone achieving it, is so hard for Americans and our institutions. 

What if, at base, no “common narrative” around race and equity can be drafted? What if our competing frames of reference around race and equity are irresolvable? And what if, instead of treating a shared narrative as a given, we start our understanding of race and equity by thinking about the moral quandary into which these concepts were born? 

Consider, for instance, the Treaty of 1804. The United States offered the Sauk and Fox peoples cash and goods every year in exchange for their land. Was this an equitable exchange? 

Another word for equity is ownership — a concept that was practically alien to the Sauk and Fox peoples, as historian William Cronon explains. The natives, he writes, considered their lives and the land’s as one. They “had lived by wandering across a broad landscape in their movements between cropland and hunt, a practice that fit poorly with American notions of bounded property.” 

“Nothing,” said Sauk Chief Black Hawk, “can be sold, but such things as can be carried away.” The land could not be sold, from the perspective of the natives, because it wasn’t anyone’s to own in the first place. And because the natives refused to negotiate on the United States’ terms, refused to enter that shared ideological space, ownership for the white men meant genocide for the natives. In this way, equity and inequity are two sides of the same coin. 

From the standpoint of my imagined McKinsey equity consultant, after the genocide, the U.S. may consider returning some of the land or issuing reparations or making strategic donations or increasing its spend with Native American suppliers. The U.S., however, cannot return a culture it has nearly liquidated, nor can she raise the dead. 

“It had long been accepted that slaves were assets that could be seized for debt, but Jefferson turned this around when he used slaves as collateral for a very large loan he had taken out in 1796 from a Dutch banking house in order to rebuild Monticello,” the Smithsonian tells us.

“The slavery economy of the U.S. South is deeply tied financially to the North, to Britain, to the point that we can say that people who were buying financial products in these other places were in effect owning slaves, and were extracting money from the labor of enslaved people,” writes historian Edward E. Baptist in The Half Has Never Been Told.

What is racial equity to the enslaved people who were considered literal equity? And what is racial equity to their descendants? When so much of the equity in this country, which on the whole is white, is derived from Black bodies — what am I to make of the solemn-but-perverse claims of the enriched that they would like to return some of this equity to me? How? In the excavated bones of my people? 

What is racial equity to the Blacks in North Lawndale whose home equity was stolen through the complicated scheme of contract lending? What is racial equity to a Black family that has negative wealth? What is racial equity to Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, destroyed by an envious white mob in 1921? What is racial equity to George Floyd and Tamir Rice and Eric Garner? 

The other part of my new title — that of ombudsman — is, as National Public Radio helpfully explains, “to get answers for listeners, viewers and readers. News ombudsmen (also known in newspapers as public editors or readers’ representatives) investigate complaints and concerns about matters of accuracy, fairness, balance and good taste.” 

I don’t have any answers yet. In fact, the point of these tortured musings is to resist the allure of thinking about equity the way Google and McKinsey and the country’s top 1,000 companies do.  

“By claiming that they solve the world’s hardest problems,” a former McKinsey consultant wrote in a 2019 article published anonymously in the magazine Current Affairs, McKinsey Consulting shrinks “the solution space to only those that preserve the status quo.” 

Right now, in lieu of answers and to avoid falling into that shrunken space, I can only pose more difficult and messy questions, which I hope contain the seeds of a real reckoning. After all, as an ombudsman I have a duty to critique. 

What if equity is withered from the root? What if the conceptual soil around which the term has grown, particularly in recent years, needs tilling? What if equity, instead of a mission to achieve, is an object lesson to avoid? 

What if the very concept itself is problematic? 

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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