The Equality Trap: A Call for a New Paradigm

“I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood…I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Martin Luther King Jr.

Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. The man, the myth, the legend who sold America on his dream. During the Civil Rights Movement of the middle of the 20th century, our country held firm to the idea that all people are created equal and that, as a government and society who believed so, all people should be given equal rights. Through desegregation laws, anti-discrimination laws, the Voting Rights Acts and other unprecedented policies, the United States has worked to become a nation where equal rights are granted and racial equality is the new norm. We’ve held tight to our goal of being an equal nation.

That equality is a myth.

It is a myth that permeates the minds of millions of Americans. Before college, and even early in college, it was definitely a myth I myself had bought into. I remember a discussion during my junior year where we discussed affirmative action. I also remember being wholeheartedly against it. My logic was if we want a world where discrimination based on race no longer exists, how could we support a policy that allows institutions to base a decision on the race of those involved? Is that not discrimination based on race? Couldn’t institutions who had affirmative action discriminate against minorities as well, since they’re allowed to make decisions based on race? In a world where all was equal, this logic held up.

Turns out, plenty of people in the country currently feel the same way I felt in that discussion. According to the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Political Typology Report, the country is split just about evenly on whether or not the US has come far enough and is now truly equal (see page 49, you’re welcome). But, if you read a little further you find some things that are a bit more revealing of how we feel about the current status of race in our country.

For example, 67% of one subgroup in the report- the Next Generation Left (the youngest Democratically-leaning group they defined, about 12% of the country)- believe the government has made necessary changes to give blacks equal rights and no more work needs to be done. The study also found that most people believe if a black person can’t succeed in the US, its their own fault.

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“By more than two-to-one, the public says blacks who can’t get ahead are mostly responsible for their own condition. This view is widely held across the three Republican-oriented groups, with at least eight-in-ten taking this position.”

Pew Research Center

In other words, just about every political group except Solid Liberals (about 15% of the population) no longer believe discrimination to be a problem for black Americans.

This data is almost 2 years old now, so my hope is that recent events may have changed these statistics. However, it is abundantly clear that numbers of people in this country definitely still hold these beliefs, and they aren’t all one skin tone. Take a clip of Sean Hannity’s show on Fox from a few months ago, for example, that shows him and a black sheriff, Sheriff Clarke, decrying the Black Lives Matter movement. In the words of this sheriff, he believes

“No longer in the United States- and I think I’m living proof of that- no longer can blacks as a whole claim victim status.”

And that’s not the only time we’ve seen this belief manifest in this way. Many media outlets- Fox News, especially- have shown people holding this belief that discrimination is no longer a problem in the United States. After all, since we all have equal rights, the only rational explanation is that it is a problem with black people, right? Isn’t that what Martin Luther King Jr. fought for? Not quite.

These people are caught in what I call the equality trap. The equality trap is the psychological fallacy where people comprehend, evaluate, and judge the racial politics present in our lives based on the assumption that we are all equal; equal in status, equal in rights, and equal in opportunities. Thinking this way, there can be no other explanation for someone’s failure than in the individual, themselves. However, recent events in our country- and broader data on societal trends overall- prove this idea of equality is not in line with reality. Hence our concept of an equal country is a wrong, it’s a psychological trap- the equality trap. This trap is what has caused people like Mike Huckabee to misuse the ideals of Martin Luther King Jr against the Black Lives Matter movement.

e-qual-i-ty: (noun) the state of being equal especially in status, rights, and opportunities.

However, let’s assume for a moment that I and others who don’t subscribe to this idea of equality are wrong and we are all truly equal. If that were the case, then there would be little to no correlation between negative life outcomes and race.

So in this world where race is no longer an issue, equal opportunities must exist, as that is a part of what it means to be equal. However, in July of 2014 the Huffington Post released an article noting 15 indicators that race still matters and that we are- in fact- not equal. Because, if we were equal, Americans with similar credit scores should be given similar opportunities for loans. However, as one chart in the article shows, this is not the case- race plays a very significant part in determining the quality of loans a person gets. Thus, while we may be equal in our rights, we are far from true equality- equality of status and equality of opportunity are both lacking in our society and those are what are so oft forgot when mentioning how equal we all are in America. So, although Sheriff Clarke and others may have escaped “victim status” (I’m looking at you Pharrell), it is clearly the case that- overall- black people have not.

Considering the prevalence of the equality trap I’d like to argue that it’s time we take up a new paradigm. We’ve fought long and hard for an equal country, however, that equality has yet to be realized. And I’d argue, further, that equality- full equality- will never be realized. Equality is an ideal, something for us all to strive for, but it should come with the understanding that we will most likely never get there. In a capitalist country with people from numerous backgrounds that we should value, true equality will never be a reality. What we need in this country is not equality. What we need is justice.

justice: (adjective) based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

Where equality says “to each the same” justice says “to each as needed”. While we often conflate the two, equal societies can easily be unjust (consider a quick example of a society where laws apply to all equally, but are not justly enforced against all who break them- I’m looking at you America). So while equality is an endearing ideal, it lacks what we have now come to desire – a more diverse society where diversity is respected and difference is not a justification for injustice.

One of my favorite depictions of this distinction is this photo, which first prompted this idea for me so many years ago:


This photo shows the clear distinction between these two concepts. It also demonstrates what I believe most of us are coming to want from society- everyone to be able to see the game. But to get there, we’ve got to get ourselves out of this idea that our work is done, we have to get ourselves out of the idea that just because everyone has a crate that they can see what’s happening. We have to accept that we have a long way to go but even more so we have to believe that that long game can be won; that that long path can be trod.

Today we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., a man who has inspired me to do so much to make the world better than when I entered. In honoring him, we challenge ourselves to recall what it truly is he fought for and not only who he hoped to benefit with his struggle, but why he was needed in the first place. I most certainly believe Dr. King would not have wanted a single, uniform America that so many have discussed as his legacy, but rather an America of and for many and for those diverse Americans to come together to create the United States of America. Equality removes our differences. Justice- and only justice- can unite us around them.

That’s Where I Stand


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