Why Progress Towards Equality Feels Unfair

With a view of the progress that has been made in the past century of the American struggle for equality firmly planted in mind, the notion that equality has already arrived is an understandably tempting one to espouse. In a society that often declares and considers itself to be post-feminist, post-racial, and generally post-discrimination, it is all too easy to be lulled into a sense of satisfaction — and even complacency — regarding social issues.

Comparisons to the past, along with our intuitive sense of what is and is not fair, often impede actual progress toward equality.

In terms of the law, explicit discrimination is no longer permitted in most, though not all, aspects of life, from housing access to service at privately-owned businesses. The list of protected classes whose members are empowered to pursue legal action against those employers that demonstrate overt bigotry continues to grow on both the state and national level. Both the approval rating and the actual rate of interracial marriage increases exponentially by the year while same-sex marriage becomes legal in more and more states. The percentage of black and Latino students at institutes of higher education goes up (albeit slowly) every year.

Making progress from and doing well compared to the past, however, is not quite the same as having achieved equality. The arguably most powerful people in the United States, CEOs and board members for large corporations, continue to be mostly white men. From a gender standpoint, there are more CEOs named John than there are women in those positions. In lower levels of employment, progress has been slow and painstaking, if not somewhat stalled. On the education front, economic and racial privilege continues to rule, with students from impoverished backgrounds remaining be rare at elite university campuses and disparities in high school graduation rates between white and black teenagers persisting. At the same time, moves to increase diversity through affirmative action are perceived as “reverse discrimination” and dubbed “prejudice.” In the face of statistics that clearly demonstrate that discrimination persists, why do so many fail to accept the validity of countermeasures?

The answer lies in the way that bias more subtly manifests itself in American society today. In a world where Klu Klux Klan members claim that they are not hateful and a man who states explicit beliefs in white superiority vehemently insists that he is neither racist nor hateful, explicit discrimination has mostly fallen out of favor. The message internalized by the cultural zeitgeist is that discrimination and hatred are not thoughts and feelings that good people have, so even overtly prejudiced people distance themselves from them. Despite the aversion to open discrimination and hatred, implicit bias persists in areas such as race and gender. In short, people’s prejudices have gone from being admitted to being buried on a level that mostly precludes conscious acknowledgement.

When we cannot realize, let alone openly express our biases, the idea of actively working to counter them seems not only pointless but also counterproductive. The idea that we ought to discriminate in order to achieve equality is offensive if the problem of existing discrimination goes unnamed and unacknowledged.

In short, discrimination still exists, progress has never been made by ignoring extant biases, and no matter how unfair it intuitively feels, active correction of those intrinsic biases is the only way to continue to improve society.

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Why Progress Towards Equality Feels Unfair
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9 thoughts on “Why Progress Towards Equality Feels Unfair

  1. 1

    This. So very much this.

    As someone who at least tries to be a good ally, one phrase I strive to keep in mind is this: “If I win, in the future, I will have been a horrible person.” By this, I simply mean, “Some of the things I have as part of my daily operating assumptions will be regarded, in the future, as completely retrograde and unacceptable, morally and ethically. This fact should not, and can not, keep me from fighting for that future to come about.” The Founding Fathers of the U.S. left half the country out of the right to representation. Jefferson owned slaves. Lincoln suspended civil liberties in time of war. Many of the suffragettes were also racists. This does not mean that they were not correct in their progressive views, but merely that they failed to progressives at all times, and in all fields, because they were human and focused very much on the fight that was most obvious to them.

    Unfortunately, there’s a very human tendency to want to gloss over the failings of our ‘heroes’. This makes it harder for us, paradoxically, to live up to our best standards in ourselves, because we don’t like to feel like we’ve come up short. I also think the failure to comprehend this is one reason for the much-touted tendency for people to drift into increasingly conservative viewpoints as they age.

  2. 2

    Which is why arguing with anti-feminist atheists makes me do an epic facepalm: they all think sexism is over because you can’t legally discriminate against women anymore.

  3. 3

    Thanks, Heina.

    When we cannot realize, let alone openly express our biases, the idea of actively working to counter them seems not only pointless but also counterproductive. The idea that we ought to discriminate in order to achieve equality is offensive if the problem of existing discrimination goes unnamed and unacknowledged.

    For people who like snappy titles for fallacies, Heina here identifies one that is common enough to have a title, the Just World hypothesis: “The world as it is right now is already a just world. Any proposal to change the status quo is, therefore, increasing injustice.”

    The more privilege one has, the more one is insulated from confrontations with the injustice of the world; and so the more attractive a fallacy the Just World hypothesis is. Thereby making the most privileged groups the most likely to cling to the fallacy when someone wants to combat a systemic injustice.

    As someone with several of the most common flavours of privilege, I can attest that it’s quite difficult to shift from the Just World hypothesis, especially having already bought into it as justification to defend against people who are “going too far” from what appeared to me to be an optimally just situation.

    This is why, compared with those who actually do suffer unjust discrimination, it takes a ludicrously high quantity, and quality, of evidence to pierce the Just World illusion: that illusion has strong emotional value because it justifies the privileged person’s narrative that they are a person defending against injustice. Normal standards of evidence simply aren’t enough to shift that.

  4. 4

    On prejudice being over, I find part of this is that many people seem to believe that to be prejudiced, you must be consciously hostile towards some particular group, and that in the absence of conscious hostility, a person will be totally fair.

    I’m not so sure that this would all be due to the idea that prejudice is a bad thing. Part of it might just be people feel that, regardless of their behavior (which may show any number of biases) they can simply declare themselves to be not prejudiced and that settles it and as long as they don’t say anything too offensive they can get a free pass for their less obvious bigotry. When I think of this, I think of Rick Santorum’s ‘blah people’ comment. Even when he said something overtly racist, enough people were willing to let him deny it.

    Another issue is the denial that bias exists, or the refusal to admit it can be there even when people believe they are totally fair. I’m not sure if this is lack of knowledge or denialism. I may just lean towards denialism since I’m aware of the amount of research that exists on the topic.

  5. 5

    Also, a lot of progress has stalled out as people get into taking aim at easy targets. It says a lot that the NBA didn’t care and people didn’t care abut Donald Sterling’s actual racist actions that actually hurt people, but once they discovered private racist thoughts, it was game on. This is a somewhat frustrating pattern, as difficult issues often get thrown under the bus in search of easy targets.

  6. 6

    Edward Gemmer, #5

    Also, a lot of progress has stalled out as people get into taking aim at easy targets. It says a lot that the NBA didn’t care and people didn’t care abut Donald Sterling’s actual racist actions that actually hurt people, but once they discovered private racist thoughts, it was game on. This is a somewhat frustrating pattern, as difficult issues often get thrown under the bus in search of easy targets.

    Oh yeah, you’re right. Black people have stalled a lot of progress by focusing on the garbage flowing out the mouths of racist shitstains like Sterling.

    (Heina, can you please update your post to include “also, black people are part of the cause of their own oppression too”?)

    Is there any aspect of bigotry you haven’t been an apologist for on this blog? I’ve only come across a few of your posts so far, but I understand you’re a long time regular.

  7. 7

    In short, discrimination still exists, progress has never been made by ignoring extant biases, and no matter how unfair it intuitively feels, active correction of those intrinsic biases is the only way to continue to improve society.

    Should we apply this reasoning also to those biases that cause women to be overrepresented by about thirty percent among US college graduates and men to be vastly overrepresented in those workplaces where workers run a high risk of being seriously injured on the job (like construction workers, truck drivers, roofers, soldiers, firemen)? Or are those biases not a problem in the sense of improving society or not a problem to be tackled with affirmative action?

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