Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 19 April 2021


 Ben Carson: Moving our focus from equality to equity won’t defeat racism. It’s another kind of racism.

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Then-Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson speaks to reporters after touring the Plymouth Place senior housing facility in Des Moines, Iowa, in September. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)
Opinion by Ben Carson
April 19, 2021 at 4:51 a.m. GMT+8

Ben Carson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development from 2017 to 2021, is the founder of the American Cornerstone Institute.

As we continue to be bombarded by racially charged narratives, there has been a subtle shift in the conversation: Its focus has moved from equality to equity. That is, instead of pursuing the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s ideal of judging people by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, equity would reward and punish people because of the color of their skin. Rather than equality of opportunity, equity would mandate equality of outcome.

This goal is not only un-American — it is impossible to attain.

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Equity’s worldview, as I see it, starts with the proposition that the White majority is guilty of bigotry and oppression, and that all differential outcomes between groups are solely the result of that bigotry and oppression. Equity proponents therefore argue that retributive actions against the majority are necessary to correct those wrongs. Reparations for slavery — which a House committee has voted to study — are such an action; so are hiring programs that specifically recruit racial minorities, campaigns to support only Black-owned businesses and firms that require their board of directors to have a certain percentage of minorities. A perfect example of equity is the anti-poverty stipend recently announced by the city of Oakland, Calif., offered only to residents who are “BIPOC” — that is, Black, Indigenous or people of color. The program explicitly excludes poor White families.

Proponents of equity see no problem with treating groups of people differently based solely on race, as long as it serves their agenda. This is what we used to call racism, and those not blinded by identity politics still recognize it as such.

There are several problems with the equity rationale. Most important, those alive today are not culpable for misconduct that took place long before they were born, and it would be unjust to hold them responsible for it. It would also be unjust to provide benefits to those who were not actual victims of that misconduct. Regardless, explicitly categorizing people by race, and distributing governmental benefits and burdens based on those categories, never works. It does not work in theory for a country like ours, steeped in the ideals of equality and justice. And it does not work in practice, either, as we have seen in the end results of race- or ethnic-based governance in such places as Lebanon, Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia.

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Even assuming we avoid the worst-case outcomes of ethnic violence and civil war, it is still unclear that equity programs are or could be successful. There is scant evidence that robbing Peter to pay Paul on a purely racial basis would produce better outcomes for the recipient. A perfect example comes from the housing market: The Black homeownership rate today stands at the lowest level since the 1960s, despite hundreds of billions of dollars in spending since that time on various types of redistribution programs of the type that equity advocates desire.

Redistribution agendas driven by race-based victimization narratives that demonize entire groups are bound to fail on many fronts. All available evidence indicates that family structure, educational attainment and workforce participation are the keys to reducing disparities. Thus, reforms that strengthen the family, prioritize student achievement and restore decent-paying jobs for the American working class would do much better at addressing the issues that equity initiatives ostensibly aim to solve. But doing that would be anathema to the equity advocates; to them, the fact that family formation and hard work lead to success is evidence that the system is broken.

Meanwhile, distributing government benefits and burdens based on the accident of race or gender is guaranteed to produce resentment among the disfavored group. In fact, this is already happening in the United States, reducing social unity at a time when it is needed most.

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Rather than harking back to days of racism as a policy, we must continue to promote programs and policies that provide equal opportunity and better outcomes. As a child raised by a single mother in Detroit, I certainly experienced racism. But I took responsibility for my own life and achieved more than what equity advocates would say our current system allows. Rather than teach our children that they are victims of a racist system in which they can only be made whole by making people who have done nothing wrong pay for the past sins of others, we should teach them that they are in charge of their own dignity and their own future.

Instead of treating people only as representatives of larger groups, let’s get back to treating people as individuals. Instead of tearing down institutions, let’s work together to make them better. Together we must strive for a more perfect union in which people are judged by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

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