two definitions of equality

I've gotten lots of great feedback, comments, and questions from some of you (either here, in my email, via Skype, or in person) and that feedback is super valuable to me, so please keep it coming. If you have anything that you'd like to know my thoughts about, please let me know! So, today's topic: feminism's 2 definitions of equality!

I think this is an important post because it serves as a backdrop to many other posts that I'll write and to my worldview and ethical perspectives in general.... so, without further ado...

Feminism asserts two claims that at first glance appear to be contradictory. On the one hand, feminists firmly assert that all people are fundamentally and irrevocably equal. And, on the other hand, feminists assert that people are profoundly and shockingly un-equal. Let me explain.

In the first claim, we are making a claim that people are ontologically equal in value. All people (no matter the race, gender, sex, class, nationality, sexuality orientation, etc.) are precisely equal in their worth as living beings. They can all contribute to society; they all deserve to be treated with respect, and none of them deserve to suffer under oppression. So, yes, I claim that all people are equal.

In the second claim, we are talking about something different. The second claim makes an observation about the world and the way that society functions. This is to say that feminists observe and want to call attention to the fact that different populations/people have vastly un-equal access to resources. The term 'resources' here is very broadly construed and can include access to wealth, education, clean water, support systems, medical care, mental health care, technologies, transportation, etc. By highlighting that some people can easily access all of these resources and that some people struggle to access even one of these resources, feminists (including myself) assert that people are profoundly un-equal. Basically, the claim here is that people have had drastically different levels of access to the things necessary for health and success.

This second claim and its implications require further explanation.

What I mean when I claim that people are un-equal in this way is that social structures function to continue to disadvantage those populations who have been historically disadvantaged. This can be observed on both an individual level and on a societal level.

Imagine a 16 year old Black girl, let's call her Tasha, who is being raised by a single mother who works 4 jobs. They live in an urban neighborhood in a high crime area in LA. Then imagine someone like Mark Zuckerberg, a white male who comes from a wealthy, educated, professional, and tech-savy family. Do Tasha and Mark have equal opportunity to succeed in the world? We have been taught to say yes. We have been taught to say that all people are equal so all people (with hard work) can achieve the American Dream and can be economically successful. But, I believe that this line we've been fed about the American Dream is at best a dreamer's fantasy and at worst a vicious and manipulative lie. Tasha will struggle to make it through high school, will not be able to use new computers or lab equipment because her school can't afford them, will not be able to afford to participate in SAT tutoring classes or other enrichment programs, and will spend her time avoiding trouble and trying to stay safe. If she makes it into college at all, it will likely be a community college, and definitely not an Ivy League school. And because of her poor education, even if she does make it into college, she will struggle to graduate and likely get less than stellar grades. Afterward, she will have to work hard to find any job at all (because all the other applicants will have better credentials from better schools). She will have to work very hard to overcome her situation, and even then her hard work will only get her so far. On the other hand, Mark will have grown up with the wealth, the tutors, the computers, and the safe free time necessary to become a hacker before graduating high school. He will then get into Harvard, and be able to attend because his family can afford it. Then, because he has a safety net to fall back on if he loses everything and because he has enough money to pay for startup, he has the ability to drop out of Harvard, move to Palo Alto, and spend every moment working on Facebook. He will then gain millions in investments, and become a billionaire.  So, did Tasha and Mark have equal probably of becoming successful? Hell no. Both of them worked hard, but what they were able to work hard doing was very different because of their different histories.

This pattern is also observable on a larger scale. After the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, we saw (some) factories commit to becoming explicitly anti-racism. They changed their hiring practices and their promotion policies. They strictly hired and promoted based on merit. However, if their new policy says, "We will promote to manger the people who are most qualified, as demonstrated through the success of previous managerial duties," and if no Black people have ever been given managerial duties, then it is still only white men who get the promotions. Merit based anti-racist practices often still perpetuate racism.... because people have not historically had equal access to resources.

This means that people's wealth/success or failure/poverty is much more a reflection of their access to resources than it is a reflection of their commitment to hard work. Hard work does not equal success. Access to resources equals success.

A syllogism to summarize my perspective:

  • I believe the claim that all people are equal in worth includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to the resources necessary to be healthy and successful. (It should be noted that success does not have to be defined economically, but let's be honest, in our society, success is defined economically, so I'll just stay within that definition for now. Perhaps I will post an opposition to our current economic system later.)
  • I also think that observations of society can easily demonstrate that people have historically not had equal access to the resources necessary for health and success. Furthermore, I think we can easily conclude that a person's current access to resources is very related to (if not wholly determined by) their access to resources in the past.
  • Therefore, if we assert that all people are equal in worth, then we must also support practices that (at least start to) correct the history of un-equal access to resources.

I could be more blunt about what this means for me in terms of practices and politics, but perhaps I should leave that for another day. I also could relate this post to terms like 'structural racism' and 'privilege' but again, I think that might need to be saved for another day.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you agree with my observations about the history of un-equal access to resources? Do you agree that previous un-equal access to resources greatly impacts current access to resources? Do you agree that a claim of equality of worth for all people includes within it the claim that all people should have equal access to resources?