At MDC, we talk a lot about equity. Equity is related to, but not the same as, the American ideal of equal opportunity, which is, as MDC’s president David Dodson says, the idea that “if you work hard, and you play by the rules, you can succeed, because the environment is largely benign.” That ideal is far from being realized. In this video of a presentation at Brazosport College Dodson explains equity in the community college context:

There is a gap between reality, the current reality of deep performance gaps between and among student groups, and the longed for ideal of a society that really does have this level playing field where people who work hard can move ahead without restriction.


Once we see those performance gaps, we have to ask ourselves why they exist. More from the Dodson video:

To what degree are the gaps that we see between one group of students and another the result of inadequate individual effort, or do they indicate the presence of a tilted playing field that may have a lot of obstacles and landmines in it?

That titled playing field, full of landmines, is governed by structural inequities, or “policies and practices that result in achievement gaps, because of the way institutions and society are organized and operated.” While these inequities may be beyond individual control, they are not beyond institutional and societal control; we can neutralize them when we design policies, practices, and programs with equity in mind. Dodson explains the difference between equal treatment and equitable treatment:

Practicing equity does not mean treating all students identically. Two people come into the Emergency Room: one suffering a heart attack, the other has a broken foot. I would not treat them equally. I would treat them equitably. In other words, their situation defines the nature of the response.

The medical analogy for equity is the triage process: assigning degrees of urgency of illness to determine priority of treatment. We need a triage protocol for our systems of educational and economic opportunity.

A belief that equal treatment, and not equitable treatment, will eventually lead to a level playing field is dangerous. Equity is particularly important when we think about continued disparities in outcomes by race and ethnicity. Structural racism is structural inequity that results from a history of advantaging one group, white Americans, over people of color. We talked about this on the blog last week: “We have to understand this past, of how we built and maintain the narrative of racial difference, not as a footnote or blunder in an otherwise admirable advancement of American society, but as woven deeply into the fabric of our social and economic structures.” We like to think that our society has moved beyond racism, but if the past few weeks of public discourse have taught us anything, it is that we still have work to do, particularly in the South. Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why we can not just wish away the legacy and continued injury of slavery, white supremacist terrorism, and segregation:

Indeed, in America, there is a strange and powerful belief that if you stab a black person 10 times, the bleeding stops and the healing begins the moment the assailant drops the knife. We believe white dominance to be a fact of the inert past, a delinquent debt that can be made to disappear if only we don’t look.

That is why we need to talk about equity. That is why we need to talk about racial equity.

Why does this conversation about equity matter? Equity matters for how we understand society and because it impacts what we are willing to invest in and who we are willing to invest in. Without understanding equity, growing inequality and low economic mobility do not seem like a big deal; there will always be some people who succeed and some who do not, we might think. But when we understand that your odds of success, or your access to the systems of educational and economic success, depend on your starting point, and that starting point is based in a history of oppression and injury, then we see why equitable treatment matters. “The equity point of view says different students have different needs for resources and support precisely because the playing field for them may not be as level as we like to think,” as Dodson says. “Practicing fairness means giving students what they need according to the situation in which they find themselves.”

The video of David Dodson’s remarks was produced by Brazosport College and made available by Achieving the Dream, a national effort to improve student success at community colleges with equity as a central value.