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Equity: Time to Get Real (Part I)

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Parisa Vinzant
December 16, 2022

The New Year is a time for resolutions. This time let’s resolve to take equity seriously and commit to real progress by identifying specific, actionable goals to accomplish in the next twelve months. So much has been left undone on the promises made to advance racial equity following the heinous murder of George Floyd in 2020. Yet with an orchestrated backlash well underway against equity and related topics like critical race theory, it will take far more than platitudes or quick-fix schemes if meaningful progress is to be made. 

This time, this year, let us make the commitment to finally tackle the root causes of systemic inequities, injustice and racism. This is one hell of an undertaking, yes, but there are plenty of best practices and examples to draw from that can help guide our efforts—that is, if we have the will to take up this vital work, for real. Watch for Part II of this column in the new year.

Too often when faced with public outcry, officials go through the motions to placate or silence criticism without addressing the problem. Sometimes criticism is thwarted by a cloak of secrecy, for example, as in some police departments with no external oversight, which leaves them free to paper over concerns with unverifiable assurances. Also, it is not uncommon for local public servants to rely on technical rationality or seemingly neutral administrative procedures to mask their true aim—to delay, obstruct and/or sabotage new racial equity and justice initiatives. Unfortunately, such actions result in the high likelihood of an initiative’s failure or its perceived failure by community members. Public sector leaders may use these contrived failures as an excuse to say, “we tried equity, but it didn’t work.” Based on my consulting and commissioner experience, I’ve seen this scenario play out, and a good deal of the time, such initiatives are not pursued in good faith. 

That is because those public servants were likely following the more informal, unwritten playbook which produces results described as: 1) administrative racism by Anthony Starke, Nuri Heckler and Janiece Mackey in which individuals knowingly rely on technical rationalizations such as the demands of “efficiency” in order to avoid tackling racism in policies, outcomes and systems and that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous and People of Color; 2) administrative evil by Danny Balfour, Guy Adams and Ashley Nickels in which individuals unknowingly engage in acts of evil by fulfilling their organizational responsibilities; and 3) convergence of callousness by Brian Williams and Brendin Duckett in which public perception (social construction), public policy (administrative evil) and professional practices (administrative racism) interact to produce “discrimination, oppression and injustice.” 

There are unexpected and damaging ripple effects when policy efforts toward equity fail. It is a myth that inequity harms only those who are discriminated against. All of us lose when public servants play dishonest games like this, but among officials it breeds a culture of contempt for putting the community’s interests above those of public administrators. This violates the first principle of the American Society for Public Administration’s (ASPA) Code of Ethics. It also makes a mockery of the fourth principle to “strengthen social equity,” in which public servants are called to “oppose all forms of discrimination,” and “reduce unfairness, injustice, and inequality in society.”

The above examples are only a few, but they help to establish a context within which we consider why two and a half years since the murder of Floyd there has been little institutional level reforms made and the overly bloated police budgets that some cities made cosmetic cuts to have already been restored or even increased. A key factor worth noting here as well, is the outsized role and power that police unions wield over not just police departments, but the government agencies and elected leaders to whom police departments report. The combined power of money and political clout shields police departments from criticism and calls for reform.

Doing equity right requires long-term investment and steady work. As we struggle to make large-scale, systemic change, some envision that one big, game-winning touchdown. But the advancement of equity is a long game, a brutal battle of inches to move the ball down the field. Without centering the equity needs of those most impacted by a policy or embedding evaluation metrics at the onset of the racial equity initiatives, there’s no tangible way to measure progress—and hold the players accountable—while moving this necessary work forward. Unfortunately, the evaluation piece has been the most consistently omitted part of this work, and if left ignored, can lead to unintended inequities and harmful policy outcomes. 

When equity initiatives fail, it not only undermines the community’s trust in its government, but further hollows out the promise of the public service field. This is a cost that we cannot afford if we want to strengthen our fragile democracy. Currently, only 19 percent trust the federal government “most of the time” according to recent Pew Research data, and it is hardly encouraging that trust in local and state governments is only slightly higher. 

This New Year offers a fresh opportunity to cultivate greater self and organizational awareness and commitment to flag ethical and equity issues on whatever your field of play. But no matter what, we can’t give up on striving for ethical, equitable and just outcomes—it is the noblest of callings. It is our job.

Author: Parisa Vinzant, MPA, is an equity/inclusion consultant, strategist, and technology/innovation commissioner in Long Beach, CA. Parisa applies a social/racial equity lens in her writing exploring topics ranging from ethics, education, democracy, technology, and community engagement. Any views expressed herein are hers alone. Contact her at [email protected] and @Parisa_Vinzant (Twitter).

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