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Social Equity: The Wrong Value Commitment?

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

By Carroll G. Robinson
November 18, 2022

Equity

During the 1960s, advocates for what has come to be known as the New Public Administration movement championed the inclusion of equity as a core value focus of the public administration profession on par with efficiency and effectiveness. 

The elevation of equity, at the first Minnowbrook conference in 1968, as a core value of public administration was an important achievement at that moment in our nation’s history, but the passage of time seems to indicate that equity was the wrong value commitment and goal to champion and elevate. Equity has proven to be an amorphous value and goal to define, evaluate, teach, research and achieve.

No Precedent

More importantly, nowhere in American history, or public policy, has “social equity” ever been articulated as the overarching moral or public policy goal. (See e.g., The Declaration of Independence; and Terry H. Anderson, The Pursuit of Fairness-A History of Affirmative Action (2005).)

“Equal” & “Perfect “

It can be argued that there have been at least three attempts in American history at articulating a national diversity, inclusion and equality policy.

First, The Declaration of Independence and its assertion of “created equal”. Second, Lincoln’s commitment of Reconstruction and the states’ ratification of the Civil War Amendments, which include the Fourteenth Amendment’s commitment to “equal protection” to even the infamous Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, and its call for “but equal”. Clearly, the goal has always been articulated as “equal”. Third, the modern Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s was passed into law based on the authorization of the Civil War Amendments. The historic goal has always been “equal”, not social equity.

Interestingly, in the Constitution’s Preamble, the goal has been defined as “more perfect.”

Equity to Equality

It may be time to rethink social equity as a core value goal of NASPAA and the public administration profession and supplant it with a commitment to social equality, a more defined and measurable goal. 

With equality, we can have specific defined goals and objectively measurable standards. Equality is a much more objective and measurable standard to incorporate into the academic curriculum and is a benchmark, standard and destination easily understood by practitioners and public officeholders.

Everyone in America should be treated fairly and is entitled to justice but sadly that has never been the reality and is still not the case based on every objective measurement, statistical model and data analytic. Progress? Yes. Equality? No.

Minnowbrooks IV?

As the public administration profession prepares for a possible Minowbrook IV conference in 2028, this issue/question of whether or not our core values should focus on equity or equality should be added to the call of any such conference as a major, and top tier, topic of discussion. In the interim, NASPAA should convene a national working group of educators, practitioners and public officeholders to discuss and evaluate this question.

We believe it’s time to move on from equity to equality in pursuit of the goal of a more perfect public administration profession (from the academy to the practice), nation and global community.


Author: Carroll G. Robinson, Esq. is a professor of public administration and political science at the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. This piece is a summary of her commentary on a panel discussion titled Free Speech and Diversity at this year’s (2022) NASPAA Conference in Chicago, Illinois.

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