Equity: The Courage to be Unfair

Before I accepted a position at Charlotte Family Housing and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, I read Charlotte’s Leading on Opportunity report. I was immediately impressed by the earnest desire and unequivocal commitment of Charlotteans to change the city’s two and a half centuries of systemic discrimination and disenfranchisement of its citizens of color, starting with the Catawba Native Americans, then African Americans, and recently Latinx communities. In general, people experiencing poverty in Charlotte–and, for that matter, in the United States–have always struggled for liberty, equity, and a fair share of the American Dream in the face of inequity and disenfranchisement that happened intentionally through governmental policies and regulations. Our very founding document, through its implicit and explicit definitions of “We the People…” is at the root this. In Article I, Section 2 of our Constitution, we can find groups who are not considered citizens: enslaved people, Native Americans, and women. While the 13th, 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments to the Constitution corrected part of this overarching inequity, the full flowering of this correction still has not happened. The lived experiences of African Americans, Native American peoples, women, and now U.S. citizens of Latinx communities belie their acceptance as full-fledged U.S. citizens.

People in cities across the U.S. continue to suffer from centuries of systemic segregation primarily based on race, color, and socioeconomic status. Richard Rothstein, a fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, outlines this in his well-researched and powerful indictment treatise, The Color of Law. This segregation was not individuals, landlords, or privately-owned real estate companies acting out of private bigotries or “de facto segregation” but in fact comprised government-imposed regulations or “de jure segregation.” Segregation is a significant factor in why there are deep pockets of poverty and homelessness in our major cities. Some cities are trying to eliminate or at least reduce poverty and homelessness within their borders.

In Charlotte, as in many major cities, the inequity between the highest incomes and the lowest is increasing. The impetus behind the thoughtful look Charlotteans took at themselves and their city in the Leading on Opportunity report was the now well-known 2014 report ranking Charlotte at the bottom of the 50 American cities researchers from Harvard and Berkeley studied. Further confirmation of inequity comes from the recently created Opportunity Atlas, which quantifies and verifies with hard data what many people of color and poor whites have already surmised: Your ZIP code is often your destiny. Your chances for a good education, adequate healthcare, and socioeconomic mobility resources are often dictated by where you grow up. Yes, there are individuals who, despite their ZIP codes, forge through the crucible of extreme effort, sacrifice, and with a little luck find a bridge out of poverty. These individuals are often paraded around as evidence that the rules of the game are fair. But these individuals are the exception, not the rule, and we need initiatives that create opportunities for those who aren’t so lucky.

For instance, Charlotte recently passed an affordable housing bond to help working families find apartments within their reach economically. Charlotte’s nonprofits, faith-based organizations, businesses, and governmental sectors are pursuing other initiatives to improve opportunities for Charlotte’s citizens. I encourage cities like Charlotte across the U.S. to do more within their borders. I suggest they work to provide greater access to opportunities for upward mobility by developing more comprehensive workforce development programs, enhanced entrepreneurial schemes, and focused educational curricula to counter the policies that created and continue to support the crippling disparities that exist. These economic development efforts must provide the education, training, and skilled careers paths that will survive the artificial intelligence and automation advances of the 21st century and beyond. Consider that in the next ten years, fast food chains will not need as many people because of computerized kiosks. Many already exist in these industries’ outlets. These chains will also start using self-driving trucks to deliver the burgers, buns, and other foods to operate their stores. Current entry-level jobs in many different industries will suffer the same fate. Cities throughout the nation will need to have the courage to be unfair by focusing efforts and programs exclusively on those whose exclusion was systematic and prevented them from participating in the incredible prosperity many cities are experiencing.

For example, in Charlotte, there are agencies engaged in growing opportunities for people and communities that have suffered from de jure segregation and resultant disparities:

  • Carolinas Electrical Training Institute has embarked on a collaborative relationship with companies seeking electricians. These companies bring in interns interested in becoming electricians. They pay a modest salary during the internships with a guarantee that they will hire the individuals who complete their training.
  • Charlotte Family Housing (CFH) works to empower working families who are experiencing homelessness. CFH moves families, often single women with children (but also single fathers with children) from its shelters into subsidized housing and ultimately into unsubsidized housing. CFH helps its clients get on and stay on the path to self-sufficiency, and some of these families go on to purchase their own homes. CFH can do this because of collaborative partners who are willing to share resources and talent, but most importantly because the families are resilient, resourceful, and are willing to put in the hard work needed to transform their lives.
  • The Rebuilding Opportunities in Construction (ROC) initiative recruits, educates, and mentors high school aged children in Charlotte for career and technical education and employment opportunities in the construction industry. The ROC’s youth apprenticeship is designed to “concentrate” the career and technical curriculum, meaning that youth apprentices take a sequence of occupationally aligned courses over their junior and senior years. Apprentices also participate in paid, work-based learning opportunities during the summer after their junior year.
  • City Startup Labs is a hybrid accelerator/incubator that focuses efforts on uplifting young African-American men and women through building three classes of assets: human capital, social capital, and economic capital. City Startup Labs embraces not only entrepreneurs, technologists, and innovators, but also the makers, inventors, designers, and creatives, as well as being part of building a vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurial change agents.

Once again, locating these kinds of incubators and opportunities in the communities identified by the Opportunity Atlas as providing limited economic mobility is like creating equity on steroids.

Another city engaged in reducing poverty through focused programming is Albany, New York. Albany’s implementation of New York State’s Poverty Reduction Initiative required collaboration between the public and private sectors. To ensure this collaboration and to earn the state grants, nonprofits focused on workforce development programs. One of the prerequisites for winning the award: Nonprofits were required to present a letter from a private company that promised to interview people who graduated from the training programs. Letters from employers agreeing to hire successful graduates earned the nonprofits additional points.

One nonprofit that received a grant created a program for people returning from incarceration that led to jobs as warehouse workers. These returning citizens were paid a reasonable wage as they developed data processing and other transferable computer skills. The Furniture Bank of Albany hired some graduates, while a large furniture store hired the others. The initiative created an opportunity for these citizens to be gainfully employed and reduce the likelihood they would recidivate (i.e., return to criminal activity). The program helped these returning citizens see the city as being “on their side.” Albany’s initiative also provided scholarships for certification and other educational programs leading to careers. Some of the career fields included nursing, HVAC, and phlebotomy. These were $2,500 scholarships; to date, awards have been given to more than 70 individuals, with more than $140,000 disbursed.

Do we have the courage to expand what Carolinas Electric Training Institute, City Startup Labs, Charlotte Family Housing, The ROC, and the city of Albany are doing? Are we willing to create these programs for citizens who live in the ZIP codes identified by the Opportunity Atlas as affording the fewest opportunities for upward mobility? Communities where a child’s chance of upward mobility is abysmal?

The gap in access to opportunities and resources that exists between the ever-shrinking “majority” and the rest of us is increasing, notwithstanding the gains made. (As we all know, race is a social construct; thus, a definition of a race is fluid. The often-cited demographic prediction that America is “browning” may be overblown. It will depend on which part of the color line a person chooses to identify with.) There are those who believe the barriers to upward economic mobility do not really exist, who believe that if a person or a community of people fails in America, it is their own fault, not the system’s. They hold to the nonsensical mythology that Americans succeed by “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” These are the same people who adhere to the belief that the rules are now fair. Yes, the rules may be fair, but what about the game itself? Is it fair?

Inequality is manifestly unfair, and equity can also be unfair. Imagine joining a game of Monopoly when all the other players have already passed “Go” seven times. These players already would have purchased all the prime properties. They would have already put houses and hotels on those properties. All the players, including yourself, will follow the same rules, so the rules are fair–but the game is already rigged against you. It will be nearly impossible for you to win. On the rare occasion an individual does succeed at beating the players who started first, this player will be paraded around as an example that the rules are fair and, thus, so is the game. However, this is patently a false premise. To correct this, I believe the highest level of equity can–must–be unfair; to resolve historical and systemic disparities (i.e., the rigged game), we need to provide more resources and help to those individuals and communities who have suffered deliberate and systemic discrimination.

As Nonprofit AF blogger Vu Le paraphrased a conference attendee:

“We need to have the courage to be unfair…People who don’t know the context will criticize us and say that we are being unfair…but that’s our job. We sometimes need to be unfair.”

Are housing subsidies given to everyone? No. Can affirmative action be unfair? Yes. Should we provide free training and education to those in need? Yes. Using this strategy may be unfair, but it is equitable in the context of decades of systemic segregation, under-resourced schools, and economic disparity. We must demonstrate the courage to use the highest level of equity, equity that some may view as unfair. This imperative is not new. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, urged impatience for justice and endorsed equity some may view as unfair:

“For it is obvious that if a man is entering the starting line in a race 300 years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.”

Let us be impatient for justice, act with urgency together, and let’s keep running!