I often wonder if policymakers in America would design policies that hurt marginalized and historically disenfranchised people if the schools they attended had honestly taught them about the brutal history of America and about the value of diverse cultures and groups of people in this country. I wonder if racism would persist if people socialized to hold racist views attended multiracial schools or were all required to take courses in racial and ethnic studies taught by people of color.
The social sciences have repeatedly shown that to reduce prejudice and fear of people who do not look exactly like us or share all our beliefs requires spending time with and personally getting to know people who we, at first, wrongly believe are different from us. These experiences are necessary to eliminate prejudice and discrimination.
We can see the absence of these personal experiences in the inequities and injustices of a society. In the U.S., for example, unarmed men of a certain complexion are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by the police than their counterparts of another complexion. The disparity in being killed by the police is also true for women, and can be reliably predicted based on women’s skin complexion. Likewise, in America, one group of people of certain complexion are more than 5 times as likely to be incarcerated than another group of people with a different complexion.
Whether these disparities are only due to systemic racism is debatable. However, what I have observed and believe to be true is that, in general, in society, when one group suffers, all groups, to a certain extent, in that society have fewer enriching experiences and, oftentimes, are indirectly or directly hurt. People who do not value and understand the benefit of equity and justice for all people may — through certain actions, such as voting — support policies that are designed to eliminate or weaken the resources they depend on. For instance, health care. They may support policies that give tax breaks to the very wealthy, while the minimum wage in Wisconsin, where I live, has been kept at $7.25, which, of course, is not a livable wage, and everyone knows that.
We can also see the absence of these personal experiences in the rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths and the rate at which a society locks up its citizens. The U.S. has about 4% of the world’s population but around 20% of the world’s confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths. This surprisingly mirrors the data for incarceration in the United States, which locks up more of its citizens than any other country in the world. The problems of mass incarceration and COVID-19, although at first may seem like a superfluous comparison, both reveal a lack of equity and justice. People of color in the U.S. are disproportionately hurt by the criminal justice system and COVID-19. While many of us can ignore those who a society has imprisoned because imprisonment does not affect us directly, we cannot ignore COVID-19. A society inclined to centering equity and justice in addressing the problems of its criminal justice system would have had the inclination to center equity and justice in addressing problems, such as poverty and unemployment, that COVID-19 has exacerbated. A guaranteed income for all citizens is a practical solution for poverty that would also mitigate the harmful consequences of unemployment.
America has never been just and equitable for everyone, and for this to happen, school administrators at all academic levels must first implement equitable and just policies for their employees and students. Schools are also uniquely positioned to cultivate a culture of racial and social justice and equity in a society’s citizenry — a culture that ensures that all citizens will learn that there is immense value in promoting human rights and dignity, regardless of cultural or socially constructed differences.
Embracing equity and justice and the richness of our differences will manifest in diverse groups of people being their best selves. Indeed, no society can be its best when unjust laws and inequitable policies encumber people who make up that society.
David Saunders-Scott, Ph.D., is an associate professor of psychology at Viterbo University, La Crosse, Wisconsin, and is the co-chair of Viterbo’s Social Justice and Equity Committee. He is a graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul and holds a master’s degree from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
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