Misunderstanding of “equality” perpetuates racism

Alyssa Fernandez

“Equality” is a tricky word because its meaning varies from person to person. Whether you ask a stranger at a gas station, a professor of African diaspora studies or a conservative selling baked goods outside the FAC, they will all say something slightly different. 

What is often forgotten is that this isn’t a new phenomenon — American history is littered with changing definitions of “equality.” Discrepancies in our understanding of “equality” are not purely linguistic but extend into our social movements and policies, inadvertently affecting our daily lives. 

The controversy over affirmative action and #AllLivesMatter are modern examples of our collective confusion over how we define “equality.” There is one side that argues that there exists grounds for affirmative action and that #AllLivesMatter is inherently racist, whereas the opposing side adopts a vocabulary that associates “equality” with “colorblindness” in order to call affirmative action and #BlackLivesMatter unfair because they exclude other racial groups. 

C.J. Alvarez, a Mexican American and Latina/o Studies professor, illustrates how individuals who call for a “colorblind equality” have misinterpreted the social movements of the past. 

“[Colorblind equality] is completely out of sync with the vocabulary we inherited from the Civil Rights Era with egalitarianism, racial and universal equality,” Alvarez said. “[They argue], ‘Why can’t we abolish all the boxes so we’re all just judged on our merits?’ Which sounds like a version of the equity that the Civil Rights movement tried to put forward, but in practice it actually misunderstands the whole point of the Civil Rights Era, which was about re-addressing structural inequalities which produce unequal results through government intervention of one sort or another.”

Even during the Reconstruction Era, there is evidence of defining what “equality” would mean for newly freed black people. Then, in 1896, a new definition arose that continues to haunt U.S. History with the Plessy v. Ferguson case that legitimized the “separate but equal” doctrine that interpreted the court’s decision as a “defense of compensating inequalities,” where it acknowledges that racial inequalities exist, but no one is held accountable for it. 

This sentiment has continued into today, but instead of separate but equal it is #AllLivesMatter. Vocabulary that resonates with “colorblind equality” are made harder to dismiss because on the surface, a concept like “colorblind equality” seems progressive. However, individuals who support this doctrine have not only hijacked this vocabulary for their own advantage but are using it to either intentionally or unintentionally censor prominent social inequalities that are restricted to certain racial groups. This parallels the nature of Plessy v. Ferguson of separate but equal in that it takes a vocabulary of “equality” to hide the real underlying problem of racial inequality. 

Ultimately, “equality” must be defined as not a state of being equal but of acknowledging that we are not equal and that our social institutions are currently constructed to maintain that inequality. Recognizing this discrepancy is already a step toward progress, but to truly change our social inequalities we must be responsible with our language and the histories that carry our definitions. 

Fernandez is a rhetoric and writing and Spanish senior from Allen. She is a senior columnist.