Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Logo
Apply to SIUE


The Myth of Fairness and Racism

Talking about racism is tricky for White people.  One important reason is that instead of being something descriptive, the word racism tends to be construed as something moral -- moral in the sense that "racism is bad."  Because racism is conceived as something moral, White people are not really honest about it.   Here's the moral reasoning that keeps us from being honest:  "Racists are bad.  I'm not bad.  Thus, I'm not racist."  So I'd like us move away from the moral reduction of racism to a description of racism. Maybe then White people will feel more comfortable thinking about racism in our own lives.

While there are lots of ways to think about racism in our lives, in this newsletter, I'd like to talk about the term "fairness" and how that term relates to racism. 

The notion of fairness emerged as a cultural ideal during the enlightenment period, when the belief in rationality supplanted our commitment to the traditions and authority of the monarchy.  Early enlightenment thinkers believed that since people have the capacity to be rational, people could be neutral and fair.

I love the notion of fairness.  And I know I'd like to live in a fair society --one where there were justice and equity and where everybody got what they deserved. However, if we are going to be honest (which I hope we can be together) the truth is that fairness is impossible, for a number of reasons. Here are two of the most important ones.

First, fairness can only exist if all of us humans can throw off the shackles of our socialization and rise above everything we have ever learned about what to notice and what to ignore. Unfortunately, research shows that our cognitive limitations prevent anyone from throwing off the shackles of everything they have ever learned.  Those cognitive limitations, part of our brain's structure, make bias inevitable.  I'll just give you one example of how our cognitive limitations lead to bias:  those early enlightenment thinkers I was talking about above, the ones who believed fairness could exist (because people have the potential to be rational), well, they also argued that slaves, White women, Native Americans and so on didn't have the potential to be rational -- that's why those groups needed to be enslaved, possessed, silenced and/or annihilated. 

If the people who disseminated the fairness construct were unable to see their own hypocrisy about fairness, I think that's a pretty good indicator that we need to pause and rethink the potential for fairness.

The reason I'm asking us to think about fairness is that I hear a lot of White people justify their racist acts using the term "fairness."  I'll hear something like, "Well, I have to treat everyone the same and I can't apply the rules differently for White Her and Black Her."  Well, I am really sorry to tell you this, truly, because this is hard to already are applying the rules differently for White Her and Black Her.  It's just that the White Hers have been the beneficiaries.  We may deny, ignore or not wish it so...but if you're human, then your cognitive limitations leave you biased and prejudiced and if you're White, you're more likely to be in a position to act on your biases to create harm.  I'm including myself here, of course, because I'm human.

Supreme Court Justice Douglass once said, "At the constitutional level where we work, 90% of any decision is emotional.  The rational part of us supplies the reason for supporting our predilections."  So Douglass is admitting that the highest court in the land --- the place where if fairness is going to happen, it's going to happen there ---makes most decisions based on emotion, not rationality.

Max Weber called the process of justifying our emotional decisions rational-legal legitimation. And because we don't want to believe we're biased, we tend to use that legitimation a lot.  Using the language of rational-legal discourse, discourse like "I'm just following the rules," doesn't mean we're fair though. 

Second, even if we could magically rid ourselves of all cognitive limitations, fairness today would still be impossible because of historical discrimination. For the sake of argument, let's pretend for a moment that we can overcome our cognitive limitations such that everyone could be neutral.  Poof!  There's objectivity as far as the eye can see.  Well, what do we do about the legacy of racism that has left Blacks, Native Americans, Asians and Latinos without the same resources as Whites?  When I say resources, I'm not only talking about wealth, income, and the like. I'm also talking about access to health and mental care, environmentally safe housing, and quality education, to name a few.   As a teacher or a boss or whoever has power, I might say, "Well, because of the Poof I have no cognitive limitations or bias and I know how to apply rules fairly now so I have to treat White Him and Black Him the same."    The problem is that the person in power has to deny that the White Him is more likely to have had more resources his whole life, more access to wealth, more access to education, more access to health care, more access to networking opportunities, just more access.

Here's a hypothetical.  Let's say your parents, who are billion-dollar business owners, always liked your sibling better than you.  To that sibling, your parents gave housing, private schooling, tutoring when needed, doctors, a free college education, trips to Europe, and an extra lump of money.  To you, your parents gave bupkis (that's nothing in Yiddish).   They made you live in a poopy little apartment and you went to a crappy school, no tutoring if you were struggling. Broken arms? Ha!  You had to mend that yourself and instead of college education, you got asked to leave the rental property they made you pay for.  You're broke, without cultural and material resources and with little prospects. Then, all of sudden, your parents say, "You know what? We feel sad and bothered that we treated you two so differently.  So, we're going to give each of you the same opportunity to inherit and run our thriving billion dollar business.   Since we're giving each of you the same opportunity to show us how adept you are at running the business, what we're doing is completely fair and just and we can die knowing how equitable we are."   Are they right? Are things now fair?  Only if we can pretend that it means nothing that one sibling had earlier access to tremendous opportunity while the other did not.   If we admit that resources matter, we can acknowledge that the liked sibling will be better able to show adeptness than the disliked sibling.  The difference between this hypothetical and reality is that racism has created generations of inequity, not just one familial situation

In sum, here's the dilemma:  How can we begin being fair if the past is filled with unfairness?   The only way to ensure fairness, if suddenly we lived in a world with no cognitive limitations, is to make sure everyone begins with the exact same.  That seems unlikely to happen.

So if I've managed to convince you that fairness is impossible, you may be wondering, "Gosh, is it all gloom and doom?  Is there any good news in this?" The answer is, YES, there is good news.  But the bad news is that the good news is going to be uncomfortable.

The good news is that we as a society can grow and thrive if we're willing to acknowledge that fairness is impossible.   

Before we go on, take that in a little -- "fairness is impossible."  If we're really honest with ourselves, when we're willing to admit that we can't be fair, we're going to feel uncomfortable. Real uncomfortable.  So while it sounds easy, admitting that we can never be fair is really quite profound.

But, once we admit that our cognitive limitations mean that we can never be neutral or just, then we can start making accommodations for our bias.  And one simplistic accommodation is surrounding ourselves with people who think differently from us and who've had different experiences than us.  For people in power that's tough.  We like to surround ourselves with people who agree with us.  It's uncomfortable to hear that maybe our rules aren't fair to everyone, that the norms might benefit one group over another, that the system is stacked against some groups.  

Well, let me own it, it's uncomfortable for me to admit that maybe my rules aren't fair. I'd rather surround myself with people who told me how fair I was. 

But if we want to move towards this abstract notion of fairness then we must be willing to get uncomfortable. "We" meaning White people in power -- judges, police officers, bosses, doctors, lawyers, teachers -- we must be willing to surround ourselves with people who call us out on our biases.  We must be willing to be quiet and listen and not assume we're right. 

Only when there are people with diverse cognitive limitations creating the rules can we create rules that are more fair.   Surrounding ourselves with people who confront our biases is not the only solution to the conundrum of fairness, but it's a beginning.  And it’s a profound beginning.  Because while we readily admit we don’t understand physics or math, we are less reluctant to admit we don’t understand race.  So in listening to people who are different than us, we are admitting that we may not be the “expert” in understanding racism.   

In sum:  Racism describes our society.  Being racist does not mean we’re bad.  But it does mean we can open our minds and help create change.

facebookoff twitteroff vineoff linkedinoff flickeroff instagramoff googleplusoff socialoff