Opinion: Commentary: What is ‘Fair’?

Opinion: Commentary: What is ‘Fair’?

Equity costs - and paying that price will not be fair, but it will be just.

About the Author

Ricshawn Adkins Roane is an African-American daughter, sister, wife, and mother living in Great Falls. Roane works at the intersection of philanthropy, policy, and advocacy for economic, racial, and gender justice. She writes, tells stories, and leads philanthropic grantmaking at a national education-focused foundation based in Northern Virginia.

If Black people had a dollar for every individual, organization, and company that publicly professed a commitment to antiracism and racial equity while holding up progress in the name of “fairness,” we could have closed the racial wealth gap ten times over.  These performative professions have been decried as “feel-good gestures that cost nothing and shift no power.”When people talk about fairness in this context, they usually are not motivated by a desire to ensure groups have equal resources, but by an immoral mandate to prevent certain groups from getting resources they don’t “deserve.” It’s particularly shocking when people of faith champion fairness in this way since grace - unmerited and unearned favor - is a foundational principle of many spiritual traditions.

Since before inception, our nation has preached a false moral narrative of fairness while enshrining discrimination in our founding documents and utilizing the forced removal and genocide of Indigenous peoples and the forced enslavement and brutalization of African peoples as building blocks. Fairness is what folks cry when they want to profess racial justice but not practice it, when they want to perform equity and not pay for it.

We need to get over this collective preoccupation with fairness which, at best, is a national myth, and at worse, prompts calls for inaction or gradualism when swift and unprecedented action is needed.

The policies and practices that got us to 140 million poor and low-wealth people (including 3.5 million right here in the Commonwealth), unequal education, health, and socioeconomic outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and LatinX folks, and disproportionate impacts of covid-19 on communities of color weren’t “fair,” and the remedies that fix these inequalities won’t be either. Justice may not be fair, it is right.

Virginia’s gubernatorial candidates and state legislators will offer up a number of policies over the coming weeks and months, some of which will be designed to address these systemic inequities. The next time you feel compelled to ask if a proposal is fair, ask yourself whether the policies that led to the need for the proposal were fair. Need some practice?

Q: Is it fair to make the admission process for Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology more equitable?

A: Was it fair for “hard working, deserving children” to be deprived of a spot at TJ because their parents were unable to pay for expensive test preparation or a $100 application fee?  Was it fair that some middle schools appeared to be feeders to TJ and others never had students admitted?

Q: Is it fair to cancel federal student loan debt and reduce the racial-wealth gap?  

A: Was it fair for African Americans to be excluded from traditional means of wealth accumulation that enable white borrowers to take out fewer loans at lower dollar amounts? Is it fair for African Americans to be hindered in repaying these student loans by labor market racial discrimination?

Q: Is a Marshall Plan for Moms fair?

A: Was it fair that this country built free labor into its economic model from the beginning and has never valued caregiving for the essential work that it is?  Is it fair that the pandemic has disproportionately impacted women?

Q: Is it fair for “Black Women Best” to be the guidepost of our national economic reset?

A: Was it fair that for far too long, Black women have been the least, the last, and the lowest?

Equity costs - and paying that price will not be fair, but it will be just.