Racial Justice in Higher Education: Equity vs. Equality

by Katie Heneghan & Madalyn Johnson, Web Editors

For decades, organizations, scholarships, and programs have been enacted in various universities, that provide students who self-identify as members of minority groups an equal chance in learning and excelling in higher education. The call to support and aid students of color in the education system dates back to United Negro College Fund 70s commercials and black student union associations being provided on college campuses. Tia Brown McNair, Ph.D., is the Vice President in the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Student Success and Executive Director for the Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Campus Centers at the Association of American Colleges and Universities in Washington, DC. McNair visited Manhattan College on Tuesday, Jan. 28, to discuss racial equity on a college campus.

McNair’s goal was to spark a conversation among students and faculty that will be applied beyond the lecture and into the everyday lives of students and faculty. She explained the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has a role in training educational institutions.

“We are the leading national system concerned with equality in undergraduate education. We have over 1400 institutional members all across the country, but also internationally as well,” she said.

She continued.

“We really focus on a service to democracy and what does that mean for our students and but also the way we educate our students.”

McNair stressed how the AAC&U works to address the quality and equity in student’s learning experiences, which most universities often mistake to mean quantity and equality. By implying how different these terms are based on their definitions, McNair was able to emphasize that all students cannot be treated the same because not every student shares the same socioeconomic status, race and cultural background.

“We cannot deal with equity by just saying you are to service and educate all. We have to be specific,” McNair said.

Additionally, McNair discussed that oftentimes schools try to facilitate conversation, regarding inequities and seldom follow up, with policy change and ongoing discussion. McNair highlighted that there is a distinct difference between discussing ways to change and then actually implementing change from discussions. McNair pointed out this common mistake most colleges and universities make when trying to diversify their school.

“Everyone is having conversations about equity and what it means and it’s on the academic scene but the question is, what do we mean by this? What do we mean, especially when we are talking about racial justice? And are people really embracing it or is it just a buzzword?” McNair said.

McNair and two other scholars, Lindesy Malcom-Piqueux and Estela Mara Bensimon, coined the terms “equity walk” and “equity talk” in their book, “From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education.” This innovatively makes higher education institutions realize that they must act, not say, to preserve a fair and racially just environment in their schools.

“We do things to check the box. When we have a conversation about equity, it’s not a check the box activity. We’re talking about the work to educate our students and to create a better educational environment not just for them, but for ourselves,” McNair said.

Attendees discussed the importance of first attending these kinds of conversations and discussions. Coordinator for the Center for Academic Success, Qua-Asia Fawcett discussed the importance of such conversations to spark the kind of change McNair is looking for.

“I also think it’s good that the campus holds, or invites people like this to talk about these things, even though you may feel uncomfortable talking about it,” Fawcett said.

Religious studies professor, Lois Harr commented on the lecture, suggesting that such events make her more aware, and help her answer the difficult questions she often asks herself when teaching minority students.

“An analogy of it is like the goldfish in the bowl isn’t aware of water. So I always want to understand, [how] can I get more aware of my water? So to me, this is helpful – thinking about how institutional racism constitutes systemic racism. What is thought of as the norm may be really just one group of people’s experience,” Harr said.

As for what the college can work on in order to improve the educational experiences and opportunities they provide for students of color, McNair firmly believes the school must continue to talk about equity and racial justice and show they see race, rather than spiel how they don’t.

“I think the school has an opportunity because you’re going through the next phase of your strategic planning process to really take a hard look at where you are as an institution in relationship, to having an equity talk versus an equity wall. I think it would be good to actually figure out ways to incorporate and align the equity work and the equity goals that you may have within the strategic plan,” McNair said.

To hear more about McNair’s work about equality in higher education, check out her book, “From Equity Talk to Equity Walk: Expanding Practitioner Knowledge for Racial Justice in Higher Education.”