Reflecting on Racial Equity

By Toya Barnes-Teamer -

Traveling across the country in support of states and organizations as they work to address racial equity, I often find myself reflecting on why it is such a difficult undertaking. Notably, the challenge I often face is helping people get to an agreed-upon definition of racial equity itself.

Case in point – the Southern Rural Development Center and the Center for Social Inclusion (two organizations that are working toward the same outcomes) define racial equity differently. The Southern Rural Development Center defines it as equal access to resources and opportunities for all, while the Center for Social Inclusion defines racial equity as both an outcome and a process. Neither is incorrect, but the differing views tend to create difficulties in communication and being able to properly address the issues. To promote shared understanding, I use a more simplistic definition of racial equity or equity in general and that is, “the quality of being fair and impartial.”

At the core of racial equity is the quality of being fair and impartial, and it should not be such a difficult topic to address. In reality, it is not about defining the term equity. We should be fair and impartial to all human beings. The challenge is addressing race and ethnicity with equity.

Modern scholarship regards race as a social construct, an identity which is assigned based on rules made by society. While partially based on physical similarities within groups, race is not an inherent physical or biological quality.[1][2] When people define and talk about a particular conception of race, they create a social reality through which social categorization is achieved.[3] In this sense, races are said to be social constructs.[4,5] These constructs develop within various legal, economic and sociopolitical contexts, and maybe the effect, rather than the cause, of major social situations.[3,6,7] While race is understood to be a social construct by many, most scholars agree that race has real material effects in the lives of people through institutionalized practices of preference and discrimination.

Most people’s discomfort occurs within this human classification of race aligned with equity. So, during conversations about closing equity gaps in state educational goals or working to eradicate poverty in communities, it is at this juncture when discomfort surfaces that people tend to retract and not address issues of racial equity head-on. We also must acknowledge why this fear becomes so intense and why it is so hard for our society to change the rules we set. Simply put, achieving a state of racial equity would create public policies, institutional practices and social structures that no longer favor one race over another.  Many may feel that this is too difficult a task. However, without having a true open and honest dialogue about race, it will be impossible to ever bring about a state of racial equity in which educational attainment gaps are closed and state attainment goals are met, and poverty and other social ills are eradicated in underserved communities.

We must garner the courage to move past our own discomfort and boldly move these conversations forward – the time is now!






  1. Barnshaw, John (2008). “Race”. In Schaefer, Richard T. (ed.). Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society, Volume 1. SAGE Publications. pp. 1091–3. ISBN 978-1-45-226586-5.
  2. Smedley, Audrey; Takezawa, Yasuko I.; Wade, Peter. “Race: Human”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Retrieved 22 August 2017.
  3. Lee, Jayne Chong-Soon (1997). “Review essay: Navigating the topology of race””. In Gates, E. Nathaniel (ed.). Critical Race Theory: Essays on the Social Construction and Reproduction of Race. 4: The Judicial Isolation of the “Racially” Oppressed. New York: Garland Pub. pp. 393–426. ISBN 9780815326038.
  4. Blank, Rebecca M.; Dabady, Marilyn; Citro, Constance Forbes (2004). “Chapter 2”. Measuring racial discrimination. National Research Council (U.S.). Panel on Methods for Assessing Discrimination. National Adademies Press. p. 317. ISBN 9780309091268.
  5. Smaje, Chris (1997). “Not just a social construct: Theorising race and ethnicity”. Sociology. 31 (2): 307–27. doi:10.1177/0038038597031002007.
  6. Nobles, Melissa (2000). Shades of citizenship: race and the census in modern politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0-8047-4059-3.
  7. Morgan, Edmund S. (1975). American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc.
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