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Disputes over diversity equity and inclusion depend on how you define fairness

By Eric Silver and John Iceland - posted Wednesday, 2 June 2021

Decades after the 1960s civil rights movement, racial inequality persists. In an effort to reduce it, an explosion of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives in business, government, and higher education now lights up the skies of American culture. The proliferation of such initiatives, however, belies profound disagreement between DEI advocates and critics. In this piece, we discuss what we see as one of the main sources of such disagreements, namely, that DEI advocates and critics tend to employ different definitions of fairness.

Let's start with a premise that everyone would agree with: Racial inequality persists across many dimensions. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2019 the median household incomes of whites ($76,057) and Asians ($98,174) were well above those of Blacks ($45,438) and Hispanics ($56,113). And there are alarming gaps in other outcomes as well, including education, poverty, health, and wealth. The magnitude of these gaps rightfully raises concerns about what can be done to reduce them.

Different approaches are possible, with disagreements often hinging on how fairness is defined. We contend that in the contemporary United States, advocates for DEI programming tend to adopt a social justice perspective in which fairness is measured in terms of evenly distributed outcomes, while critics of DEI programming tend to adopt a social process perspective in which fairness is measured in terms of evenly applied processes.


The focus on outcomes among those with a social justice perspective means that fairness tends to be measured by the extent to which resources such as status, power, health, and happiness are distributed proportionally among groups. For example, from a social justice perspective, a fair process for promoting managers should, over time, result in the promotion of managers whose group characteristics, such as race, gender, or sexual orientation, match the distribution of these characteristics in the general population. If the promotion process fails to achieve this outcome, a person with a social justice perspective is likely to view the process as having been unfair. From this perspective, fairness and inequality are often viewed as incompatible in that a truly fair process should never result in significantly unequal outcomes across groups.

From a social process perspective, on the other hand, as long as a selection process uses performance-based criteria and is evenly applied, fairness is achieved, regardless of the outcome. From this perspective, a fair selection process may result in a talented or qualified manager receiving several promotions in a single year, while other managers receive none. Thus, from a social process perspective, fairness and inequality are not necessarily opposed in that a fair (evenly applied, merit-based) selection process may yield outcomes that are unequal on a number of dimensions.

Because of their different definitions of fairness, the social justice and social process perspectives are both vulnerable to charges of "unfairness." The social justice perspective may be accused of being unfair because it favors distributing resources based at least in part on immutable group characteristics having nothing to do with merit. Meanwhile, the social process perspective may be accused of being unfair because it favors a merit-based selection process that, when applied under conditions of structural inequality, is likely to perpetuate group disparities.

With regard to race, for example, a social justice perspective might be criticized for favoring a selection process that permits reverse discrimination, whereby members of underrepresented groups are given preferential treatment to alleviate racial disparities. At the same time, a social process perspective might be accused of colorblind racism, whereby the realities of racial disparities are dismissed or downplayed in favor of so-called merit-based selection processes that tend to perpetuate such disparities. The latter accusation is broadly consistent with an anti-racist ideology. According to Ibram X. Kendi, one of the anti-racism movement's strongest advocates, "A racist policy yields racial disparities. An anti-racist policy reduces or eliminates racial disparities."

These disparate notions of fairness help explain why proponents of each perspective tend to view the other as hypocritical and immoral. The person with a social justice perspective asks: "How can you say you care about fairness when you favor a selection process that perpetuates social inequalities?" The person with a social process perspective asks: "How can you say you care about fairness when you favor a selection process that takes into account group characteristics that go beyond merit and skill?" Each side views the other as favoring unfair practices, making civil discourse between them difficult. Acknowledging the legitimacy of both the social justice and social process definitions of fairness is thus crucial for understanding the disagreements that sometimes arise between DEI advocates and critics.

In higher education, the dominance of a social justice perspective when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion is clear. For example, a report issued at Penn State in 2020 by a presidential commission on racism, bias, and community safety stated that the University "must move beyond notions of 'multiculturalism' to a praxis that empowers marginalized voices at all levels of leadership and seeks social justice in all its forms." Consistent with an emphasis on outcomes, and with Kendi's framing of anti-racism, one of the six metrics proposed to measure success in this endeavor is to "alleviate disparities."


The report recommends several process changes to achieve its aims, including:

  • "'Decolonize' and strengthen Penn State's current curriculum to do the antiracist work that can and must be embedded into every Penn State degree program"
  • "Make DEI-centered responsibilities explicit in job descriptions, performance appraisals, and tenure and promotion criteria"
  • "Discontinue [the use of standardized entrance exams] as part of the admissions process, even when voluntarily provided"

Changes such as these are likely to strike the person with a social justice perspective as fair, particularly if that person adheres to an anti-racism ideology as defined by Kendi.

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This article was first published by Heterodox Academy and is republished under a Creative Commons 4.0 International Licence.

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About the Authors

Eric Silver is Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Penn State University. His research and teaching interests focus on morality, crime, and punishment.

John Iceland is Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Demography at Penn State University. His research and teaching interests focus on social inequality in the United States.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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