Each side views the other as favoring unfair practices, making civil discourse between them difficult.

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. One of the main sources of such disagreements is the different definitions of fairness that DEI advocates and critics tend to employ.

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 educationpovertyhealth, and wealth. The magnitude of these gaps rightfully raises concerns about what can be done to reduce them.

Competing definitions currently lurk among us unacknowledged, occasionally resulting in acrimonious public disagreements.

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 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 diversityequity, 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”

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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.

From a social process perspective, however, reorienting university operations in this manner is likely to be considered unfair if it requires the institution to give preferential treatment to factors other than merit, or to privilege an anti-racist intellectual approach that advocates for preferential treatment, over other intellectual approaches.

Indeed, a social process definition of fairness seems evident in the writings of many DEI critics. For example Paul Rossi, a former Grace Church high school teacher who, in a 2021 letter, criticized his school’s implementation of anti-racism programming, wrote: “All of this [anti-racism programming] is done in the name of ‘equity,’ but it is the opposite of fair.” Similarly, Dorian Abbot, an associate professor of geophysics at the University of Chicago, offered this: “Let’s fight bias in science by working hard to reduce bias, not by introducing it. … Let’s treat each applicant for conferences, fellowships, and faculty positions as an individual worthy of dignity and respect. Let’s treat all applicants fairly by judging them only on the basis of their ability and promise as scientists.” Both writers appear to favor a social process definition of fairness based on an evenly applied, merit-based process rather than a social justice definition based on the achievement of evenly distributed outcomes across groups.

Within higher education, these different definitions of fairness can produce some confusing directives for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. For example, should a graduate admissions committee modify its evaluation standards in order to admit more minority students by, for example, discontinuing the use of standardized entrance exams? If a committee member defines fairness in terms of outcomes, the answer is likely to be yes. As long as all applicants meet the minimum standard for admission, preferential treatment should be given to minority candidates to ensure their proportional representation in the incoming cohort, even if it means passing over a candidate that many would assume to be more qualified based on a higher score on a standardized test. But if a committee member defines fairness in terms of an evenly applied process in which the strongest candidates are sought, then abandoning the use of standardized tests to alleviate disparities among groups is likely to be seen as unfair, particularly if it means passing over candidates with higher test scores, regardless of their group characteristics. There may be people in the same department—and on the same admissions committee—who disagree on these definitions of fairness.

Such competing definitions currently lurk among us unacknowledged, occasionally resulting in acrimonious public disagreements among administrators, faculty, staff, and students who, ironically enough, tend to agree that racism should not be tolerated. More generally, the focus of most DEI initiatives on a social justice definition of fairness may frustrate and alienate community members and stakeholders who favor a social process definition. And, if our analysis is correct, even if everyone were suddenly to become committed to having honest, open conversations about racism and racial inequality, such conversations would remain counterproductive as long as people continued to use the same words to mean fundamentally different things.

One solution is to avoid using such fraught terms and replace them with more-specific language. For example, it may be useful when discussing DEI issues to employ—and to encourage others to employ—the terms process fairness and outcome fairness as a way of distinguishing between the two competing definitions. While awkward at first, this convention may help reduce confusion and foster greater understanding, if not always agreement. There may be better alternatives out there, but coming up with terms that more accurately reflect the underlying difference between the social justice and social process definitions of fairness is an important step toward having productive conversations.

It is also important to note that people may try to strike a balance between the social justice and social process perspectives. They believe that some amount of outcome equalization is needed to help underrepresented minorities overcome cumulative disadvantages. But they are uncomfortable taking equalization too far because, beyond a certain point, doing so starts to feel unfair. While we appreciate the practical value of adopting this approach, it is important to recognize that doing so does not resolve the underlying definitional issues regarding fairness that tend to cause DEI advocates and critics to misunderstand one another.

It is unfortunate when efforts to solve social problems founder due to lack of resources, but it is tragic when such efforts founder due to failed communication. We hope this piece helps in some small way to prevent such tragedies.

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.

This article was originally published on Heterodox Academy, and is reprinted with permission.