Excerpted From: John Powell and Ned Conner, Form and Substance: Understanding Conceptual and Design Differences among Racial Equity Proposals and a Bold Application, 38 Ohio State Journal on Dispute Resolution 13 (2023) (115 Footnotes) (Full Document)


PowellConnerRacial equity has become more than a buzzword confined to advocacy organizations and scholarly treatises; it has become a policy objective of the federal government, state and local governments, and part of the mission of many corporations and other major institutions, from hospitals and museums, to medical associations and other voluntary organizations. The frequent invocation of this term obscures considerable ambiguity and complexity in its precise meaning and operationalization. This is understandable. Important concepts and words will invariably have multiple meanings in different contexts and at different times. Our goal, then, is not to come up with a definitive meaning, but to assist in being more aware and careful in the particular use and practice.

Simply declaring racial equity as a goal or objective does little to resolve significant differences of opinion or assumptions about precisely what that means in theory or practice and how best to realize that objective. This Article interrogates this problem in two broad ways.

First, it examines the conceptual differences which underpin varying understandings of this term. This examination includes a review of various problems and strategic pitfalls that arise from the pursuit of racial equity, either narrowly understood or reconceptualized more broadly. In doing so, this Article argues for a definition of racial equity or a commitment to goals and objectives that move beyond the narrow definition of racial equity to targeted/universalism (T/U) and belonging.

Second, this Article examines significant differences in the policy form or typology among racial equity interventions that have either been proposed or already adopted. It illustrates these differences by reviewing several examples of each type running along three basic form-based cleavages: race-targeted versus universalistic, reforms versus new initiatives, and process-based policy recommendations versus substantive policy changes. In the process, this Article will suggest that many differences among policy forms are based on different assumptions, beliefs, strategic considerations, and contextual settings in which they arise. Some of the tension and conflict is, then, not just conceptual but operating from different registers.

These differences, in both concepts and policy, reflect many disagreements among advocates and policymakers alike. These disagreements exist at different levels and for many different reasons. This Article aspires to break new ground in scholarship by juxtaposing these differences to illuminate nuances that are obscured by simplistic narratives and strident advocacy for one approach over another. Ultimately, this Article argues in favor of a nuanced, all-of-the-above approach and calls to resist one-sided or narrow approaches to racial equity policy design and implementation. To put it differently, there may be situations in which each approach may be more appropriate than others. In different contexts or settings, one approach may be preferable and in another, a different approach. Still, there must be a way of articulating and measuring their effectiveness and having some clarity of what one is trying to achieve.

Part II of this Article grapples with the definition of racial equity and the conceptual underpinnings. It examines the evolution of equality in law to equity in policy and law. In the process, it examines certain problems that arise in the context of equity debates and proposes an alternative way to realize the aspirations behind a deeper understanding of equity and equality.

Part III of this Article examines three key cleavages that appear within the racial equity policy literature, comparing and contrasting approaches across each approach.

Part IV suggests that some of the difficulty is in the design of how we make decisions. What is offered in this section is a different way of making decisions that addresses some of the power and participation issues that remain embedded in more traditional ways of making decisions. This section calls for a way of experimenting with a very different model while holding the experimenter harmless.

[. . .]

In many respects, we have been on a journey to address power concentration and acknowledge the dignity of all people. Jefferson might have meant something very different in his use of the concept of equality in the Declaration of Independence. This remains an unfulfilled aspiration. At times we have tried to step back from the implication of this phrase by embracing a very narrow concept of equality. At other times we have been more robust. What we have tried to do in this Article is not only embrace a more robust understanding of equality, dignity and belonging, we have also suggested a process that might support this. We have also tried to show that some of the confusion around both the concept and practice of equality and equity can be advanced by targeted universalism. Finally, we proposed a radical model of decision making that may distribute power better than representative voting. We are aware that we may have raised as many questions as we tried to answer. And we invite those and other questions as we grabble with our American dilemma with a focus on racial justice and fostering a society where all people belong.


john a. powell is the Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute and a Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Ned Conner, after serving as a Marine in Vietnam, attended and graduated from Reed College with a B.A. in experimental psychology, and entered the PhD program at the University of Pennsylvania on an NSF Fellowship.