EDI – of generations, taxonomies and justice

Who is responsible and who should pay?

Whilst the sins of parents are often visited upon their children, this has typically been viewed as unfair: it is not because one’s mother is a murderer (for instance), that one should be punished for murder. As individuals we are responsible for our own choices and behaviors, but should not be held responsible for those of others.

The problem with this apparently reasonable and fair position is that children may benefit from the sins of their parents. Without holding them responsible, a good case can still be made for children to relinquish some of these ill-gotten benefits. 

We are faced with this sort of question when considering Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) policies in universities.

There is no doubt that European societies, and many (but not all) people within them, benefited from colonialism, and still do; non-European societies, and people of non-European background suffered, and continue to do so.

The seeds of this inequality were sowed almost as soon as European explorers set out on voyages of discovery and plunder in the 15th century. It has become so embedded in our systems, ways of thinking, taxonomies, and structures of ownership that it is difficult to clearly identify, examine, or root out.

Today, within universities and elsewhere, there is an attempt to rectify this. EDI policies are being implemented, designed to promote applicants (whether for jobs or student places) from historically disadvantaged groups. For all its advantages, such an approach uses – and reifies? – the same taxonomies that structure colonialism and capitalism, whilst altering the order of privilege and priority.

Older people implementing EDI for the young?

As a middle-age white male professor, I probably benefited from systemic advantages. I say ‘probably’ because there is no counterfactual : the system I grew up in was biased in favor of the group I am part of, but am I a professor today solely because of this, or did my individual capacities play a role? Maybe. Would I have been a professor had the system not favored my group? Maybe.

EDI policies are thought-up and implemented by groups of privileged people (such as myself, but also people from disadvantaged groups who have succeeded, maybe because they were advantaged relative to their group). However, EDI policies focus on incoming students, staff, and young professors, not on incumbents, retirees, or the deceased: their careers are well underway, or over. It is too late to correct the systemic biases from which they may have benefited. 

In short, older people who have succeeded in the prevailing, biased, system, are now implementing rules and regulations that will prevent younger people (those from groups identified as privileged) from benefiting from advantages their parents had.

In effect, they (we) are pulling up the ladder: this is unfair from an inter-generational perspective (i.e. between generations), but not necessarily unfair cross-sectionally (i.e. between young people) provided that EDI focuses on levelling the playing field, not on promoting specific groups. 

Should outcomes be determined by group membership?

Equalizing chances between groups seems like a good thing: without repairing past wrongs, it will hopefully ensure they are not perpetuated.

However, an individual cannot be solely defined by the group they are assigned to. It is unfair to take decisions that affect individuals on the basis of group membership (whether the group is Black people, women, Muslims – or white people): taxonomy is a tool of imperialism and racism, assigning individuals to categories which determine their life chances.

But is EDI overcoming or perpetuating the imperial mindset? EDI may be a pragmatic way of addressing current issues, but can an approach that is premised on categorizing people – thereby overlooking their individuality – be just?

Furthermore, in a world where each person is a member of many groups, it is difficult to determine which group a person should be assigned to: should a working-class white woman be treated as white (historically privileged), working class (historically discriminated against – but not a category used for EDI), or as a woman (historically discriminated against)? Intersectionality is an issue with EDI policy.

Finally, do we believe people are free to define their own identities? If not, who decides which group a person belongs to – EDI functionaries?  Has EDI taken on the role of ascertaining identity?

Can this be resolved?

I am not sure how these questions can be resolved. Can we address the inter-generational aspect of EDI policies, so that the young are not the only ones to pay for systemic issues created by, and that benefited, their forebears? How can we sort out intersectionality? Who decides which taxonomies to use, and how to classify people? Is all systemic bias linked to group membership, or is it also linked to capitalism and to social class? Should we still be using taxonomic approaches to social justice?

EDI is necessary: systemic biases need to be rooted out of academic processes. However, I am not convinced that making only the young bear the brunt of their parents’ (or their parents’, parents’…) guilt, that perpetuating taxonomic approaches to justice, or that overlooking class, income and wealth, will lead to a better and more just university. It won’t make things worse – inequity is already embedded in the institution – but it won’t necessarily make them better.

The devil is in the details. Do EDI policies level the playing field, or do they merely bias it in new ways? If the former, then EDI policies should be carefully explained so that younger generations can see that chances are being equalized, however imperfectly, across questionable and incomplete taxonomies. If the latter, then these new biases will eventually feed resentment, as current ones already do.

The devil is also in the bigger picture. However fair and equitable university policies are, they will remain ineffective so long as recruitment is based upon ‘merit’ in a world where ‘merit’ is defined by, and for, elites … but if recruitment of staff, students and professors is not based upon ‘merit’, what should it be based upon? Group membership?

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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