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As I See It: The Difference Between Equality and Equity

Jim MillerBy Jim Miller

Hamilton Naki grew up as a black South African during apartheid, with all of the disadvantages that conveyed.
Although very bright, he left school at 14 because his family could not afford the tuition. One of his first jobs was tending the lawns and tennis courts at the Cape Town Medical School. He ultimately became a lab assistant in the animal research lab, where, through sheer determination, he taught himself surgical skills.

Remarkably, in 1967, when Christiaan Barnard pioneered medical history with the world’s first heart transplant, Naki assisted with the critical task of removing and preparing the donor heart in an adjacent operating room. Over the next 40 years, Naki reportedly trained several thousand aspiring surgeons. His role and impact were not acknowledged until only a few years ago, sadly, after his death. He had led a quiet retired life on his gardener’s pension while Barnard received worldwide recognition. Ironically, Barnard himself supposedly admitted that Naki was the better surgeon. But, because he was white and Naki was black, different rules applied.

Recently, the movie “42” has brought a lot of deserved attention to Jackie Robinson’s contributions to professional baseball through his courage in breaking the race barrier. Looking back from a distance of 70 some years, his story may seem like fiction, but the dehumanizing treatment he received as the personification of black America was a visible and graphic manifestation of the double standards that truly did exist. He not only was an extraordinary baseball player, but a person of incredible determination and courage to have endured what he did.

It is possible that Christiaan Barnard saw nothing wrong with, or at least infrequently thought about, the fact that he and Naki—men with similar but rare talent—were treated so very differently simply because of their skin color.

Likewise, many Americans in the 1940s may not have seen anything especially unusual or even unacceptable in the way Jackie Robinson was treated.

Race has perhaps always been a reason for rationalizing double standards, but it is certainly not the only reason. It simply may be part of human nature to believe that certain rules are necessary to control the conduct of others, but not our own. One of the most cited reasons embezzlers use to explain their actions, for example, is that their employer owed it to them because of all of their unappreciated and undervalued contributions.

When we think of examples such as how Naki and Robinson were treated, it may be tempting to believe that if all double standards could be eradicated, the world would be better off; life would be fairer. Of course, in instances such as these involving basic human rights, that is the only possible conclusion. We also know, however, that the needs of society are far too complex to rely on one uniform set of rules to apply to everyone in every situation. In some instances, double standards may be an excuse for discrimination; in others, a means of achieving fairness or equity.

Indeed, one of the most daunting challenges for all governments is determining when everyone should be treated equally and when they should not. Equality and equity are similar looking words, but with very different meanings. Both convey essential values of government, but there are no hard and fast rules to instruct when one should be applied versus the other.

Decisions based on equality are perhaps easier to make or at least defend, but not always right. Equity, on the other hand, is rooted in the belief that fairness can sometimes only be achieved when the rules that apply to others are not followed. Such decisions may be more arbitrary and open to criticism, but they may be necessary to achieve individual fairness and the public’s best interest. It is why, for example, we create hardship variances in zoning ordinances.

If establishing rules and uniformly applying them were all that mattered, then who holds elected office would not be nearly as important. But government cannot run by autopilot. It requires judgment, issue by issue, as to when the rules should be consistently applied and when they should not. How well elected officials do this should always be the true measure of their public service.

Jim Miller is executive director of the League of Minnesota Cities. Contact: jmiller@lmc.org or (651) 281-1205.

Read the July-August 2013 issue of Minnesota Cities magazine

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