Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government

Jasmine McGinnis Johnson (Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University, Washington D.C., Washington, USA)

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ISSN: 2040-7149

Article publication date: 20 March 2015



McGinnis Johnson, J. (2015), "Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 34 No. 3, pp. 262-264. https://doi.org/10.1108/EDI-12-2014-0084



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Public administration and management scholars have predominately conducted studies about race, focusing on the relationship between workforce diversity and outcomes at the individual, team and organizational levels (Pitts and Wise, 2010). In general, the relationship between diversity and performance has been an increasingly important topic with a growth in the number of books, mainstream news attention and research articles. Across these studies, emerge practitioner-oriented suggestions about the management and organizational conditions that create opportunities for diversity management to improve performance. Lately, most diversity research is quantitative,but there has been a general lack of advancement in theoretical work. Moreover, what is missing from this area of research, are explicit conversations about race and systemic racism. This point is also made in the foreword of “Race and Social Equity: A Nervous Area of Government”. The foreword is written by Samuel L. Myers, Jr Roy Wilkins Professor of Human Relations and Social Justice at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at University of Minnesota. He remarks that during the last 11 years “there were seven to nearly ten times as many references to diversity as there were to racial discrimination or racism” (foreword, xi).

Building upon a lack of research on this subject, Gooden masterfully crafts a book focusing on race as “a nervous area of government” and introduces both a tool (racial equity analysis) and case studies of organizations (at all levels of government) that have overcome this nervousness. Gooden offers four significant contributions to public administration research, and makes several contributions to broader management literature.

First, Gooden coins the phrase, “a nervous area of government” to describe nervousness about race (not at the individual level where a nervous “emotion” is typically perceived to occur) but, at the organizational level which she links to the lack of interest and action around issues of race and social equity throughout government. To further demonstrate just how “nervous” most public administrators as individuals and public organizations are, she presents stark evidence that across many social, economic and health indicators racial/ethnic minorities are experiencing serious disadvantages.

In addition to contributing the phrase “nervous area of government”, Gooden also situates her text within broader organizational justice research. Here Gooden makes another distinct contribution to current research as organizational justice studies have been primarily concerned with employee fairness and objectivity. In this regard, Gooden conceptualizes of organizational justice as a backdrop for her text. She writes:

While these areas are important, understanding the nervous area of government involves an approach to organizational justice that is more systemic. It prioritizes the treatment and experience of the publics the organization serves. The dominant concern is how the organization provides public justice rather than solely internal, employee justice (p. 5).

Gooden also reintroduces the importance of social equity in public administration. She accomplishes this by introducing the concept of public justice as a value that all public organizations pursue within their agencies’ goal of delivering equitable public services. For Gooden, social equity is a pillar of government that is understudied with even less research on how governments may face any social inequities. Although equity is one of the three pillars of public administration, it is often mentioned as a tertiary pillar – behind issues of effectiveness and efficiency. Yet, Gooden notes that we often fail to measure or assess the equity of public programs due to a focus on efficiency and effectiveness. This is problematic because “In many instances programs that prove to be very efficient also prove to be very inequitable. The two criteria are seldom both maximized in the same program” (Patton and Sawicki, 1993, p. 204 as cited in Gooden 2014). Gooden chooses to focus her text on one aspect of social equity, racial equity, recognizing that there are other social inequities that also engender nervous areas of government. However, Gooden presents a plethora of research that individual and organizational nervousness around issues of race in government have substantial impacts that continue to reinforce social inequities for various racial and ethnic groups.

Finally, Gooden’s book explicitly recognizes that an organizations culture and values are some of the most significant factors that often contribute to individual public administrators’ nervousness, or organizational nervousness about race and racial equity. Therefore, to overcome these difficulties, she introduces a racial equity impact analysis. This can be used as a tool for agencies in order to better understand (prior to the introduction of a new program or policy) how changes may affect different racial/ethnic groups. The book describes racial equity impact analyses as important for agencies to undergo, because discrimination today is more nuanced, and often will have inequitable impacts in more subtle ways, than illegal discrimination tactics in prior history. The racial equity impact analysis is also a free, low-cost tool which could be really meaningful if appropriated by public agencies.

In Chapters 1 and 2 Gooden defines a nervous area of government, and then describes racial inequities in the USA across a variety of policy areas including housing, education and the environment. In Chapters 3 and 4, she describes various aspects of nervousness at the individual level, commenting on why colorblindness is ineffective, and then describes nervousness at the organizational level, which is often a result of organizational culture and values. Her text then offers examples of public agencies at the federal, state and local levels that have explicitly dealt with nervousness around race while also documenting their challenges. Chapters 5-7 offer case studies examples of government agencies at the federal, state and local levels: Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, Wisconsin Works and the US Environmental Protection Agency. In Chapter 8, Gooden introduces a racial equity impact analysis, a tool used to provide “a systematic examination of how different racial and ethnic groups will likely be affected by a proposed action or decisions” (Keleher, 2009, p. 151 as cited in Gooden 2014). Chapter 9 then applies Gooden’s examination of race as a nervous area of government to her own field. In this chapter Gooden focuses on Network of Schools of Public Policy, Affairs and Administration’s (NASPAA) diversity standards, urging schools to conduct a cultural audit in order to go beyond NASPAA’s diversity standards and create a culture of inclusiveness. In Chapter 10, these concepts are examined in a comparative context and Gooden highlights various racial injustices where formal apologies have been offered, noting that nervousness around racial equity is something that goes beyond borders. Finally, in Chapter 11, ten principles for conquering nervousness in government around race are offered.

One limitation of the book is that the cases used as examples of organizations where nervousness about race was overcome seem to demonstrate a variety of approaches used. Although Gooden acknowledges that the cases do not offer a “one size fits all” approach future researchers may want to investigate whether there are patterns about conclusions that can be drawn. For example, of the ten principles Gooden offers at the end of her text, which are necessary for racial equity progress to occur and which are sufficient? Distinguishing these patterns would provide rich evidence-based information for practitioners who may try to implement some of these tactics.

Another limitation of the book is that the amount of public services offered by government agencies are declining while contracting out is on the rise (Rho, 2013). Public goods and services are very likely now to be offered by private, non-profit agencies. Although Gooden does not mention this in her text, this is a research area that other scholars could investigate, since Gooden has set the stage for a rich research agenda.

Finally, a note for faculty (like myself) that teach organizational behavior classes, particularly those of us in public administration or policy schools. In my opinion, Gooden’s book would be a wonderful addition to a more mainstream management book, since she offers a contemporary approach to a current public administration challenge. This book would be particularly useful in the classroom because Gooden makes a strong case that public administrators are not passive players in affecting change. She explicitly writes that pursuing racial equity is not just a matter of following laws and that individual public administrators have a strong impact on racial equity progress in this challenge. She writes, “Until this nervousness is effectively managed, public administration efforts to reduce racial inequities cannot realize their full potential” (p. 3). Furthermore, students could learn the racial equity impact analysis tool and perhaps conduct an analysis on a real organization for applied practice, as a course assignment. In general, Gooden’s book is a wonderful addition to broader organizational management literature and many of her contributions represent areas for, much needed, continued research and discourse.


Pitts, D.W. and Wise, L.R. (2010), “Workforce diversity in the new millennium: prospects for research”, Review of Public Personnel Administration , Vol. 30 No. 1, pp. 44-69.

Rho, E. (2013), “Contracting revisited: determinants and consequences of contracting out for public education services”, Public Administration Review , Vol. 73 No. 2, pp. 327-337.

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