Inequality can be dismantled at the root

Story highlights

  • Darren Walker: The greatest threat to justice is inequality; we need to attack inequality at its roots
  • We cannot focus solely on economic inequality, or look at racial or educational inequality in isolation

Darren Walker is president of the Ford Foundation. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Around the world today, the greatest threat to justice is inequality.

Inequality is the byproduct of systems and structures -- intentional policies and ingrained prejudices -- that have over many decades tilted the scales in favor of some, while limiting opportunity for many others.
Here's what we can do: Attack inequality at its roots.
    Thanks to the roadmap outlined in Thomas Piketty's bestseller "Capital in the Twenty-First Century" or Joseph Stiglitz's recent report on the importance of shared prosperity, we can identify the origins of inequality.
    At the Ford Foundation, we have long sought to address the root causes of injustice. As we survey the state of justice, we see inequality as the biggest barrier to human dignity and economic opportunity.
    Darren Walker
    We have affirmed that inequality extends far beyond the wealth gap. Inequality is political, social, and cultural in nature. It contributes to deficits in democracy and discrimination along racial, ethnic and gender lines. It is reflected in rising extremism, acute poverty, and even in the consequences of climate change.
    While inequality varies by region, the underlying forces that increase inequality are remarkably constant. From Jakarta to Cairo, Rio de Janeiro to New York City, we found five consistent factors that contribute to inequality.
    First is the pervasiveness of short-term thinking in markets. Market mechanisms that focus on profits in the short-term have huge long-term costs for our environment, health, and the potential for shared prosperity.
    Second, we found that political institutions dominated by elite interests are significant drivers of inequality. In nearly every country, a small number of individuals and groups wield disproportionate power to shape public policies, while most people have far more limited access to influence. This imbalance undermines the promise of democracy and leads to a breakdown in social cohesion as people grow distrustful of government.
    These first two factors contribute to a third: Broken social contracts. Today, a weak set of rights and responsibilities guides the relationships between workers and businesses, citizens and governments. The social fabric of our communities has been hollowed out by the lack of investment in public goods, public infrastructure, and the auctioning off of key natural resources for private benefit. This crumbling of the social contract means less upward mobility across the civic landscape.
    Fourth, there's discrimination. Women, indigenous people, LGBT, the poor, and racial and ethnic minorities lack equal status and full rights. This discrimination is embedded in our cultures and institutions, and it perpetuates biased policies.
    And finally, we see dominant cultural narratives that undermine fairness, tolerance and inclusion. These narratives reinforce stereotypes in society, and play out in media coverage that stokes fear without understanding, or in school textbooks that gloss over some of the difficult truths of history. Combatting narratives of intolerance requires powerful counternarratives that embrace -- and truly celebrate -- diversity and inclusion.
    By identifying what we see as inequality's five drivers, we encourage those working on any one of these issues to look more holistically, more systemically and more deeply at the solving the problem. We cannot focus solely on the economic piece of the puzzle, or look at racial or educational inequality in isolation. Doing so treats symptoms while ignoring the disease.
    We believe in the possibilities of this holistic approach to embrace it within our organization. The Ford Foundation is re-organizing itself so that every issue that we work on will be interconnected. We will look for solutions to dismantle these drivers of inequality which reinforce each other in pernicious ways by putting people at the center and addressing causes at the structural level. Our efforts going forward will also support other institutions, individuals and ideas seeking to disrupt these interconnected drivers of inequality.
    The stakes are high because we understand inequality to be global, pervasive, growing, and a central threat to social justice and human dignity.
    Ultimately, it will take all of us, working together, across boundaries of geography, expertise, differences, and belief, to uproot inequality and plant a new tree that can grow into justice, once and for all.