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Welcome to The Fairness Issue

Together, the pandemic and the death of George Floyd revealed to all Americans the rampant inequities and stratifications many face. But is fairness the goal?

It’s never been a secret that life isn’t fair; it bears out in countless racial, gendered, economic, and geographical ways throughout a lifetime.

But even the most privileged and the most sheltered were made to confront the stratification of American society in the past year, as the coronavirus pandemic laid bare the troubling disparities between those who could weather its financial and logistical disruptions to everyday life and those who could not; and between those who would survive its wrath and those who would not. The murder of George Floyd and subsequent protests and racial reckonings a year ago have only further illuminated these realities.

What this past year has shown us is that the concept of “fairness” is slippery. On the one hand, it’s a legible, admirable, seemingly unproblematic goal — enough for everyone, tit for tat, books balanced and parity achieved. It’s neat and it’s simple.

Fairness, it can also be argued, is the province of children. It’s for remote control dominance and ice cream cone distribution; it’s a way of reducing what ought to be multifaceted into a flat and faceless zero-sum transaction. “Life’s not fair!” is one of the most recognizable phrases kids who have just achieved a grasp of the English language can utter; “life’s not fair,” its natural rejoinder, serves as both an early entry point into the inherent inequities of the world and a catchall statement meant to justify whatever the adult uttering it happens to want in a given moment (generally peace, quiet, and a cupcake sans fingerprints in the frosting). It’s infantile and futile to desire fairness; it’s cruel and hopeless not to.

In this month’s issue of The Highlight, we explore this tension. Each piece wrestles with a different definition of fairness, from a feature by labor writer Sarah Jaffe on the false promise of the gig economy to a comic by Melinda Fakuade and Kazimir Lee examining how couples split bills.

At its most insidious, fairness can be trotted out under the guise of equality only to be used as a tool of oppression against the most vulnerable, as Jessica W. Luther writes in her piece about the wave of legislation meant to exclude trans girls and women from participating in sports. At its best, as seen in Carol Kuruvilla’s interviews with seven religious leaders, it operates in tandem alongside its more powerful cousins — kindness, restoration, and, above all, justice — to make a blueprint for a world worth aspiring to. And sometimes, as Kiese Laymon so beautifully writes in an essay about Blackness in America, fairness is shunting aside what’s asked of you, and giving yourself the grace to revisit, revise, and reexamine what you are owed and what you yourself owe your people.

These pieces together raise the notion that fairness in and of itself isn’t, and shouldn’t be, the goal toward which we strive. It’s simply the most obvious result of a far more complex interplay of needs and systems. As Imam Omar Suleiman, president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, told Kuruvilla, “If justice is the tree, fairness is the fruit.”

Getty Images

The playing field

Anti-trans bills purport to address “fairness” in sports. But sports have never been fair.

By Jessica W. Luther

An illustration shows a man looking in the mirror at another version of himself, like a funhouse mirror. Carlos Basabe for Vox

What we owe and are owed

Kiese Laymon on Black revision, repayment, and renewal.

By Kiese Laymon

An illustration of a ride-share driver behind the wheel of a car. Kailey Whitman for Vox

The battle for the future of “gig” work

Ride-sharing companies are pushing to make a third category of “independent” worker the law of the land. Drivers say the notion of independence is little more than a mirage.

By Sarah Jaffe

Getty Images/iStockphoto

How can we make it right? What the world’s religions have to say about justice.

From a Buddhist to a humanist, seven faith leaders weigh in on building a better world.

By Carol Kuruvilla

Kazimir Lee

The last frontier in modern romance is money

As dating and marriage evolve, so is the way couples are splitting finances.

By Melinda Fakuade and Kazimir Lee


Mud libraries hold the story of the Earth’s climate past — and foretell its future


How to talk to a loved one about their health


Why do we keep tabs on people we can’t stand?

View all stories in The Highlight