Is it inequitable or it is broken?

Good framing can help open up perspective and move people to action.

I remember many times being frustrated as a health policy analyst sitting at my desk writing about the inequities of the American health care system. In those moments, I wanted to communicate how badly the system worked for people without insurance. I am certain that my earlier work included words like “broken” to describe the differences in the treatment people received and the urgency of the problem.

As I look back to my own writing, did using “brokenness” framing communicate what I think it did? Likely not. 

I think how we talk about systems matters.  I want to share thoughts on the damage we do when we use brokenness as a message frame. Because writing from an equity-informed space is a journey, I also recommend better strategies.

Here are some other examples:

  • The juvenile justice system is hopelessly broken.
  • America’s broken immigration system is the last hope for Dreamers.
  • Our education system works for the most privileged. It is broken beyond repair.

On social media, at the mention of a “broken” system, someone will offer a quick retort that is something like, “No, it [insert system] is not broken. It is functioning as designed.” I believe this to be true. Yet, I want us to dig a little deeper. I invite you to interrogate the deeper meta-message that we communicate when we describe systems that may be overrepresented by people of color — as broken?

When we use “brokenness” as a frame, here is what we are doing:

  • We are engaged in crisis messaging, which is demoralizing and disengaging.
  • We are diminishing the agency of our partners who work alongside us.
  • We are promoting a fatalism that can kill our hope.

Be mindful about how you describe systems. Is it broken or is it inequitable? Systems talk is a powerful reflection of what you think about the people in those systems. If the system is “broken,” then who broke it?

Here is how you fix the framing problem

First, let me share that there is no magic fix. People ask me all the time for the right language for the perfect words. Truthfully, there is no perfection in creating a race-informed analysis.  Our writing in this space provides the opportunity to offer our reader both nuance to digest a complicated problem and to do so without triggering stereotypes.

That said, there are a few practical steps you can take to improve your analysis:

  • Instead of broken, talk about where the inequities are in outcomes.
  • Share stories of differential treatment within the system.
  • Link to solutions that have the power to transform conditions that differ by identity (e.g., race, gender, class, ability).


So you read this post, awesome and thank you.

Put racial equity in action by taking the next step, which is…

Go back to your last piece of writing and look for places to use the tips above to make your descriptions about systems more accurate and your writing more clear.

For Helpful Tools 

Check out the How to Talk About Race tool. Do you subscribe to my newsletter? If not, subscribe right now to get this kind of guidance delivered directly into your inbox. I am writing a series on data framing, and subscribers get those posts first!



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Author: Joanna Shoffner Scott
Joanna Shoffner Scott is an experienced management consultant with deep expertise in racial equity. She is the founder and principal of Stamey Street Consulting Group, LLC, and is a Senior Consultant with the Race Matters Institute of JustPartners, Inc. Joanna has consulted with numerous organizations all over the country on unpacking race in their every day work.

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