Does anybody know the difference between “equality” and “equity” any more? Until recently, the difference, as used in politics and sociology, was clear: “equality” meant “equal treatment of everyone regardless of what group they belong to”, while “equity” meant “representation of groups in government, business, academia, and other organizations in proportion to their existence in the general population.”
These are not the same thing, of course. People can be treated equally now but there can still be inequities for a variety of reasons: the residuum of historical discrimination, difference in preferences due to culture, socialization, or different propensities due to biological differences. The conflation of the two terms has led to a lot of mischief and confusion, the most prominent being that the observation of inequities means the current existence of unequal treatment (“structural racism or sexism”).
The confusion was compounded in President Biden’s February “Executive Order on Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” a far-reaching plan to ensure “equity” in the federal government.
That document uses the word “equity” 63 times and “equality” only four. One would think, then, that the plan is designed to ensure proportional representation of groups in the federal government.
But if you look in section 10, you find “equity” defined this way:
Sec. 10. Definitions. For purposes of this order:
(a) The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic treatment of all individuals in a fair, just, and impartial manner, including individuals who belong to communities that often have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, Indigenous and Native American, Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander persons and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; women and girls; LGBTQI+ persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; persons who live in United States Territories; persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality; and individuals who belong to multiple such communities.
If you used this as a goal in your DEI statement, you’d never get a job!
In other words, Biden’s plan defines “equity” as “equal treatment before the law”. That isn’t equity but “equality,” and one wonders not only whether Biden apprehends the difference, and, crucially, which one he’s affirming as the goal of his administration’s policy. In such cases, the definition of the term is crucial in how the government will act.
This difference is the subject of Peter Boghassian’s Substack column this week. The “gaslighting” to which Peter refers is seemingly an attempt to make us forget that “equality” means “equal treatment”, or to sow confusion in minds about whether there’s any difference between “equity” and “equality.”
Click on screenshot to read the article; it’s very short.
Peter reproduces a tweet from Cenk Uygur (whatever happened to him?) that’s badly misleading:
I don't even know if "equity" is a real thing that anyone outside of twelve leftists and the entire right-wing believe is real. The overwhelming majority of progressives agree with @BernieSanders (and me) that equality of opportunity is the right standard.
— Cenk Uygur (@cenkuygur) March 7, 2023
No, Cenk is dead wrong here: progressives want equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity, and they’re always pointing to the former, not the latter, as evidence for bigotry. The same day I found a similar tweet by Cenk:
The right-wing thinks the fact that the word "equity" exists proves something, but it doesn't. If you're on the right and you think "equity" means equality of results, I think you're wrong. But if you're on the left and think it should mean equality of results, you're also wrong.
— Cenk Uygur (@cenkuygur) March 7, 2023
No, it’s Cenk, the big blustering self-assured newsman, who is wrong, at least in how “equity” is currently used. It’s true that if you look at the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll find that “equity” means this:
1. The quality of being equal or fair; fairness, impartiality; even-handed dealing.
but also this:
2. What is fair and right; something that is fair and right.
If you parse that with a “progressive” frame of mind, you can (barely) construe that proportional representation is indeed the result of fairness and equality of treatment. But it need not be: not if groups have different preferences or cultural backgrounds.
And it’s also not necessarily true that “equal opportunity” means “equal opportunity at the present time.” If you’re born poor in an environment that doesn’t provide equal opportunity, then you’ll get inequities as a result. But I can tell you one thing: when Ibram Kendi says “equity”, he doesn’t mean “equality of treatment”.
Bernie Sanders, when pressed by Bill Maher, does seem to appreciate the difference, and he comes down on the classical definition of equality as “equality of opportunity”.
Bill Maher asked Bernie Sanders to explain the differences between ‘equality’ and ‘equity’
Bernie was left dumbstruck 👀 pic.twitter.com/p0KsRzSQ6I
— Zachery Henry (@zhenryaz) March 4, 2023
But I think it’s clear that the extreme Left, which I and others call “progressives” (though they’re actually illiberal), clearly construe equity as meaning equality of outcome. Here’s the reason I think why.
There are ways of measuring equity, of course: determining whether there’s proportionality in outcomes: women, for example should be half of all CEOs (they’re not). But it’s easy to measure.
Equality of opportunity is harder to measure, but for some things it can be guaranteed. The most obvious case is determining who belongs in an orchestra: simply audition prospective players behind a screen so that the only thing that can be judged is their playing. Their sex, race, or ethnicity cannot be discerned. And to me that seems eminently fair.
It’s a procedure employed by many symphony orchestras. But it didn’t produce the diversity of sex and race that people envisioned when they put this procedure in place! There was equality but no equity.
Ergo, the New York Times‘s classical music critic switched gears and wrote a piece called, “To make orchestras diverse, end blind auditions” (subtitle: “If ensembles are to reflect the community they serve, the audition process should take into account race, gender, and other factors”).
Here the critic, Anthony Tommasini, clearly knew the difference between equity and equality of opportunity, and favored ditching the latter to get more of the former. (Another way he could achieve more equity in orchestras, if he thinks that disproportional representation reflects historically unequal opportunities—an orchestra “pipeline”—is to provide equal opportunities for people of all groups to both hear music and have a chance to play an instrument.)
I’m not going to judge whether orchestras should reflect merit or demographics; my point is that your goal will determine the methods you use to achieve it. And that is why it’s critical that people understand the difference between “equity” and “equality.”
Here’s how Peter ends his post:
Almost overnight, equity has become the North Star of public and private intuitions. One would think that someone of Sander’s stature and experience would know the difference, and if Sanders has to think about it, imagine the average American trying to make sense of these terms. I have long asserted that confusion over the meanings of words is one of the primary ways people have been hoodwinked by Social Justice ideology—they do not understand the policies they are institutionalizing.