Thursday, June 4, 2020

Equality vs. Equity

The conversation is changing in 2020 ...

In a search on this topic, this image is almost universal.
When this topic started to peak my interest, I thought it a simple difference in definitions. But it isn't. It's a huge topic, one more prevalent in today's society than I even began to imagine. For a long time, there was a difference in what people were actually referring to when they spoke about equality, discrimination, and racism in this country.  The difference could be due to context of a conversation, or just simply interpretation of the laws of the country as we currently know them.

Is our society striving for equality? Do our laws provide for equity? It depends on who you talk to, right? Why?

In the United States, we've long spoken about "equality" for minority groups. Minorities were long discriminated against because of historical norms and practices, there's no doubt about it. Not everyone arrived on this continent the same way; by the same path.  Those who were present when these paths existed passed down what they knew as "normal." The Founders knew that this "normal" wasn't equitable, but weren't able to fight the inequities entirely, so compromised in the documents that established our federal government.

Later we fought over who was able to establish these rules. Were we One? Or were we a collection of many? (The dichotomy is that we are both.) After we fought, we've talked about equal rights. Equal opportunities. Discrimination against Negros (as they were called then) could not be tolerated.  Beginning with the Reformation, the law - blind to social status already - was color blind as well. The Reformation then allowed Negros the same chance to buy and use goods and services as anyone else within our borders.  But at the same time, individuals were free to apply their portion of commerce however they saw fit. So discrimination based on skin color especially still ran rampant.

The Civil Rights Act was passed years before I was born. It was put in place to try to ensure minority group members weren't discriminated against in hiring practices, in social settings - in life in general.  Any registration or regulation by private and public entities in the US that were obstacles for members of minority groups were to be abolished.

Of course, a law isn't written on people's hearts ...

So, has our country overcome discrimination? 

In many ways, it has. In many ways, it hasn't. It's a complex question and answer, for "discrimination" is a subjective term. One as different as the people who talk about it. For me, it seemed some people who participated in the conversation were skewing the definition of equality. After all, they are wrong to say that Affirmative Action is about equal rights, even though that was the supposed basis for what has been known as Affirmative Action in this country. (More on this later.)  Recently I started noticing a difference in verbiage.

What appears to be happening today is based not on the presence of discrimination, but on the change in what discrimination means. We are beginning to think of civil rights and discrimination not as ways to provide everyone equal opportunity, but to give equitable means.  Is this what is needed? Is this truly "fair" for all? Are equal rights the same as equitable rights?

As I do, let's look at the definition of these terms:


noun, plural e·qual·i·ties.
  1. the state or quality of being equal; correspondence in quantity, degree, value, rank, or ability: promoting equality of opportunity in the workplace.
  2. uniform character, as of motion or surface.
  3. Mathematics. a statement that two quantities are equal; equation.


noun, plural eq·ui·ties.

  1. the quality of being fair or impartial; fairness; impartiality: the equity of Solomon.
  2. something that is fair and just: the equities of our criminal-justice system.
  3. Law.
    1. Also called chancery. the application of the dictates of conscience or the principles of natural justice to the settlement of controversies.
    2. Also called chancery. a system of jurisprudence or a body of doctrines and rules developed in England and followed in the U.S., serving to supplement and remedy the limitations and the inflexibility of the common law.
    3. an equitable or legally valid right or claim.
    4. equity of redemption.
  4. the monetary value of a property or business beyond any amounts owed on it in mortgages, claims, liens, etc.: Over the years, they have carefully avoided tapping into their home equity for unnecessary expenses.
  5. Informal. ownership, especially when considered as the right to share in future profits or appreciation in value.
  6. the interest of the owner of common stock in a corporation.

Obviously, the monetary definitions of equity aren't what are at issue here. 

Since its inception, and more importantly in this context, since the Reformation, the United States has been a bastion of equality.  Each individual citizen has the same opportunity as another. Where you were born, what monetary value your family held, what social status you had, just didn't matter to what you were allowed to do. No authority could dictate the direction we wanted to take, or goal we wanted to achieve in our lives.  At the same time, no authority would give more to another in order to achieve that direction or goal.

Today, however, the use of the word equity is becoming more prevalent.   Discrimination now requires equity be applied correctly. The racial divide can only be bridged through equity: Affirmative Action provides resources to those discriminated against in order for them to succeed.

While the use of the word equity is a welcome change to the conversation - people used to simply "redefine" equality when they really meant equity - it doesn't follow what has been done in our laws, nor does it help those it's intended to. Looking at the laws on our books, they do not provide equity.  They provide equality. Some just wish to change the application and implementation of those laws to do otherwise.  While quite possibly a noble goal, equity laws don't really exist - we've just manipulated equality laws to give resources from one group to another.

Don't get me wrong; equity in certain situations is perfectly fine.  It's not a "dirty word" by any stretch. If we're all watching a baseball game (see the image at the top), I don't think anyone can argue equity makes sense.  But if the "fence" is a level of success in life, equality must be applied.

Applying equity creates animosity between groups: those denied a "box" in order to give it to another.  This may be something as direct as money - think about government-funded business programs.  Or it could be more indirect such as college admission acceptance or business contract approval.  Equity also requires a 3rd party to define the "fence" which creates more animosity.  If all parties have the same to start, they can build with it what they like. For each of us has the same opportunity to create our own definition of success to overcome the fence.  No one is gets to define our success in order to redistribute it to others.  The fence is ours, not theirs.

These forced equities change us as a society.  They define "the Jones's" in the community. ("Keep up with the Jones's") ... and thus comes the issue.   We are taught that keeping up with them isn't important.  So why are we defining equity to do just that?

Society has a responsibility to help those who are "too short to see over a fence" to a degree. We shouldn't deny that as responsible citizens.  But at the same time, all responsible citizens must apply responsibility for and to their own actions. There is only one person responsible for their level of success: themselves.  Yes, it may be a harder for one than another to get to the same place, but the journey is reward in itself.

Let's be good neighbors and help those in need in their journey, but not deny them the trip.

This topic can run into so many venues! While trying to stay quite broad in the interpretation above, it's hard to stay away from certain applications of equality vs. equity.  It's very close to "the exception defining the rule" as there may be many exceptions to this analysis. Our society doesn't use this type of analysis in day-to-day application any longer. And that's what I'm actually trying to address. We need to be more broad in our regulation in order to provide equal starting points, and not be narrow in them to provide equitable results.

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