Equity vs. Equality: A Political Rorschach Test

Carlon Howard, Chief Impact Officer at the Equity Institute, debates equity versus equality with Robert Wilkes of Divided We Fall.

Does This Internet Meme Present a Simple Parable or Insidious Propaganda?

By Carlon Howard and Robert Wilkes. If you enjoy this piece, you can read more Political Pen Pals debates here.


America Cannot Fulfill the Promise of Equal Opportunity Without Equal Access

By Carlon Howard – Chief Impact Officer, Equity Institute

In recent years, the debate concerning the difference between equity and equality has grown considerably, particularly in light of nationwide protests for racial justice and women’s equality. On one end, proponents of equity-based solutions to societal problems argue that we must take into account the varied lived experiences of individuals and communities when crafting public policy. On the other hand, opponents of equity-based solutions assert this requires an unrealistic level of differentiation in services and policies, a differentiation that is almost certain to privilege certain groups over others. From this viewpoint, impartial equality should be the aim. While working towards equality is an admirable goal, this strategy can overlook the myriad circumstances that impact life outcomes. In contrast, equity recognizes the variability across different groups of people and seeks to adequately provide support based on their specific needs. With this in mind, an equity lens is necessary to truly pursue the democratic principles of liberty and justice for all.

An Ancient Solution for a Persistent Problem

The earliest uses of equity find their origins in legal proceedings. Between the 11th and 13th Centuries, courts of England were empowered to settle disputes according to Common Law — that is, a law that was common across the entire kingdom. This typically resulted in a uniform administration of justice. Uniformity ensured consistency, but it did not address key differences in certain circumstances. For example, if two individuals were charged with theft, should they be treated the same if the stolen items significantly varied in value? This gave rise to the application of equity by the courts, granting them leeway in dealing with more complex cases. 

Today, people use the term “equity” to describe solutions to a wider range of challenges. While the definition of equity has evolved and extended beyond legal remedies, the foundational idea remains the same: different circumstances require different approaches. When it comes to solving problems, an equity lens takes into account the systems and structures that have created the adverse conditions in the first place. This includes everything from how different communities access such resources as housing and health care, to who has access to opportunities like social mobility and job security.

An equitable way of operating works on the principle that everyone has an equal capacity to contribute, while also recognizing some needs are greater than others. For instance, looking at the oft-referenced “equity vs. equality” meme, your approach to viewing a sports competition blocked by a wooden fence may be different if you have a shorter stature compared to if you were taller. Equality dictates that every person attempting to view the game receives the exact same treatment — in this case, the same box to stand on. Equity, however, suggests that some individuals may need multiple boxes to see over the fence while others may not need a box at all. Despite these different approaches, everyone involved still gets to watch the game. This example is a simplified representation of the fundamental difference between equity and equality. Equity is about giving people what they need, rather than just giving them the same thing as everyone else.

The Deceptive Simplicity of the Wooden Box

Applying this thinking to social issues, it becomes clear that one-size-fits-all solutions do not always work, especially when addressing the challenges faced by marginalized groups and communities. When looking at these examples through an equity lens, we can see that some people are starting at a disadvantage. This is often due to systemic factors like racism, sexism, and poverty that create barriers to success. Addressing these issues requires a different approach than simply providing equality of opportunity. An equity-based framework seeks to understand the root causes of inequality and develop solutions that are tailored to the specific needs of each community.

Equity — as it pertains to such social identities as ethnicity, gender, and income level — is a highly complex topic. Despite our best efforts to stay abreast with the latest research and new thought-provoking discussions, the concept constantly evolves and grows, and our understanding of how it can be applied must grow with it. Equity in one community may look completely different in another. As of writing this article, I have found no panacea that guarantees all policies and programs will deliver equitable outcomes. It is important to keep in mind that equity is process-oriented and focuses primarily on engaging stakeholders across communities to drive change and build equitable systems and processes.

Of course, defining and measuring equity can prove difficult, especially when considering the various areas involved in carrying out any policy: funding, governance, accountability, instruction, assessment, and many more. Measurement is arguably one of the greatest debates in public policy. There are a large number of factors that influence a program’s, government’s, or community’s ability to ensure equitable outcomes — from a system-level down to the individual — and applying metrics to these factors is essential. We must remain clear-eyed about the actual results of our efforts if we are to keep our aim true.

False Choices and Real Solutions

Equity isn’t simply a collection of specific actions as much as it is a mindset or lens. Becoming an equity-minded citizen is an ongoing process. It’s about engaging in critical inquiry regularly in an effort to add, remove, or change certain habits and actions. Similarly, advancing equity across all communities is an ever-evolving journey that involves constant observation and reflection. This means that equity is a long-term objective and one of the greatest issues we can address. Numerous systemic barriers exist across our social, political, and economic systems that prevent people from realizing their full potential, and it will take time to dismantle them. We are not simply swapping around boxes! Advancing equitable solutions to societal problems require a complete transformation in our habits, actions, and mindsets. 

As we grapple with defining the key differences between equity and equality, it’s worth noting that neither is necessarily better than the other — both are vital to our pursuit of a more life-affirming country. We need both equality and equity in order to ensure fairness and justice and to allow every member of society to achieve their fullest potential. Equality ensures that everyone is given the same opportunities, while equity strives to give everyone what they need in order to have equal access to those opportunities. Equity has been often overlooked as an important component to addressing societal challenges. With a greater understanding of the nuanced ways it differs from equality, we can be better equipped to truly strengthen our communities.


In Response

By Robert Wilkes – Senior Correspondent, Divided We Fall

Dear Carlon,

Before I respond, let me welcome you to Divided We Fall and thank you for engaging in a spirited dialectic with me. I have read some of your writings on various blogs. There is much we do agree on.  

The warm and fuzzy cartoon before us is a Rorschach test. It evokes a love-it or hate-it response reflecting our deeply held moral values. It was shared with me by a progressive friend in the hope that it would soften my cold, conservative heart. 

I was appalled. I hated it. My friend wanted to know why. “All it says,” she explained, “is that we have a moral obligation to give a boost to the disadvantaged. What’s wrong with that?” Why did we see the cartoon so differently? Jonathan Haidt’s “moral foundations” in his book The Righteous Mind offers the best explanation I know of.  

In your interpretation of the cartoon, you said “Equity is about giving people what they need, rather than giving them the same thing as everyone else.” The short man needs two boxes — a valid literal interpretation of a cartoon that I took to be a metaphor. Your argument has merit, but I will counter it. What the short man needs is to develop skills, find a useful vocation, and buy a ticket to the ball game. If he needs help (counseling, education, job skills, etc.), your organization and others like it provide services that can change his life. Getting him another box will not. 

It’s not clear what you mean by “…some needs are greater than others.” I imagine you’re referring to helping disadvantaged young people succeed in life, something we all heartily endorse. But what needs? The answer is not so simple. What does a child from a fatherless home need? You can’t supply a father. On the other hand, you can, and do, train teachers how to be responsive to individual circumstances. All credit to you and the Equity Institute. 

I think the work you do is righteous. But I would go further. Teach the child with an absent father that being a good dad to his own kids is his moral and civic responsibility. Set expectations that will guide him as he approaches adulthood, expectations that he should get married before having children and raise them in a loving family. What else will break the cycle of anger and misfortune? Nothing I know of.  Appropriating a legal term like “equity” and distorting it for broad and undefined purposes is wrong and has opened the door to mischief.

The Three Horsemen of Bad Policy

Equity over equality invites three evils: gaslighting, denial of fundamental causes, and grifting. In the 1944 film Gaslight, a wife is psychologically tormented by her husband, who schemes to convince her she is crazy and have her committed. She strives to please him but never succeeds. Whatever happens, she is always wrong or at fault. 

Murky, idealistic applications of equity create conditions ripe for this kind of psychological terrorism. When is my “mindset” sufficiently empathetic or correct? Can I ever do enough to show my commitment to equity?  I have always considered discussions of “systemic racism” to be gaslighting, as well. They imply that we are helpless to resolve the evils of racism because the goalposts are constantly shifting. Even disadvantaged identity groups are gaslighted because they are taught that their destiny is entirely in the hands of others, miring them in a helpless victim mentality.

There is often a lack of intellectual rigor around the notion of root causes, in these discussions. Effects are mislabeled as causes; correlation is confused with causation — a classic logical fallacy. Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has the facts right, but her conclusions succumb to this fallacy. That she never addresses the real causes of mass incarceration is malfeasance by the author. Her book has inspired the disastrous “Defund the Police” movements and elected revolving-door district attorneys. We are suffering the consequences. Among them, sadly, is an appreciable increase in black-on-black murder. 

This dearth of concrete causes and solutions opens the door to all kinds of grifters. Vaclav Havel wrote “The Power of the Powerless,” about a greengrocer who put Communist slogans in the window of his store. Neither the grocer nor his political masters believed them, but they affirmed his submissiveness. He hoped his display of political correctness would shield him. How many companies swap their Twitter logos every February for one with a rainbow for the same reason? When the quest for equity is merely a mindset hanging in the air, opportunists, charlatans, shakedown artists, and rent-seekers will exploit the situation. Prizes go to those that figure out how to game the system.  

Sophistry and the Belief in Government Solutions

The cartoon’s simple solution implies that social problems obey predictable laws similar to the speed of light or the pull of gravity. This sophistry assumes all we need is the collective will to take on big challenges. The assumption is false. President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was a failure. Seattle, near where I live, has spent more than $1 billion to alleviate homelessness and it hasn’t made a dent. By implying that government has the power to do what it cannot or should not do in the name of equity, the cartoon is propaganda created to hand more power to the government.

In Shelby Steele’s movie, What Killed Michael Brown?”, Steele tells about his experiences growing up in 1960s Chicago. The government forced black families out of homes they owned in order to build public housing. The result was a life so demeaning and blighted that the buildings had to be torn down. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in his 1965 report on poverty, said that welfare programs had resulted in the steady disintegration of black family structure.  

The equity cartoon envisions a world in which all heads are at the same height, a metaphor for communist-style redistribution of wealth. Communism levels wealth, but saps the human spirit and makes everyone downtrodden. Society, from top to bottom, lives a lie. 

Should we level wealth with “equity hiring”, then? Even a voluntary program would have its limits. The NY Times chief classical music critic, Anthony Thomassini, wrote in his newspaper that it’s time to stop blind auditions. Musicians in blind auditions perform behind a curtain to ensure the selection is made on talent and not physical appearance or connections. I would think every social justice warrior worth his Starbucks latte would cheer for blind auditions. 

Now there are calls to discard the practice favor of “diversity” hiring. Daniel Asia, a celebrated composer, conductor, and academic, has said that ending blind auditions would mark the slow death of high culture as mediocrity replaces transcendent excellence. In an artistic version of Gresham’s Law, bad art drives out good art. Asia said his opposition to ending blind auditions came to him from his colleague, conductor John McLaughlin Williams. Williams is black. 

Beyond eroding the quality of art and industry, such hiring programs may actually run afoul of the Constitution. The 14th Amendment reads in part, “No state shall…deny any person…equal protection of the laws.” Legislation to create “equity” likely violates the 14th Amendment. Tragically, discrimination in the U.S. was once legal and sanctioned by the Supreme Court. It should not be reinstated and pointed in the other direction to achieve equity. SB 826 in California mandates that California corporations must have at least one woman on their boards. It is heading to trial under the 14th Amendment

Abstract Fruits of the Postmodern Tree

I read your essay to understand what equity means to you and how you would apply it, hoping there would be illustrative case histories and examples. Instead, there is fog and ambiguity. Equity, you say, is difficult to define and can’t be measured. It’s situational over time, place, and persons. I read carefully to learn your goals and your methods. I found only abstract generalizations, followed by a capitulation. “Equity is a “mindset,” you said. 

I have solved the riddle. The clue was in the word “critical” as in your phrase, “It’s about engaging in critical inquiry…” “Critical,” as in critical race theory, is a shibboleth from the postmodernist movement. Postmodernism is an all-encompassing philosophy with roots in post-war France. The use of the word is a tell that indicates the influence of critical theory and postmodernist thinking. Reading your enigmatic essay through that frame, I was able to negotiate its ambiguities.

The following is a description of postmodernism found on Britannica.com. It’s the most concise I’ve seen. As you are aware, postmodernism is the prevailing philosophy in virtually all university social science departments:

“Many postmodernists hold one or more of the following views: (1) there is no objective reality; (2) there is no scientific or historical truth (objective truth); (3) science and technology (and even reason and logic) are not vehicles of human progress but suspect instruments of established power; (4) reason and logic are not universally valid; (5) there is no such thing as human nature (human behavior and psychology are socially determined or constructed); (6) language does not refer to a reality outside itself; (7) there is no certain knowledge; and (8) no general theory of the natural or social world can be valid or true (all are illegitimate ‘metanarratives’).”

A prime example of this philosophy, The 1619 Project, A New Origin Story by Nikole Hannah-Jones, is postmodernist history. By contrast, my approach to equity versus equality is structured and concrete—hence my preference for equality. Equality is objective, measurable, results-oriented, and lends itself to practical goal setting. 

The Best Solution is One That is Easily Understood

The cartoon implies that taller people who can see the game have more happiness. Jefferson’s enduring phrase “the pursuit of happiness” is part of our ideological DNA. We’re not all going to be rich, but we can all be happy if given the liberty to pursue whatever form of happiness we seek. Success in our economy comes from meeting the needs of others in a free market. Income is a measure of a person’s ability to satisfy those needs. More importantly, the ability to earn a living confers respect and dignity from society. 

Among all the creatures of the earth, only humans value abstract concepts such as dignity, respect, and honor. We hunger to be esteemed. It’s human nature. Receiving a handout, while it may be compassionate and necessary, denies a person respect and dignity over the long run. Human nature tells us that raising up some while bringing down others creates tensions that fester into unrest and decay. Horace understood this: Drive nature out with a pitchfork, she’ll come right back, victorious over your ignorant confident scorn. 

Equity isn’t doable and it violates both the Constitution and human nature. What, then, will move us forward if not programs aimed at equity? The remedies in the Moynihan report, written almost 60 years ago, remain the most proven long-term solutions. Strong families, fathers at home raising their kids, and “bourgeoise values” provide a path for everyone to pursue happiness based on their own initiative. Let’s strive for excellence, not equity, not for the sake of some but for the sake of us all. 

Carlon Howard
Chief Impact Officer, Equity Institute | Website | + posts

Carlon is the Chief Impact Officer and Co-Founder of Equity Institute. In his role, he oversees organizational strategy, internal operations, and implementation of Equity Institute’s educator pathway program. Carlon is an avid reader and lifelong learner who spends much of his time exploring topics related to social science, history, and leadership.

Robert Wilkes
Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall | + posts

Robert Wilkes, Senior Correspondent at Divided We Fall, is the former president/creative director of Wilkes Creative, a national branding and marketing company. Robert flew 100 combat missions in Vietnam as a Navy attack pilot. He spent ten years in engineering and marketing at Boeing, where his writing skills were called upon for technical papers, marketing assignments, and speeches for Boeing executives. As an activist in pro-Israel politics, he lobbied with AIPAC for 15 years where he met many congressmen and senators from both parties. Robert loves history, enjoys the craft of writing, and has a passion for civil debate. He resides in Bellevue, Washington.

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