Reconsidering “Equity”

A few years ago I started reading and hearing the word “equity” where I would have expected the word “equality” to be used. I put it down to the too common desire some people have to use a more obscure word in place of a plain one in order to sound smarter than they really are.

But, especially in the last year or so and in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, it has now become clear that equity means something quite different from equality.

I thought that Charles Lipson, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Chicago, put it succinctly in a recent column in the Wall Street Journal. “It’s the difference between equal treatment and equal outcomes,” Lipson wrote. “Equality means equal treatment, unbiased competition and impartially judged outcomes. Equity means equal outcomes, achieved if necessary by unequal treatment, biased competition and preferential judging.”

Lipson’s piece was one thing that prompted me to write an essay critical of Critical Race Theory, which I posted here last week. Equity is a key concept in CRT. My basic point was that you could still be a good person, and even a liberal, and yet find fault with CRT because so much of it runs counter to classical liberal values.

I still believe that, but I did get a very thoughtful email that has changed my thinking a bit on the word “equity.” It’s worth quoting the relevant parts of her message at length.

The writer notes that she has earned graduate degrees in public health and policy from the UW. Then she writes:

I continue to follow your writing and blog with interest. Regarding a recent piece on critical race theory in which you wrote, “I am for equality, but I am not for “equity,” as I interpret the use of that word,” I wanted to offer the definition of health equity that’s important to my work here in Madison:

“Health equity means that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. This requires removing obstacles to health such as poverty, discrimination, and their consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education and housing, safe environments, and health care.” (Braverman, Paula, 2017)

This is a definition that’s widely used in public health, and, as health is influenced so much by where we live and who we are (and the complicated systems and experiences that entails), the definition is beginning to be used more in other sectors, like transportation, economic development, and so on.

I saw this understanding of equity reflected in your letter to the editor about the value of part-time common council positions and our citizen council. And in your support for the Harper’s letter and for inclusive discussion (one of the responses to the pushback that I imagine we both liked was by Michelle Goldberg’s point that “Cowing people is not the same as converting them.”) 

Learning about critical race theory and intersectionality (as part of my history major in my undergrad days at UW) has actually made me better at my job and enhanced qualities I hope are valuable in public service: trying to work from a place of gentleness, humility, and commitment.

I hope this definition and knowing the impact you’ve had is useful. Thank you for being a visible public servant and for your engagement and investment in Madison, which is an encouragement for me to do the same.

Sincerely,
Kiersten

Kiersten raises an important point here. Equality is about equal opportunity; it’s about not actively discriminating against anyone. But “equity”, in this context, means recognizing the reality that there are barriers to equality that can’t be eliminated simply by pretending that everybody is equal.

A thoughtful critique by a reader has made me reconsider the relationship between “equity” and “equality.” Photo by Sora Shimazaki on Pexels.com

Kiersten’s email made me think about how this has played out in my own life. I grew up on the industrial south side of Milwaukee before the EPA existed. You could see and smell the air a lot of the time. Did that have an effect on my own family’s health regardless of how well we ate or how much exercise we got? Of course it did. Was the air I breathed as clean as the air in wealthy lakeside suburbs like Whitefish Bay? Of course it wasn’t. Did it matter that the owners of those south side factories tended to live in those pristine shoreline suburbs? You bet it did.

In short, my family’s health was not just a function of personal responsibility. Broader conditions, over which we had no control, put our health at risk.

So, the EPA’s clean air rules did not benefit West Allis and Whitefish Bay equally. Instead, the benefit went where it was needed. If that’s equity, then I would be crazy not to be for it.

Still, like all concepts, equity can be misused. For example, last summer the Madison city council denied financial assistance to businesses on State Street after the one-two punch of COVID and the riots because, as one alder described it, it would have been, “quite literally institutional racism.” Why? Because there are no Black-owned businesses on the street, never mind that two-thirds are owned by women or other people of color and never mind that half of the relief package would have gone to Black-owned businesses in other parts of the city.

Equity is also being used by the Madison school board to emphasize cultural competence over actual results when deciding which teachers might be laid off in a budget crisis. Under the new rules, the hazy notion of “culturally responsive practices” would count for 40% of a teacher’s evaluation while the performance of their students would count for only 25%.

So, I think equity is a useful concept when it’s employed the way Kiersten explains it: to identify and actively work to remove barriers to equality. In that sense, equity is aspirational in the best sense.

But it can be a damaging concept when it’s used to actively discriminate against people who are otherwise deserving of the help, simply because they are not a member of a particular victimhood group. And it can be even more damaging when it is used to emphasize membership in a victimhood group over more important qualities. So for example, in the case of the teacher layoff criteria, what’s better for Black kids? Being taught by a teacher who is also Black or being taught by a teacher who is good at teaching? Ideally both, of course. But when a choice is necessary, it seems self-evident that kids benefit from better teachers.

My fundamental concerns with CRT remain. But when someone takes the time, as Kiersten did, to write me a message as thoughtful and persuasive as that, I’d be a poor moderate (which is all about not hiding in our safe ideological bunkers) if I didn’t adjust my thinking.

Thanks to her, I no longer think of equity, in the best sense of that word, as being opposed to equality; instead I’ll view it as a means of clearing the way to equality.

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