Law in Contemporary Society

The Unnecessary Distinction Between Equality and Equity

-- By SarahBrand - 07 Apr 2021


Equity v. Equality

I was eighteen years old when I learned that talking about social justice in terms of “equality” was wrong. I remember the distinction between equality and equity quite clearly; as a student of education, it was a common point of discussion throughout my undergraduate career. In terms of social justice, equality emphasizes sameness or equal distribution of resources. Equity focuses instead on fairness and justice. The differences between the two words are evidenced in dictionaries, news articles, blogs, and even memes—at least more than their similarities are emphasized. SOURCE. Those who fight for social justice declare that the distinction is not only useful, but necessary. I would like to argue that it is unnecessary and detrimental to the furtherance of social equality.

The Relationship Between History and Language

In his introduction to Keywords, Raymond Williams recalls a phrase commonly used between successive generations: “They just don’t speak the same language.” Nonetheless, he argues that “no single group is ‘wrong’ by any linguistic criterion, though a temporarily dominant group may try to enforce its own uses as ‘correct.’” This phenomenon appears in the movement to replace equality with equity; neither group is wrong when using either term, but the dominant group using “equity” argues that “equality” does not adequately define their goal.

Williams also noted the importance of recognizing the limitations of dictionary definitions. That is, in the dictionary, “a certain foreshortening or bias in some areas is…inevitable.” We cannot look to the dictionary alone to define language. Equality, as defined in the dictionary, is the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, and opportunities. SOURCE. Historically, equality has developed into two main definitional branches. Branch (1) concerns a continuous process of equalization, premised upon the belief that “all men are naturally equal as human beings, though not at all necessarily in particular attributes.” Branch (2) focuses on the process of removing inherent privileges, based instead on the premise that “all men should ‘start equal,’ though the purpose or effect of this may then be that they become unequal in achievement or condition.”

Understanding the Two Branches of Equality as They Relate to Equity

Both branches of equality encompass the fundamental definition of equity, insofar as it is currently defined in popular culture. Equity merely requires that each individual be provided with substantial resources such that they have the same opportunity for success as others, even if some people require more resources than others. Equity and branch (1) of equality share the premise that individuals are equal as human beings despite their distinct attributes. Equity and branch (2) of equality also share characteristics; namely, the two definitions revolve around the idea of providing individuals with equal opportunities for social success. When these two branches of equality are viewed holistically, equity is encompassed within them. In fact, there is no need for an additional term. Equality is sufficient.

Consequences of the Distinction

At first glance, there seems to be no material consequences to switching the way we describe the goals of social justice. A deeper analysis of the uses of the “equity” and “equality,” however, presents the problematic burden placed on those pursuing social justice to educate the public on appropriate language. Additionally, by unnecessarily claiming that the term “equity” is “correct,” we have provided valid language to be used by those opposed to equality. This can be illustrated by current legal battles over affirmative action in higher education.

The Educative Burden

I spent all of my childhood and virtually all of my teenaged years believing that equality was the goal. In hindsight, I conceptually understood “equality” to be as “equity” is popularly defined, but those in pursuit of social justice had to educate me on the “proper” terminology to describe my desire to achieve equality. This experience only sparked further confusion, and I know it did the same for many of my peers. The differences are pedantic on their face, and the effort to educate society about “equity” versus “equality” merely distracts from more practical attempts at dismantling systemic inequalities. The countless articles written about a false distinction could have made a larger impact if they focused on spreading information about the systemic injustices plaguing the country. Rather, the obsession with the distinction has spread false information and frustrated supporters of social justice who struggle to understand such that they disengage from the “movement” altogether.

Arguments Against Affirmative Action

Currently, arguments against affirmative action revolve around ideas of “reverse discrimination.” At its core, these allegations imply equality is not being achieved because those who are not racial minorities in the higher education arena are not being given equal rights or opportunities to education. As such, by improperly defining “equality” as that which does not include the need-based resource allocation of “equity,” arguments against a tool for equality can be made using equality itself. This undermines the integrity of the arguments for affirmative action, as well as invites confusion among those attempting to defend affirmative action for the purpose of achieving equality.

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r4 - 16 May 2021 - 17:16:30 - SarahBrand
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