I. A Good Term Gone Bad
The modern term “equity” originally comes to us from the Old French term, equite, which in turn came from the original Latin, aequitatem, a word that could mean a number of different things, including equality, fairness, uniformity, or even symmetry. At the end of the 16th century, Western Europeans began to describe a system of law as naturalis aequitas, which was used to supplement existing codes of law in Europe. It was a concept of almost sacred fairness, or as the Romans put it, “honest measure,” wherein people would be treated fairly whether under the law or in their dealings with each other. During the Enlightenment, this idea was further bolstered by the concepts of natural rights and the social contract theory of government, which stated that the purpose of government was to protect peoples’ lives, liberties, and property. For the generation of the Founding Fathers, equality of opportunity was a perfect idea imperfectly realized within the Republic, and for the last 200+ years, Americans have fought, bled, and even died to fine-tune our government and inch us ever closer to that ideal.
But in the last several decades, and certainly within the last 5-10 years, the term “equity” has been stretched and twisted far beyond anything the ancient Romans or even the Founding Fathers might recognize. It is used by some as a weapon to bludgeon our modern society into denying even the most basic differences between human beings. The demands of equity have become synonymous with the demands of equality of outcomes, which can only come by depriving some groups in order to advantage other groups. This is exactly the point Ibram X. Kendi makes in his book, How to Be an Antiracist: “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” According to the definers and defenders of this new equity, all outcomes must be equal.
II. Equity’s Ubiquitous Usage
At the post-secondary level, the term “equity,” with its newly defined meaning, is omnipresent. Whether at a conference or webinar or department meeting, equity is named, prioritized, and treated as a panacea for the lack of unequal student success outcomes. Take for instance Complete College America (CCA), a national non-profit organization with the mission to close achievement gaps and improve secondary attainment rates. Herculean efforts to promote math pathways, expand concurrent enrollment, and increase individual student enrollment to 15 credits per term were once the emphases and marketing efforts of the prominent and influential organization. In 2020, CCA hasn’t necessarily strayed from these big policy efforts, but it has shifted its ‘rallying cry.’ CCA’s 2020 fall conference was called With Equity and Justice for All. On the conference webpage it writes
In 2009, CCA identified the completion crisis as a systematic failure of our higher-education system—pairing a strategic approach with a rallying cry in the name of millions of Black and Latinx students overlooked for too long. More than 10 years later, as our nation finally acknowledges racial inequities, educators are being recognized for the role they can—and must—play in ensuring economic and racial justice.
The mere fact that achievement gaps exist between different groups of students is taken as proof that there is some inequity that must be remedied, and that this inequity exists not because of the circumstances or choices of the individual students themselves, but because of the broad “racial injustice” on and off campus. If equity, properly defined, has its etymological roots from Latin, where has the newly defined modern equity come from?
III. Equity Evolved from Diversity
In Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, Peter Wood aptly differentiates between real diversity and hopeful or wishful diversity. Diversity 1, as Wood calls it, is real diversity (e.g., the U.S. population is made up of different races and ethnicities), where there is a presence of ethnic and cultural differences. This is something most Americans value. Diversity 2 is ideological and emphasizes group identity over individual identity. Diversity 2 is an idealization of and an effort at proportionalism, where numerical differences in groups across society at large are made explicit in workplace, government, and college demographics.
Equity, as broadly understood today on college campuses, has grown out of Diversity 2, but is not exactly the same thing. The Center for Urban Education’s Protocol for Assessing Equity-Mindedness in State Policy describes a clear distinction: “Equity is not the same as diversity, nor is it the same as equality. Diversity and equality, though important, do not allow for the direct and explicit focus on racial inequities in higher education.”
Diversity 2 idealizes ethnic or gender proportionalism and includes the idea that there should be compensatory privileges for some groups.1 But Diversity 2 doesn’t give the full-throated justification for why there are disparate outcomes and doesn’t offer the full-throated mandate for equality of outcomes. Equity, on the other hand, having evolved from Diversity 2, extends the argument for proportionalism and compensatory privileges, but adds a forced repudiation of the group that is assumed to be privileged through resource reallocation or replacement diversification of employees or students. Diversity 2 uses the argument that some groups need assistance in order for institutions or careers to be more proportional across gender or ethnic lines. Equity expands this argument by directly and explicitly working to subtract (reduce or eliminate) resources, employees, or other supports from the supposed privileged group.
Equity, then, is about simple arithmetic. Compensatory privileges are added to some groups by subtracting the supposed privileges of other groups.
IV. Reestablishing Equity as Equality
As we learned above, equity didn’t always have a redirection of resources based on race orreplacement diversification of employees. Equity was once understood as fairness, and rightly so, for that is its true definition. True equity is related to impartiality, fair treatment, and justice. What follows then is the fairest and most generous application of the concept of equity—keeping in mind the true definition of the word—as it is thrown around workplace, government, and college:
Some people have fewer advantages than others and more obstacles to overcome, and therefore need more help than others. Those who need more help should be provided with said help in order to have a fair chance to attain positive outcomes in their lives, a chance equal to those with more initial advantages and fewer hinderances to their socio-economic success.
This positive phrasing is not entirely sufficient and leaves much to the imagination. For instance, what are the factors that lead to fewer advantages? Or, where does the help in the form of resources and monies come from? But these are questions beyond the scope of this essay. And this generous definition of equity is not that which is promulgated today. It has evolved into equality of outcomes, as we’ve described above.
The problem, then, is the equivocation of the term equity, which is confusing and manipulative, and tends toward enforcing equity through the power of the state—”behind every law is the barrel of a gun,” as John Austin wrote. The term must be clarified and stabilized—we’d argue that it should be returned back to its true and original definition—to make discussions about equity enlightening rather than a ceremonial implementation of “equity” as a faux mystery religion, leading to a forced implementation of false values.
So, what to do? How can a nebulous term to some, a fairness concept to others, and an absolute mandate to equalize all outcomes for still others be used productively? We don’t have a satisfactory answer because no term can have multiple operational meanings and still be understood uniformly. But definitions don’t remain in dictionaries. Equity, even understood in various ways, has a praxis: each definition works itself out in practice with real and true consequences. Perhaps the best way to describe this is to take equity on a practical tour through possible implementation methods. To illustrate the point vividly, we won’t focus on implementation on college campuses but rather implementation via economic models.
We will discuss this implementation of equity—understood as equality of outcome—in Part II of this essay. Our point is that equity as fairness brought about through love for neighbor is good, true, and beautiful, but that “equity” as forced equality of outcome in socialism and communism is inconsistent with human freedom and dignity, and is therefore an unnecessary and intolerable evil.