The Evolution and Implementation of Equity (Part I)

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.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.


Image: Tingey Injury Law Firm, Public Domain

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James Druley, Ray M. Sanchez, and David Richardson

James Druley teaches philosophy at Madera Community College. Ray M. Sanchez is Faculty Coordinator of Academic Success Centers at Madera Community College in Madera, California and has a M.A. in History from CSU, Fresno. David Richardson also has a M.A. in History from CSU, Fresno and has taught history in community colleges for 30 years.

2 thoughts on “The Evolution and Implementation of Equity (Part I)

  1. The fundamental problem with Equity Dogma is Human INEQUALITY, the natural and unavoidable fact of basic human difference. No one here is equal to anyone else (save before God and the Law). They never have been; they never will be. And this means that Equity — whatever the hell it is — is impossible. Let us begin there.

    We are all faster, smarter, taller, better looking, fitter, stronger, younger, more agile, etc. than that other guy. Equally we are all slower, stupider, uglier, sloppier, weaker, older, less agile, etc. than the next guy. Carrying our own unequal sets of genetic luggage we step into the unequal lives, our unequal parents, unequally made. We develop our unequal skills and talents unequally; we compensate for our unequal weaknesses unequally. We have different interests, different passions, different fears, different hungers, and different ambitions. We want different things in different ways at different times. Everyone does.

    And thank God for all of that!
    Imagine the line at Burger King if we all equally wanted a Whopper at exactly the same time, prepared in exactly the same way, handed to us with the same exactly equal smile by the same exact Burger King employee?!

    How horrible it would be if we were all the same!

    So…. how how how HOW can anyone ever be surprised to discover…”I’m shocked, SHOCKED to find”…. that all this natural inequality drives outcomes which are everywhere and always equally unequal?

    The authors observe that “most Americans” value ‘diversity’ (Type 1). No they don’t. Not really. There is no reason for them to value something which, in its truest form, they already completely possess. They say, “it’s a good thing that the country has a diverse population.” DUH! The country can’t have anything other than a diverse population. The problem is that we have come to define so-called ‘diversity’ so narrowly and un-diversely!

    When we, in our Progressive dotage declare that Diversity is key, what is really meant is that Race and Sex must be cosmetically apparent in the things we want to count. That is not ‘diversity’, that is arbitrary quota-filling.

    It is hard enough to build a Super Bowl Winning Team when everything you do, and everyone you hire, and every player you draft, and every play you develop is 100% absolutely devoted to that Lombardi Trophy goal. Imagine how impossible that becomes if the priority of your team is now Diversity and Equity and Social Justice, Amen!?

    Imagine, as you lie there on the operating table, awaiting heart surgery, having the Head Doctor enter the room with a big grin. “Don’t worry,” he says, “Our surgery teams are the most diverse surgery teams ever assembled! We have two gay Asian men. One Black lesbian female. 3 Hispanics. 1 White Guy. And two Heterosexual Black Transgendered ‘Women’! Hi Ho Hi Ho; it’s off to surgery we go!”

    Would any of us feel good about that pronouncement? OR, would we yell and scream and chase him out of the room shouting: “I don’t care about any of that, I just want the BEST cardiac surgeons possible!”?

    Of course we would.

    Nor would we be reassured to discover that our ‘doctors’ were pushed and pulled through Medical School…being given special help, lower standards, and multiple chances to pass qualifying exams that were themselves ‘adjusted’ in a concerted effort to build racial equity and social justice among graduating Cardiac Surgeon classes.

    “Why so serious?” They’d ask. “Surely you want us to be ‘fair’ to those who were just not as good at math and science…who were not particularly interested in medicine because they thought it required too much work (and because they really wanted to become a plumber, like their father).” And now look! We made them surgeons!!

    Oh Frabjous Day!

    We’re told by Equity Advocates: “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.” No, they should not. Not really. Gosh that sounds cruel. The problem with that ‘do-good’ formulation, though, lies in the process used to arrive at the conclusion that Teddy, over there, needs more help.

    How do we know?
    Do we evaluate his socio-economic status? If Teddy’s family is below point “X” does that mean he needs ‘more help’? Suppose Teddy’s already getting ‘A’s’ and is at the head of the class? Does he still need more help to have a fair chance? Suppose Teddy is a wasteoid who hates school and prefers to get high every afternoon? How much ‘more help’ does he need? Do we look at Teddy’s outcomes to date? Is ‘more help’ a self-fulfilling kind of proposition created by crap outcomes? Do we provide more help until outcomes are equal?

    And what is “more help” anyway? Is it funding? Is it mentoring? Is it special classes, lower student-teacher ratios, different tests with different standards? If Teddy, given all that help, now scores ‘A’s’ in Basic Math, just like Suzie over there who worked her tail off in AP Calculus…. does that now mean that both Teddy and Suzie have a ‘fair chance’? (Or does Teddy need ‘more help’ still? Perhaps we should slow Suzie down and handicap her a bit just to make their outcomes ‘equal’? (See Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron”)

    And what the heck is a “fair chance”?
    Do LeBron and I both have a ‘fair chance’ to play for the Lakers. Is it ‘fair’ that he’s much taller, much bigger, much younger, and much more highly skilled at BBall? How do you give me ‘more help’ in order to give me a ‘fair chance’ to play for the Lakers?

    Or maybe I wouldn’t have to play for the Lakers to achieve “positive outcome in my life”? (I think I would but what do I know??) Who actually makes that call? Who is guessing – when I’m in school – what my chances for a “positive outcome in life” actually are 10 years from now, 20 years from now? How do they know? And when do they make that call? Is Life Forecasting a skill now taught in Education Programs??

    Enough. This is far too long already….and we haven’t done more than touch on the idiocy which is the Equity Proposition.

    The bottom line is this:
    Life is tough. No one is equal and neither are the outcomes all of us unequal people unequally produce. The best we can do is to work hard; do our best; stop whining; and try to grow-up. Either we wake-up and teach THAT Reality (the same reality taught since forever), or we swallow the Blue Pill, jump down the Rabbit Hole, turn off our minds, relax and float downstream looking for the White Rabbit and Social Justice. The choice is ours.

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