Why We Must Prioritize Equity Rather than Equality


[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: In this picture, the word “equity” is typed on a paper. Part of the definition of equity is provided. The word “equity” is highlighted in green and the tip of the highlighter sits at the end of the word.]


[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: This graphic, titled “equality” shows three people standing behind a fence and trying to watch a baseball game. While all three have one box to stand on, see over the fence, and see the game, the different elevations below them only allow one person to see the game.]

In the United States, many assume that success is a matter of equality. That is to say, many Americans believe that if everyone has access to the same resources, then everyone has an equal chance of succeeding. This understanding, though, is flawed. As the first graphic demonstrates, not everyone starts in the same position. Social categories like gender, race, or class often disadvantage people so that even when all parties have the same resources, not everyone has an equal chance of getting ahead. Equality, then, can be a barrier to marginalized groups’ success.

[IMAGE DESCRIPTION: In this graphic titled “equity,” three people again stand behind a fence and try to watch a baseball game. This time, though, the different elevations don’t stop anyone from viewing the game because each person has enough boxes to overcome their elevation-differences and see over the fence.]

As the equity graphic indicates, sometimes an unequal distribution of resources is necessary to ensure that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding. Allocating resources equitably rather than equally ensures that individuals can overcome barriers or disadvantages produced by broader social systems. Whether it is weighing races differently in the admissions processes or whether it is allocating more funding to majority-minority schools than to predominantly-white schools, sometimes an “unequal” distribution of resources is necessary in order to create a just society. After all, assuming that a person’s individual efforts in an equal system is enough to make them succeed ignores the fact that systems of power give certain people a head start in the race to get ahead.

It is for this reason that we must replace the “equality” framework with the “equity” paradigm. Our models for speaking about society don’t just describe it, they affect both our attitudes toward other people and our society’s social policies. For instance, believing that everybody has equal resources and therefore an equal chance to succeed sometimes leads whites to adopt negative attitudes about minorities. How many times have we heard black people called “lazy” or “irresponsible” just because someone assumed that equal opportunities are enough in an inequitable social system or matrix of domination? With respect to our society’s social policies, the “equality” framework is detrimental there too. For example, when legislators and voters casually assume that allocating resources equally is more important than allocating resources equitably, our society can derail social policies that might have otherwise reduced rates of poverty and criminality in the nation. In sum, then, we as a society must move beyond blaming individuals for the situations society places them in and work toward creating an equitable society so that everyone has the fair chance that our country cherishes.

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