Keywords for the Age of Austerity 21 / Wednesday Night Fights: “Equity” vs. “equality”

Tonight we debut an occasional, perhaps never-to-be-repeated feature called “Wednesday Night Fights,” in which two similar terms go head-to-head to reveal which one is the true Keyword for the Age of Austerity. Two words enter, only one leaves.

Suggest potential candidates here or here.

On Twitter the other day, my friend @ughitsaaron suggested “equity” as a potential Keyword. As he points out, it is often used as a synonym for “equality,” but seems to really mean “fairness,” a more limited definition. One example of this usage comes up in Guardian article about whiteness and activism in the Black Lives Matter movement: “we need co-conspirators, not allies,” said one activist, demanding the disciplined, intentional movement-building solidarity of “conspiracy” instead of the atomized, individualistic, even narcissistic position of “allyship.” Journalist Rose Hackman quotes one African American speaker at a demonstration who tells a crowd that whites in solidarity with the movement must “work to make sure that black people are given the equity that we deserve.” Or take this example from the Washington Post, on the campaign to extend D.C.’s mass transit into parts of Prince George’s County, a historically Black suburb, that are poorly served by the Metro. The proposed Purple line, the journalists write, would be an “instrument of economic and social equity.”

I don’t actually contest the point being made in either case, and the words are so similar that it’s understandable that writers and especially speakers might use them interchangeably. But why the turn to “equity” when the seemingly more familiar and, to my ear, more sonorous “equality”–the “equal chance and right to seek success in one’s chosen sphere regardless of social factors such as class, race, religion, and sex”–is clearly the intended meaning?

When “equity” is used in this political sense, it is (in the United States, anyway) used most often in close proximity to the adjectives “racial” and “educational” (or both). See, for example, the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity, or the Aspen Institute’s roundtable for racial equity (its function: “to think, talk and problem-solve around race”). My own institution, Wayne State University, features a project run through its Law School’s Keith Center for Civil Rights called the Detroit Equity Action Lab, whose purpose is to “address issues of structural racism in Detroit.” One of its biggest funders, the Kellogg Foundation, notes on its website that that “racial healing and racial equity are essential if we are going to accomplish our mission to support children, families and communities in creating and strengthening the conditions in which vulnerable children succeed.” The Portland, OR Public Schools calls its initiative on the “achievement gap” between white students and students of color its “Racial Educational Equity Policy.” And the U.S. Department of Education headlines one of its major policy statements “Equity in Education” (in which the one use of “equality” seems merely stylistic, to avoid repeating “equity” twice in one sentence). Perhaps the use of “equity” to describe racial and educational inequality reflects the fact that in the United States, “inequality” in general is often understood as a function of race alone, and public schools have been a primary (some might say the primary) way of addressing racial segregation. But the fact that so many institutions prefer racial equity  to racial equality suggests that “equity” is a more neutral, more anodyne, less demanding alternative to “equality,” and less likely to tempt political opposition. After all, no one can be against “fairness.”

“Equity” is most often used in its financial sense: “the difference between the value of the assets and the cost of the liabilities of something owned,” Wikipedia tells me. It does, however, have a social meaning as well, whose OED definition is at leftoed-equity. Equity is a disposition, here–the “quality of being equal,” or “even-handed dealing.” It’s an individual characteristic or behavior, rather than a social or political condition. The distinction becomes even sharper when we consider the Greek etymology the dictionary gives us (admittedly, it’s buried deep in the word’s history, as the source for the Latin equitas). ἐπιείκεια, says the OED,

 meant reasonableness and moderation in the exercise of one’s rights, and the disposition to avoid insisting on them too rigorously. An approach to this sense is found in many of the earlier English examples.

Equity, then, was both an individual characteristic–a characteristic or behavior–and a kind of moderate, inoffensive disposition towards fair dealing. Note again the second half of that first sentence: “the disposition to avoid insisting on [one’s rights] too easily.” So: less allies, more co-conspirators; less equity, more equality?

Winner and newest Keyword for the Age of Austerity: Equity, in a landslide. 

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