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The equity wars

Equity is everywhere. But what exactly is it — and why is it so controversial?

Paige Vickers/Vox
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Bernie Sanders was stumped.

The question, posed by Bill Maher on a recent episode of his HBO show, was, “How would you differentiate between ‘equity’ and ‘equality’?”

“Well, equality we talk about —” Sanders broke off. “I don’t know what the answer to that is,” he admitted.

It’s understandable for an old-school democratic socialist to be a bit confused. The term “equity” has spread through left-liberal discourse with remarkable speed over the past decade or so, anointed as part of the “diversity, equity, and inclusion” triad, and taken up as a guiding principle in academia, the philanthropic world, social justice activism, much of corporate America, and now Democratic politics.

Yet its boundaries are blurry, and its exact meaning remains disputed. Is it about guaranteeing equal outcomes for everyone? Is it a “code word” for discriminating against white and Asian American people, as some conservatives claim? Does it mean anything at all?

Though Maher asserted to Sanders that equity means ensuring equal outcomes, relatively few who use the term would take it that far. But equity is indeed about trying to make group outcomes more equal than they are now. It signals a concern about disparities at all levels of society among demographic groups — especially groups historically disadvantaged because of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.

Often, in social justice circles, equity is held up as a superior goal to mere “equality” — which may have contributed to Sanders’s confusion. With equality, everyone gets “the same thing,” but with equity, everyone gets “the things they deserve,” racial justice activist DeRay Mckesson has said.

This is meant by activists to draw a distinction from — and broadcast frustration with — past rhetoric and policies that sought “equal rights for all,” “equal treatment for all,” and “equality of opportunity.” That language, in activists’ view, represents the tepid ambition and real-world shortcomings of post-civil rights politics through the Obama era. The embrace of equity is a challenge to colorblind liberalism and to claims that the US is a meritocracy.

This isn’t just a debate over language. The Biden administration has taken up the mission of encoding equity into policy. On his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order “on advancing racial equity and support for underserved communities through the federal government,” instructing federal agencies to develop an Equity Action Plan every year. Domestic Policy Council Chair Susan Rice headed this effort, saying, “In every department and in all aspects of what we do, we need to be intentional about infusing equity and racial justice.”

The equity agenda has generated intense attention — and backlash. Fierce controversies are unfolding across the country over how equity is being applied in many areas, from criminal justice policy to selective school admissions to a host of other contexts.

Critics claim equity is too often elevated at the expense of other priorities or values. Many on the right, and some on the center and the left, feel uncomfortable about the social justice movement’s prioritization of historically disadvantaged race and gender groups in all things. Some argue that equity is selectively applied by liberals — deployed as a justification for policies they favor, ignored when it could point toward policies they don’t.

Equity is a mindset, a signaling device, a guide to policy, and a lens through which many liberals now view politics and society. Arguments over equity are arguments over just whose problems aren’t getting enough attention, and whose are getting too much.

With equity thinking now dominant in so many liberal and left spaces, it’s important to keep holding it to high standards. When is it helping the people who need help most, and when is something rather different happening? Grappling with this can ensure equity doesn’t just become an empty platitude — that it points toward real change and progress.

What is equity — and why is it everywhere?

A two-panel cartoon showing an adult, a child, and a very young child watching a baseball game from behind a fence. The first panel is labeled “EQUALITY” and shows each standing on a crate, but the youngest child is still not high enough to see past the fence. The second panel is labeled “EQUITY,” and in it the youngest child has now been given two crates, so everyone can see the game. Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire

This viral, now-iconic image was created in 2016. It was a redrawn version of a similar image created in 2012 in which the contrast was between “equality to a conservative” on the left, and “equality to a liberal” on the right. But it quickly became adapted by others and iterated to illustrate “equality vs. justice,” “equality vs. fairness,” and, in this case, “equality vs. equity.” The apparent lesson is that equity means doing more to help people who are worse off.

But that misses something crucial about the way equity is deployed in common parlance: It is typically about demographic groups, not individuals.

An example that better captures it would be: 80 percent of white kids can see the baseball game, but only 30 percent of Black kids can. The colorblind liberal might say, “Let’s help more kids see the game.” The equity progressive would respond, “I agree, but let’s be especially sure to help more Black kids see the game” — since Black kids, as a demographic group, are more disadvantaged on average.

The term “equity” began to catch on during Barack Obama’s second term, as a newly ambitious social justice and identity-focused politics gained popularity. Its meaning is a bit vague because it bubbled up organically rather than being crafted with a clear definition, but it is influenced by academic concepts like critical race theory and intersectionality, and the mentality disparaged from the right as “wokeness.”

Basically, though, it’s a response to the failure of old policies to end deep-seated disparities in American society. “The turn to ‘equity’ marks a search for different results,” Harvard law professor Martha Minow has written.

And now it’s everywhere, due to a remarkably successful society-wide effort from social justice activists. Workplaces, government agencies, and schools all grapple with the question of whether they’re doing enough on the equity front. Companies like JPMorgan Chase and Spotify make big-dollar equity pledges, while Starbucks and Amazon hire former US attorneys general to conduct “racial equity audits.”

Federal agencies zero in on whether enough government contracts and grants are going to people in historically disadvantaged groups. Policymakers working on education, criminal justice, transportation, and many more issues regularly cite equity as a top priority.

Think of equity as the social justice movement’s policy arm — or perhaps its chief financial officer. Equity is where talk about diversity and inclusion becomes translated into jobs, resources, and action. To proponents, it brings a sense of mission, gravitas, and moral necessity to the rhetoric of justice — and evokes the idea of compensating for something owed.

To whom is equity owed?

The Biden administration’s definition of equity, in its 2021 executive order, refers to “the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment.” It goes on to specifically name the following groups:

  • Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and other persons of color
  • Members of religious minorities
  • Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons
  • Persons with disabilities
  • Persons who live in rural areas
  • Persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality
  • In later remarks, Susan Rice also mentioned “women and girls” and “first-generation Americans”
Susan Rice stands at a lectern in front of a background saying The White House, with a presentation seen behind her left shoulder and an American flag on the other side.
White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Yet as commonly applied throughout the liberal world, it’s really race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality that typically get the most focus — particularly groups with especially stark disparities in historical treatment or conditions today, like Black or Indigenous people.

That’s one thorny part of equity politics: It comes with an understanding that there’s a hierarchy of attention. Identity groups like Asian Americans, cis white women, gay people, and lesbians have a murkier status in this hierarchy, even though it’s acknowledged that all these groups are, to some extent, disadvantaged by white, straight, male supremacy.

Nowadays, equity usually means that if you claim to have a racially diverse workforce, you need to make especially sure Black and Latin employees are well-represented; if you support LGBTQ people, you need to make sure that circle of concern includes trans people; if you are helping women, you need to pay special attention to Black women and trans women — because these are the groups that tend to get forgotten, left out, or left behind, even during times of broad social progress.

People from these marginalized demographic or identity groups are often disproportionately likely to be low-income, unemployed, or homeless; to not have completed high school or learned how to read well; to have health problems; to be victims of police violence or crime; to be incarcerated; to die young or violently.

In theory, equity politics is about helping these people — those truly disadvantaged by centuries of structural bigotry. But it’s the details of how, exactly, to do that where the controversies come in.

As in any ideology (or faith), there’s a spectrum ranging from the true believers to the less sincere and committed. Many talk a big game on equity, but their actions are not so impressive. Some question how its tenets are being put into practice. Doubts are occasionally spoken openly but more often whispered privately, especially among the older, paler, and maler. On the right, the backlash is more open and very much in full swing.

The equity wars in policymaking

When congressional Democrats passed the American Rescue Plan in 2021, they included a nearly $29 billion fund for restaurants struggling due to the pandemic. And they required that, for the first 21 days, relief grants would be allotted only to restaurants that were majority-owned by women, veterans, or members of “socially disadvantaged groups” (which in government-speak means mostly nonwhite people).

Democrats intended to make everyone eligible later, but the program’s limited funds dwindled quickly. As a result, some white male business owners sued, backed by a Trump-allied legal group, complaining they were excluded from consideration solely due to their race and gender. Judges blocked the program, and the Biden administration backed down.

Not all equity policies are that controversial, but this clash gets at one tension surrounding equity broadly: When does it make sense to focus on demographic groups rather than individuals?

Part of the challenge in thinking this through is that there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what an “equity policy” even is.

Biden sits at a desk outside signing a paper, surrounded by lawmakers.
President Joe Biden signs an executive order that would create the White House Office of Environmental Justice, in the Rose Garden of the White House on April 21, 2023, in Washington, DC. The order directs federal agencies to invest in communities that are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate change.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In touting their equity agenda, the Biden administration mentions some policies that are explicitly identity-conscious (like distributing federal contracts to more minority-owned or women-owned businesses). They also promote some that are identity-neutral but expected to help many members of disadvantaged groups (like simplifying forms for government benefits). Other equity policies, like affirmative action, have been around for decades. The only real common threads are consciousness of group disparities and a pledge toward doing something about them.

So, you might wonder, who but a bigot would oppose that? Yet across issue areas, when equity is believed to conflict with other priorities or values, the arguments can be fierce, even among liberals. Here are three issues where those debates are playing out.

The tensions between equity and educational achievement

For decades, Black and Hispanic students on average have had lower test scores and high school graduation rates than white and Asian American students. This was one justification for the “education reform” movement, which focused on shaking up a public school system seen as serving too many students poorly.

Yet the nation’s education policymaking establishment has recently pushed a very different approach under the equity banner. They’ve concentrated on matters such as discouraging “tracking” of certain students toward higher-level courses (since white and Asian students are much more likely to be so tracked) and deemphasizing advanced math.

Another cause has been ending practices that admit students to selective public high schools based on test scores or grades (which resulted in overwhelmingly Asian and white students admitted). Elite universities are increasingly going test-optional, too.

The stated rationale for all this is to shape schools to help the children who need it most. Many proponents of these policies also argue that the tests themselves are racist.

Critics see the equity agenda as leading to the lowering of standards and the devaluing of academic achievement. Some are concerned with the impact on students who are already high-achieving — they might get a worse education and be less prepared for technical fields of study in college.

Alternatively, those families could be spurred to seek advanced help elsewhere (in supplemental classes or by switching to private schools), which would only deepen inequality if less privileged students can’t afford such options.

As for the most disadvantaged kids, scaling back testing might in practice mean eliminating metrics tracking if those kids are actually learning in school. Might these policies, despite their high-minded justifications, end up sweeping injustices under the rug?

America needs to build — can it do so while taking equity into account?

In the 1950s and ’60s, the US engaged in a frenzy of highway building — but this often came at a cost to Black or minority neighborhoods, which were broken up or had land taken. These and other discriminatory practices long characterized infrastructure and other economic projects shaped by the US government.

Equity progressives want to make up for these past sins. They argue that it’s crucial to take into account who might be harmed or disadvantaged by any project — or to use new projects to make up for past injustices in some way.

But their critics wonder whether you can take the equity focus too far. For instance, should urban transit systems make rides free for equity reasons, or would that deprive the system of revenue — leading to a death spiral for transit that ends up hurting more riders than it helps?

The centerpiece of President Biden’s new industrial policy is a push to manufacture more semiconductors in the US, by handing out new subsidies. Its proponents argue this initiative is hugely important for national security and can help rejuvenate manufacturing in the US.

Yet, as Ezra Klein writes, the administration has laid out a detailed series of equity requirements for companies seeking subsidies. Such companies need a strategy to help “economically disadvantaged individuals in their region” and to include “women and other economically disadvantaged individuals in the construction industry,” and they need businesses with diverse ownership in their supply chain — requirements that arguably could slow down the overriding push to shore up national security and revive manufacturing.

Klein has called for “a liberalism that builds,” arguing that too many restrictions and processes, even ones driven by admirable intentions, often impede the government’s attempts to get things done.

A debate over crime, public safety, and equity

The Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd protests focused the nation on the fact that Black men are disproportionately likely to be victims of police violence. Intellectuals such as Michelle Alexander argue that racial disparities in incarceration rates amount to a “New Jim Crow.”

Deeply influenced by these arguments, equity progressives are now suspicious of enforcement and policing in general, believing they will inevitably be deployed in a discriminatory and authoritarian way. Progressives have criticized policies such as using automated cameras to ticket speeding cars, clearing homeless encampments, cracking down on drug use on mass transit, and filing gun possession charges. Any enforcement effort that results in a disproportionate impact on Black or other minority people is presumptively suspect.

Those with equity concerns tend to argue instead for non-coercive solutions that will address the root causes of social problems. But their critics contend that they’re too focused on racial disparities in punishment and not focused enough on protecting safety and public order — which, they believe, can best be done through more enforcement. They point out that the victims of gun and traffic deaths are also disproportionately nonwhite and low-income, after all.

A man wearing a shirt that says Equity or Else speaks, surrounded by other demonstrators, some wearing masks.
Joseph Williams, of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles, leads a protest chant on L.A. Council member’s Kevin de León’s Eagle Rock street demanding he resign his council seat on October 17, 2022.
Sarah Reingewirtz/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

The equity skeptics

Beyond specific issues, there have been broader attacks on the very premises at the heart of equity progressives’ thinking, from all over the political spectrum.

Let’s return to the meme about letting more kids watch the baseball game. That example is chosen because it seems so easy and intuitively just: A better outcome for the disadvantaged is easily achievable, and it can come without any great cost to anyone.

But many question whether this premise accurately describes the real world.

On the right, some critics argue that not all disparities among groups are due to oppression, and that intervening to help may well be doomed utopian social engineering. Some also argue that taking race into account can itself be a form of racism (think back to the Biden administration’s Covid-era restaurant assistance plan).

A populist conservative might argue that equity progressives tend to overlook the very real problems faced by members of certain identity groups not high on the equity hierarchy — say, rural whites or poor white men.

On the center left, some fear that equity advocates have too often embraced policies that are unpopular and that just won’t work.

Further to the left, other skeptics argue that the truly important disparities in modern life are largely about class — not race, gender, or gender identity.

Overall, much of this disagreement boils down to whether the worldview of modern social justice politics — that the US remains permeated with oppression against traditionally marginalized race and gender identity groups, which must be urgently resisted — is in fact correct.

Equity progressives would fire back that, well, it is correct, citing analyses of systemic racism. They think critics of social justice politics are simply inclined to defend the existing societal hierarchy, and some are probably racist or bigoted themselves.

But with so much of our political and cultural conflicts proceeding along “woke” vs. “anti-woke” battle lines, it’s worth trying to get beyond that overly simplified, binary view of the world. A model of how society works can provide valuable insights without capturing everything. Not every policy debate is only a war of the righteous against the unjust.

Equity for everyone

Back in 2015, my colleague Dylan Matthews wrote “The case against equality of opportunity.” Explaining how politicians of both parties cited equality of opportunity as an ideal, Matthews took the concept seriously, and revealed that the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

That’s because there are so many inequalities baked into everyone’s starting points in life that it would be impossible to make everyone’s opportunity truly equal. Why not simply try to help the poor, especially the poorest, instead?

Equity poses similar philosophical issues. The Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2022 Equity Action Plan points out that Black people are 12 percent of the population but 39 percent of the homeless population. It’s a stark statistic. But if that racial breakdown were different, should we feel better? Shouldn’t we want to help that population, regardless of their race?

The central question hanging over many of these issues, and the Biden administration’s policies, is: When does it make sense to switch out the question of “which people are most in need” with “which demographic groups are most in need”? Much of institutional liberalism now says the answer is: rhetorically, very often — and many now look for the racial or gendered angle on every problem.

Often, that’s appropriate. But while there are indeed many inequalities in American society that reflect historical disadvantages for race, gender, and sexuality groups, there are also some that don’t.

American boys and men today are significantly less likely than girls and women to complete high school and college and are far more likely to die of suicide, drug overdoses, and Covid-19. Hispanic Americans have had longer life expectancy than whites despite being poorer. Asian Americans dominated admissions in the test-focused selective high schools mentioned above, without benefiting from a history of Asian supremacy in the US. Rural areas are now facing many of the same economic and social problems long faced in urban areas.

Keeping that in mind, equity progressives should grow more comfortable moving beyond their typical oppressed/non-oppressed rubric — the world is complicated, and though many topics fit well in that binary, others do not.

The strongest case for equity analysis of social problems is that it can help us understand why certain problems are happening and help us address them for everyone. A focus on the high levels of Black maternal mortality in the US can, for instance, spur hospitals to invest in blood pressure monitoring that would be available to at-risk people of any race or ethnicity. Contrary to much scary conservative rhetoric, many of the policies the Biden administration touts as part of its equity initiative — such as replacing lead pipes — are universal rather than restricted to certain demographic groups. Not everything is zero-sum.

Equity progressives are correct that identity-related disparities remain very real and serious. But the concept is too often co-opted by elites to focus on their priorities, selectively invoked to justify the progressive conventional wisdom, or used to signal culture war allegiance rather than achieve anything substantive. Meanwhile, the entrenched problems affecting the bottom rungs of society — the problems that should be centered more in our discourse — end up getting neglected.

Equity is here to stay. The hope is that the people who care most deeply about the idea can make it the best version of itself — a version that truly is about helping those who need the most help.


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