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Martha Minow, Equality vs. Equity, 1 Am. J. L. & Equal. 167 (2021).

Abstract: “There’s a big difference between equality and equity,” said now Vice President Kamala Harris as she ran for the presidency of the United States, and many millions watched and shared her video, which depicted one mountain climber who starts in a deep hole and another who starts much higher up.1 On the very day of his inauguration, with Vice President Harris at his side, President Joe Biden embraced the word “equity” in executive orders.2 He charged Susan Rice, director of his Domestic Policy Council, “with ensuring that the new administration embeds issues of racial equity into everything it does.”3 Federal agencies have been ordered to report on systemic barriers hampering access to benefits, services, and procurement opportunities. Immediately, critics responded with objections. Some charged the new administration with seeking to install discriminatory practices, favoring some racial and ethnic groups over others and attempting to inflame rather than heal racial division.4 Commentator Noah Rothman warned, “In practice, that looks less like ‘equity’ and more like ‘retribution.’”5 Others attacked the Biden administration’s approach for promoting a “spoils” system, more governmentally imposed constraints on freedom, and abandonment of equality.6 In contrast, key advisor Rice declared, “Advancing equity is a critical part of healing and of restoring unity in our nation.”7 Robert Kuttner, a commentator on the left, however, warned that change will come only with massive restructuring of the power relations across labor, capital, and government, as well as class-based coalitions against racism.8 The political debate reflects, but also clouds, work underway in educational and employment settings. Over the course of the last decade, “equity” initiatives have been organized in U.S. schools, in human resources departments at colleges, in corporations, in philanthropies, and in nonprofit organizations. Often, “equality” appears as the inadequate alternative. For example, a memorable cartoon circulating on the internet depicts two scenes of three children looking over a fence at a ball game. The first scene is labeled “Equality” and shows each child standing on a box with the tall child looking easily over the fence, a middle-size child able to just see over the fence, and a small child unable to see over the fence at all. The second scene, labeled “Equity,” depicts the tall child able to look over the fence while standing on the ground, the middle-size child able to see over the fence by standing on one box, and the small child, now standing on two stacked boxes, also able to see over the fence; all three are essentially getting the same view.9 The images provide vivid contrasts. They are invoked in discussions urging equity rather than equality. Individualized accommodations for students with disabilities represent one version of equity, already mandated and implemented by law under frameworks labeled in terms of antidiscrimination, inclusion, or equality. Whatever it is called, treating everyone the same, regardless of background factors, historical inequities, and personal situation, inspired Anatole France’s observation, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal their bread.”10 Tailored treatment, rather than identical treatment, could proceed based on assessments of an individual’s needs and situation or instead based on diagnosis of systemic conditions of disadvantage and exclusion. But the contrast between the terms “equality” and “equity” does not illuminate real differences in potential visions of society. The terms “equality” and “equity” have become weapons in polarized political arguments rather than analytic tools. The political volley over words neglects and obscures decades of litigation, policy, and academic work in both American law and comparative law. The U.S. Constitution prohibits government denial of “equal protection” of the laws; state and federal statutes guard against discrimination on the basis of individual characteristics (e.g., race, gender, disability, age, sexual orientation or identity). The relevant state or federal authority does not use the term “equity.” In ongoing litigation challenges to any attention to race used by the admission processes of selective colleges and universities, the defense must proceed by reference to the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law as well as statutory protections against discrimination or exclusion on the basis of race.11 Dumping on “equality” is a poor strategy for any who support inclusion, affirmative action, and overcoming historic and ongoing barriers based on individuals’ group membership or situation. Attacking “equality” jeopardizes public support and surrenders intellectual and legal resources—including laws and judicial decisions—otherwise available for enforceable changes. Ceding the term “equality” to those who oppose any redress of historic and systemic disadvantages is especially shortsighted in a nation where courts have ruled that “classification” of individuals on the basis of certain personal characteristics (including race, gender, and religion) requires the most skeptical scrutiny. Further, tensions among current uses of “equity” hamper articulation of and steps toward potential initiatives at the levels of interpersonal, institutional, economic, and political action. This article seeks to clarify the meanings behind contemporary uses of the terms “equality” and “equity.” It also supports the conception, associated at times with equality and at times with equity, of laws and policies that are responsive to individual and structural differences in people’s circumstances. Lawyers, students, and policy makers work every day with the constitutional language of “equal protection of the laws,” as well as with statutes and regulations forbidding discrimination on the basis of protected traits, such as race and gender. Although these sources do not speak of “equity,” dismissing them would be a big mistake. Not only are these sources the law of the land: the terms and underlying conceptions of “equal protection” and “antidiscrimination” can be crucial tools for redeeming the promise of the Declaration of Independence and the Reconstruction Amendments—the promise of a nation where each person is secure and enjoys the same freedoms and opportunities as others, a nation that rejects status spelled by birth, race, or other happenstance. This is a promise worth fortifying, elaborating, and improving, not casting out or conceding away to those who resist continuing struggles in this historic spirit.