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Democrats prize ‘equity,’ GOP prefers ‘equality'

As Democrats promote 'equity,' Republicans decry it as a mutation of 'equality.' But can both words – and parties – have the common good in mind?

When President Joe Biden took office in January, his first executive order announced a “whole-of-government equity agenda.” Historically, similar sentiments have been expressed with a different, but related word: equality. “All men are created equal,” asserts the Declaration of Independence. Why does equity seem to be replacing equality as a political and social goal? 

Both words have the same Latin ancestor, aequus, which can mean “level, equal” or “fair, impartial” or “calm.” The English word equality took aequus’ first definition, making its domain “equalness,” things that are the same. Equity got the second sense – it is about “fairness.” (The third sense appears in equanimity, “evenness of mind.”)

There are several widely shared graphics online that explain this distinction. One depicts two people on either side of an apple tree, trying to pick the fruit though neither can reach the branches. Equality is represented by giving each person an identical ladder. The branches hang lower on one side, however, so the ladder enables person A to reach them, but the apples are still out of reach for person B. Equity involves giving person B a longer ladder, so that both have the same opportunity.

In the cartoon, this seems like simple common sense; in the real world, equity is a political minefield. While an equal distribution of goods is cut and dried – everybody gets the same – an equitable one involves making decisions about who needs more, for what. Equity is thus tied up with issues of identity and discrimination. Longer ladders must go to Black people and Native Americans, for example, because they have experienced systemic racism. But what about other people – women, recent immigrants, wheelchair users – who have faced their own obstacles? Even when Democratic politicians agree on which groups most need help, they often disagree about how to go about it.  

To conservatives, equity has become a dirty word. Its mutability, plus its association with “identity politics” and “government handouts,” has led newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal to decry it as a poor substitute for equality.  

But equity seems less a substitute for equality than an evolution. The founders’ declaration encouraged America to see itself as a “land of equal opportunity.” The idea of equity, too, posits a level playing field and equality of opportunity – it just pays more attention to the ways in which, and the people for whom, this ideal falls short. Democrats and Republicans may disagree about what an equitable society should look like, and how to get there, but equality is still a principle they each hold dear.

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