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The difference between equity and equality

Date Published: 04/18/2013

Author: Dane Smith


“Equity in Sight” was the theme of a recent conference that attracted several hundred Twin Citizens who are working to reduce our worrisome racial disparities in unemployment and education.

Signs of progress and optimism were in abundance, but it got me thinking about how much tougher this whole mission might have seemed if just two letters were added to the first word of the theme, making it “Equality in Sight.” Seeing the Jackie Robinson biopic a few days later reinforced the contrast between equity and equality.

Occasionally you’ll hear a curmudgeonly gripe from English purists, and from voices on the left and the right, about the spread of the word “equity” to describe all the various efforts to achieve greater equality in income, wealth, educational achievement and attainment, and employment.

Rapidly growing economic inequality is the problem, after all, and some on the left think we ought to be blunt about redistribution and equality of outcome as a plausible goal. At the same time, one hears some conservatives stoking fears that equity is a euphemism for socialism and a government takeover of the private sector. The implicit message for a mostly white and more affluent majority is that all such words are a direct threat to their economic and social status, and that greater equality of economic and social outcomes is neither possible nor desirable.

Why don’t we just say that “equality” is what we are after, goes the gripe, instead of introducing yet another politically correct buzzword to the policy lexicon? And finally, the word “equity” for many homeowners has a very specific meaning in personal finance, to describe that portion of the value of a property that exceeds what is owed on the mortgage.

Here’s the case for why equity actually is the better word for this economic justice movement, and how the special meaning attached to mortgages helps explain why.

Most online dictionary sources, from both traditional and newer wordsmiths, already recognize the distinction between equality and equity in a way that vindicates the broader implications in the latter word. For instance, the online Free Dictionary defines equality as simply “the state or quality of being equal” while equity is defined as the “state, quality or ideal of being just, impartial and fair.”

And the larger truth is that the growing number of low-income folks and people of color in Minnesota who have been left out and left behind, as well as middle-income households struggling to retain that status, are not aspiring for immediate redistribution of wealth and income or anything close to perfect equality. Rather, they want a start and a stake, a better job and better pay and a better deal that helps them begin to build some equity in the American dream described by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Participants at the Equity in Sight conference, which was sponsored by the Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation and Greater Twin Cities United Way, presented solutions that bore no resemblance to socialism. Rather, the strategies and solutions had everything to do with improving workforce readiness, removing barriers to employment and helping rather than threatening private-sector prerogatives. (A summary of the conference highlights is due soon on a United Way website. Visit unitedfrontmn.org.)

Those of us in attendance heard a speaker from the Council on Crime and Justice talk about the need to reform employment practices so that ex-offenders — disproportionately young people of color — are not essentially denied a chance at good jobs and rehabilitating their lives.

We heard about efforts by Central Corridor “anchor institutions” — hospitals, universities, colleges and clinics along the new light-rail line through the Twin Cities urban core — that are becoming a powerful force in economic development, workforce equity and community revitalization. The collaborative work of these “eds and meds” institutions holds great promise for chronically unemployed and underemployed populations.

And we heard about aggressive efforts by some of our state’s largest employers, notably Wells Fargo, to encourage minority hiring through internships, onsite explorations of the company’s workplaces and setting goals for minority representation in its workforce. The company’s website, under CEO John Stumpf’s photo, even offers a business case for diversity and how equity “makes it possible for us to deliver more value to our stockholders.”

His equity message is essentially the same as that of social justice leaders such as Angela Glover Blackwell, leader of the national group PolicyLink, who is popularizing the idea that “equity is the superior growth model.” Her unassailable case boils down to this: “The very same racial and ethnic groups who have long been left behind in America are quickly growing in number and population share. … By 2030, the majority of workers under age 25 will be people of color. … [T]he nation’s public- and private-sector leaders need to recognize that preparing the changing population for the needs of the modern economy is the key to our future.”

A few days after the Equity in Sight event, I joined millions of other Americans who are flocking to the blockbuster movie “42,” the inspirational story of Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color line in professional baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s.

A lot has changed since then. The open and virulent racism on display then is no longer tolerated in most quarters of our society. But some of the elements at play back then are in play now as our state and nation wrestle with how to balance economic and racial justice with business growth. Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey astutely realized that equity was good economics and that opening up his team and the sport to a large, previously excluded class of talented players would improve the game, despite the backlash from some white players and fans. The next wave of baseball superstars — including Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente — was disproportionately African American and Latino, and these players enriched the game immeasurably. And in 1955, at long last for the “bums” who had never won a World Series, with Robinson and other black players on their roster, the Dodgers beat their Yankee arch-rivals to win it all.

Equity, it turns out, was not just the right thing to do, but it improved competitiveness. And the team that makes the best use of all available human talent will perform best in the long run.


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, April 18, 2013

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