Two days before the 2020 election, then–vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris shared a short video on social media endorsing the radical but increasingly commonplace idea of “equity.” Narrating over an animated depiction of two people climbing a mountain, Harris explained why “equality,” long accepted as our highest aspiration for race relations in America, is not good enough. “Equality suggests, ‘Oh, everyone should get the same amount,’” she says over an image of a white person starting at ground level while a black person climbs out from a ditch. “The problem with that: Not everyone is starting out from the same place.” Equality does not remedy past injustices but perpetuates them. Equity, by contrast, “means we all end up at the same place.” In the video, the black person joins the white person at the top of the mountain as “Biden-Harris 2020” descends from the heavens.
Harris’s flippant suggestion that in an ideal society “we all end up at the same place” was a clear signal to progressives just before the election: The next Democratic administration was prepared to adopt the new lingo and substantive goals of the diversity, equity, and inclusion industry. Just a few decades after a critical mass of Americans accepted the civil-rights movement’s argument for equality—based in equal treatment rather than equal outcomes—they have been told that their efforts have been for naught. Equality of opportunity is now considered insufficient at best, a nefarious way to perpetuate existing disparities at worst. Equity, similar-sounding enough to ride equality’s coattails, admits that progressives want what conservatives have long been reassured they do not: radical equality of outcomes, as defined by progressives, of course. And the Biden-Harris campaign considered the idea popular enough to release a video endorsing it 48 hours before Americans would head to the polls.
They were probably on solid footing to think so, at least regarding young progressives. The distinction between equality and equity is a staple of social-justice education, ubiquitous in preschools and graduate schools alike. One well-known graphic (promoted by institutions ranging from American University to Paper Pinecone, a directory for preschools) has been particularly influential. It features three individuals of varying heights at a baseball game, trying to watch from beyond the outfield fence. At first, each of the three are standing on identically sized boxes, so the tallest one can see the game easily, the middle one can just barely see it, and the shortest can’t see anything. This, we are told, is “equality.” Everyone is on a level playing field, which disproportionately privileges the already advantaged and fails to help the disadvantaged.
Equity, we learn, entails redistributing the boxes. The tall individual now stands on the ground, and the short one enjoys the boost of a second box. All can see over the fence. Equity, to its supporters, begins from the assumption that there are people with different natural strengths and weaknesses, and it suggests that rather than treating all people equally—that is, neutrally—it is better to try to account for what advantages and disadvantages an individual faces as we decide how to distribute resources.
But another graphic popular among social-justice advocates has come to supplant the baseball cartoon, presaging the linguistic and conceptual battles ahead. This one features a fruit-bearing tree. The tree is crooked, so most of its fruit falls on one side. On that side stands one person, who enjoys the fruit dropping auspiciously at his feet. On the other stands a bewildered person holding his arms out, waiting for fruit to fall, but none does. This is “inequality.” In the next image, we see “equality,” or “evenly distributed tools and assistance,” whereby both people have ladders of equal height. The tree’s tilt still advantages one person, though. “Equity” comes next, with “custom tools that identify and address inequality.” The less-fortunate person gets a taller ladder and equal access to the fruit.
But what is most notable is that equity is not the resolution. “Justice” is when the tree has been pulled into an upright position with pulleys and planks, “fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities.”
At first blush, this idea of justice—inasmuch as one accepts that justice is a concept that applies at the societal level—is not controversial. Everyone wants more just laws and social customs. But the fact that equity is the penultimate step, a temporary achievement of what is meant to be our permanent social condition, illuminates precisely what is at stake here, where our national discourse on race and inequality is headed, and why we should be vigilant in pushing back against left-wing claims about justice. Just as their equity is not your equality, neither is their justice your justice.
Though Harris tried to clarify that “there’s a big difference between equality and equity,” not everyone has gotten the memo—or is willing to be upfront about it. This is particularly troubling when equality/equity conflation shows up in White House publications. On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he issued an executive order declaring that “the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all.” Moreover, “because advancing equity requires a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes, executive departments and agencies…must recognize and work to redress inequities in their policies and programs.” Equal outcomes are the goal, and those crooked trees must be pulled into place to “embed fairness” permanently.
Yet the very first section of the EO reverts to familiar terrain. “Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy,” it begins. “By advancing equity across the Federal Government, we can create opportunities for the improvement of communities that have been historically underserved.” Note the switch. The White House is trying to have its cake and eat it too, speaking the language of the progressive vanguard while maintaining a patina of equality-based respectability. It does so by eliding the difference between a system in which everyone can end up at the same place—what most Americans call equal opportunity—and a system in which everyone does end up at the same place.
Why are progressive Democrats afraid to go all in on equity and justice? Why the reliance on word tricks, conflation, and infantilizing pedagogy? Perhaps they see the myriad problems in the theory behind equity, its execution, and its implicit premise of how society operates—all of which Americans continue rightly to reject.
At its best, equity is about using resources efficiently so that all citizens can reach their potential. (The Biden administration posits that “closing racial gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities, and access to higher education would amount to an additional $5 trillion in gross domestic product in the American economy over the next 5 years.”) On that charitable interpretation, the devil is in the details: Who decides to take the box from the tall person at the baseball game? Who decides which short person receives it? What happens if the tall person does not wish to cooperate?
Above all, how do we know when the task of equity is complete? Ibram X. Kendi, the leading proponent of equity-based “anti-racism,” has an answer. He suggests that any and all inequities between racial groups must be the result of racist policies and therefore that we will enjoy a post-bigotry society when all groups are not just treated the same but are the same in every measurable way. Inequity per se is the enemy, and that may mean cutting some groups down if raising others up is not feasible. This is what New York City’s former mayor Bill de Blasio had in mind when he sought to eliminate gifted-and-talented programs in city schools.
One clever graphic artist has conveyed the nightmare of such thinking in a response to the baseball-watchers cartoon. Next to the “equity” pane with its three contented fans, there is an additional pane dubbed “Equity in Reality.” In it, three equally short torsos have had their legs sawed off. In our world of imperfect people and limited resources, equity embraces what Winston Churchill dubbed the “inherent virtue of socialism”: the equal sharing of misery.
Admittedly, we can read only so far into ideological cartoons. But they are uniquely revealing in this case because progressive activists have a view of society that is, in broad terms, cartoonish. We are led to believe, in the original baseball graphic, that differential access to “viewing the game” is as arbitrary as the dispersal of height in a population. No choices, past or present, have affected the inequalities in need of remedies. And the requisite number of boxes for all to see over the fence is already there. Everything we need to rectify the unfairness is at hand—if we simply had the will to do so. The idea that resources must come from somewhere, that the people producing resources need some incentive to do so, is anathema to the equity worldview.
This reflects trendy progressive orthodoxy, which holds that the attributes that tend to create wealth, power, and bourgeois success are “socially constructed” and morally arbitrary. Witness the bizarrely racialized set of “characteristics of whiteness and white culture,” as propagated by institutions such as the National Museum of African American History & Culture, which in 2020 claimed that punctuality, politeness, and veneration of the scientific method were products of white dominance. To social-justice activists, these characteristics are the fence keeping out those who do not fit in with the majority culture. Such characteristics, they allege, have no inherent value. On the contrary, they are upheld by the powerful to subdue the powerless. There is nothing good about being punctual, in this view; there is only the advantage of being a punctual person in a society that values punctuality. If we could just re-norm the society, we could achieve equity on a permanent basis.
Enter “justice,” the name for radical re-norming in service of permanent equity. In the graphic featuring the fruit tree, social-justice activists see a symbol of the randomness of society as we find it at a given point in time. Though it happened to grow the way it did, it could have easily grown some other way. There is no inherent reason to respect the tree’s properties as we found it.
The tree is indeed a better symbol of our society than is a baseball game, though not for reasons that the tree-benders accept. A free society is, like a tree growing in response to the natural conditions that govern its environment, largely organic rather than constructed. It emerges as people make choices about how they want to live, what they value, and where they like to spend their money. Just as a tree grows crooked for its own reasons—the sunlight is better in one direction, enabling it to bear more fruit for all—human society emerges in a particular place, at a particular time, largely owing to chance but also in part to innumerable individual choices. And just as the tree grows with imperceptible wisdom, maximizing sunlight and access to nutrients, the free society grows with norms and rules conducive to its flourishing. Punctuality and politeness, for instance, emerge as valued norms not arbitrarily or as a result of white supremacy, but because they conduce to cooperation and shared prosperity.
Social-justice advocates’ failure to see wisdom embedded in an emergent free society displays a myopic ingratitude for the fruits of the equality regime they wish to uproot.
When these advocates demand justice, they advocate ignoring or outright rejecting the underlying logic of allowing people to act freely. They necessarily demand coercion and compulsion because freedom necessarily yields inequalities. Each time they encounter a tree growing in a peculiar manner, they conclude not that it has grown that way for imperceptible or inarticulable reasons but that it grew arbitrarily or even for evil purposes. And if we simply willed it to grow differently, we could fulfill our vision of how everyone ideally ought to behave.
Of course, a tree twisted out of its natural shape will not reach its full potential. Deprived of whatever gain its particular pattern of growth had achieved, it will no longer bear the very fruit that made it the object of interest in the first place. To make the metaphor concrete, forcing free people to utilize their talents and make decisions in ways that align with an abstract view of social justice is bound to jeopardize the very fruits of the free world—wealth, liberty, tolerance—that social-justice advocates claim they want distributed more fairly. Free interactions between citizens produce unequal outcomes because individuals—not “white culture” or other abstractions—reward certain behaviors more than others. Eliminating the incentive structure for pro-social norms means encouraging a shortage of the behaviors that individuals in a free society value.
If equity remedies all naturally occurring inequalities, correcting for naturally occurring human differences necessarily becomes a central part of the quest for social justice. Merely troubleshooting inequities with “tools” that address them (which would be bad enough) just kicks the can down the road.
Moreover, a view of justice fundamentally biased against the proposition that things are as they are for good reasons leads only to perpetual revolution. Every generation will perceive new, subtler imperfections in the tilt of the tree and the inequities it yields. Whatever is inherited by the next generation remains just as suspect as whatever was just overthrown. The tree of social justice is refreshed frequently by the blood of those who simply wish to live freely.
As the Biden-Harris capitulation to the equity project shows, it is far from inevitable that these ideas remain on the fringes or fizzle. Defending the equality regime requires vigilance against social-justice Trojan horseplay wherever it arises. Pressing on equity’s weaknesses can keep it at bay.
First, everyone advancing equity, on the theory that equality entrenches preexisting power structures, must be made to confront its Jewish problem—also known as its Indian problem, Filipino problem, or Nigerian problem. Some ethnic groups, even though they look, sound, and in many ways act different from the white majority, have managed to show on a mass scale that in America, disadvantage is not destiny. Starting from poverty, lacking in resources, skills, and cultural acclimation, many millions of immigrants (and especially their children) have found simple equality sufficient. Today, dozens of ethnic minority groups boast higher levels of education and income than white Americans do. As an empirical matter, it is far from clear that equality entrenches inequity.
Similarly, advocates of equity must reckon with the logical conclusions of the position that all inequity is unfair. We must force them to confront the silliness (and racism) of believing that our social and economic norms—such as rewarding politeness—are either racialized or arbitrary. There are indeed disparities between racial groups, in education, income, incarceration rates, and more. But to lay those all at the feet of an unfair system would suggest not only that certain racial minorities are incapable of being polite, but also that we live in fact in an Asian- or Jewish-supremacist country, as those two groups have found outsize success in the United States. Purely as a matter of diagnosis, the anti-equality movement falters badly.
It does even worse on prescriptions. Defenders of equality would do well to insist that the equal but inequitable society is the fairest and freest that humans can achieve. It is fairest because it focuses on removing barriers to opportunity rather than trying to do the impossible task of making people whole through totalitarian policy. The equality regime does not prevent the talented from using their abilities to produce what the public demands. Instead, it rewards those who can improve others’ lives in proportion to their contributions. It is freest because it does not aim to twist the organic tree; it sees wisdom in the freely taken actions of the many. Most of all, it recognizes that trying to reshape social behaviors in service of abstract ends causes freedom and prosperity to wither.
Our tree of liberty should be a source of pride. Just as it is miraculous that trees can grow through rusting bicycles and decaying warehouses, we should see our own free society’s growth, despite free societies’ tendency to devour themselves, as a miracle, too. Though we tend to take it for granted, it is remarkable that a country of 330 million people who enjoy radical freedoms of speech, religion, and assembly is generally safe and prosperous. Though diversity and inequality can corrode social bonds and lead to war of all against all, we Americans tend to get along.
Under the equality regime, modern America remains the place you would probably like to live if you had to choose a country and era from all of human history. It has emerged, especially over the past century, peaceful, prosperous, and remarkably tolerant. To put all that in jeopardy for an experiment in radical equity would be criminal—not least because an absence of peace and prosperity is worst for those on society’s margins. Contra the social-justice movement’s claims, and those of its devotees in the Biden-Harris administration, justice is better conceived of as neutrality, consistency, and dedication to preserving a free society’s delicate order.
If equality was good enough for Frederick Douglass in 1865, it should suffice today. “What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice,” Douglass told the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. . . . I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us!”
Douglass chose a telling metaphor for his vision of justice for newly liberated slaves: “If the apples will not remain on the tree of their own strength, if they are worm-eaten at the core, if they are early ripe and disposed to fall, let them fall! I am not for tying or fastening them on the tree in any way, except by nature’s plan.”
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