How Do Equity and Equality Differ?

By: Dave Roos  | 
equity versus equality bike graphic
Equality means that everyone gets the exact same resources or opportunities. Equity means that each person gets the exact resources and opportunities based on their circumstances that they need to achieve equitable outcomes. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Equality is one of America's most cherished values. It's enshrined in the Declaration of Independence — "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal" — and is the foundation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which promises "equal protection of the law."

Equality is undeniably a good thing, but when it comes to addressing some of America's most entrenched societal challenges — the widening gap between poor and rich, rising crime and substance abuse, persistent achievement gaps in education and employment — equality just isn't going to cut it, many say.

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A better goal, they argue, is equity. Although the words sound almost identical, there are important differences between equity and equality. To help us understand those differences, we reached out to Joanna Shoffner Scott, CEO of the Stamey Street Consulting Group, which helps organizations identify and address racial inequities.

Equity vs. Equality: The Bike Example

bike illustration of equity versus equality
In the equality approach, everyone gets the same size bike whether or not it works for them. In the equity approach, each person gets the bike that best suits their needs. You can't achieve equality before you achieve equity, the experts say. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Let's imagine that you're the organizer of a community bike race where free bikes will be supplied to all community members wishing to participate. The graphic above illustrates the fundamental differences between an equality and an equity approach.

We'll start by defining equality. In the equality approach, everyone is given the same bike regardless of their size or abilities. The little kid can barely reach the pedals, the tall man is hunched over and the woman in the wheelchair can't participate at all. So, even though it might seem that everyone has an equal opportunity to be in the bike race, that's not the reality.

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"Equality offers one type of bike even though there are four different types of bodies," says Shoffner Scott. "Equality assumes that we all come from the same starting place and that we're all going to have the same life experience."

How is the equity approach different? Instead of identical bikes, each person gets a bike that fits their body, which means they can participate more equitably (or "fairly," you could say) in the race. Equity recognizes that each person has different circumstances,

"The core difference here between equality and equity is that equity is going to take into account the differences between people in terms of starting place, access and opportunity," says Shoffner Scott.

"If you and I walk into a store, we both want to be treated 'equally,' we want to be treated the same way," says Shoffner Scott, who is Black. "But equality is an aspiration not often realized. The reality is that the way we show up in spaces is different, and people are going to respond to us differently based on their racial biases."

Much of the current discussion centers on racial equality versus racial equity, so we'll look at that first.

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Leveling the Playing Field

The equity approach starts with a frank acknowledgement that America wasn't actually founded on the principle that "all men are created equal." Racial inequality was built into the nation's laws and institutions. And even today, more than a half-century after the Civil Rights movement, Black people must navigate a world riddled with systemic racism and systemic and structural barriers.

In the past, racism was overt. Take the example of "redlining," in which American banks drew red lines on the map around predominantly Black neighborhoods and denied mortgage loans to those buyers. Today, racist lending policies aren't necessarily a conscious choice, but racial bias is still baked into the housing market. For example, homes in majority Black neighborhoods are still routinely undervalued compared to the same homes in majority white neighborhoods.

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According to the Race Matters Institute, an equitable system is one in which you "cannot predict advantage or disadvantage by race." Unfortunately, just about every system in America — education, housing, healthcare, criminal justice — is weighted to advantage white Americans over Black and Latino Americans.

The aim of racial equity work is to attempt to level out the playing field by addressing imbalanced social systems faced by Americans of color.

So, how would that work? Here's a hypothetical situation proposed by Paula Dressel of the Race Matters Institute. Let's say a school district wants to improve the ability of its middle-schoolers to conduct online research and it receives a grant to buy school computers. How should this grant money be spent to achieve fairness?

In the equality approach, every middle school in the district would receive the same amount of money to buy new computers. Sounds fair, right? But the equality approach ignores data about how many computers each middle school currently has.

  • School A in the wealthier, whiter neighborhood already has six computers for every 10 students.
  • School B in the lower-income neighborhood serving mostly students of color only has two computers for every 10 students.

How would funds be distributed differently using an equity approach? School B would receive more funding so that it has the same baseline resources as School A. If money is left over, it would be spent to buy additional computers for all schools.

"[W]hen resources are limited, as they often are," writes Dressel, "it is critical to invest in ways that erase those gaps that for too long have compromised the promise of children, families, and communities of color. Racial equity matters."

Equity doesn't only apply in the areas of race. It could also include things like:

  • Hiring a Spanish translator for a town hall meeting because a large percentage of attendees' primary language is Spanish
  • Ensuring there's a wheelchair ramp to enter a building, even though constructing this is an additional cost for the building's owner (an example of equal access)
  • Having a progressive tax system where people in higher tax brackets pay more in taxes than people in lower income brackets, because those in higher brackets presumably have more discretionary income

These are all examples of equitable practices that help with the goal of achieving equity./\r\n/

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Equity Work in Action

When an organization hires a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) consultant like Joanna Shoffner Scott, the first step is usually to collect data. The data often reveals patterns that are "predictable by race." For example, the data might show that few, if any, people of color are hired or promoted to executive positions, and even fewer retain those positions.

"The challenge, then — which now becomes the potential for problems — is how that data is interpreted," says Shoffner Scott. Someone could look at the low number of Black executives and conclude that "this group is smarter than that group, when that's not the case at all. There's potential for harm in the meaning applied to data," she says. So how do you build an equitable workplace?

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"The reality is that most of our systems were designed to create advantages for people who are white-identified," says Shoffner Scott. "For a lot of people, that's a new realization, and it's uncomfortable. I think underlying most of the pushback against racial equity work is a fear of a loss of privilege. Whatever unearned benefits people are receiving, they want to hold onto them."

Here is a real-life example of an organization that identified racial differences in the way it serves its clients, and how it was able to promote equity.

Shoffner Scott was hired by a fitness-based nonprofit that provides exercise classes and community for new moms. By collecting data on its clients, the fitness organization found that Black moms were attending classes in lower numbers than Latina moms.

The company could have looked at that data and assumed that the Black moms simply weren't as interested in fitness as the Latina moms. But that would ignore key differences between these two communities in terms of access and opportunity to the classes.

Fitness classes were located in a predominantly Latino neighborhood, which meant that it was easier for the Latina moms to walk or ride to classes. Many of the Black moms had to take multiple buses to get to the classes. Since it took more time to travel back and forth from classes, the Black moms had to find sitters for their kids and often returned home late in the evening.

To make access to its classes more equitable, the nonprofit started offering Uber vouchers to shorten travel times to class. They also created a kids' area and provided snacks so that moms could bring their kids and not worry about rushing home to start evening routines.

"Equity work, for this nonprofit, meant thinking about all of the things that could be barriers for folks to participate and then offering solutions for each one," says Shoffner Scott. "That's an equitable offering." The result? A marked increase in participation from Black mothers and, likely, better health outcomes for all participants./\r\n/

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Answering the Critics

Racial equity work has its critics. Some critics argue that talking about systemic racism somehow makes racism worse. Or that recognizing the existence of white privilege divides people along racial lines into "oppressors" and "the oppressed" and is a Marxist idea. Or that offering funding or other opportunities based on race is its own type of racial discrimination.

"What I tell my clients is, not talking about racism and inequity doesn't make it go away," says Shoffner Scott. "What not talking about it does is hide the privilege of white-identified people. The truth is that it's very uncomfortable to talk about advantages and privileges and benefits that are unearned."

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Shoffner Scott is the first to admit that racial equity work is hard. In her words, it requires "courage" — the courage to both recognize the racial biases at play and the courage to actually do something about it.

"So much of American society is based on the belief that you get good things because you work hard, not because you show up with a particular face or a particular color, and I think that's hard for people to accept," says Shoffner Scott. "It's our choice now, in this generation, to decide whether we're going to continue to perpetuate that myth or if we're going to have the courage to do something different."

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