The Equity Mess


Despite their professed goals, Democrats’ pandemic policies have widened disparities between races, classes, and genders

Two days before the 2020 election, Kamala Harris could have picked from any number of campaign themes. The number of COVID-19 cases had doubled over the previous month. At home, violent crime was up; abroad, negotiations with the Taliban over U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan had bogged down. And ominously, Harris’ opponent, Vice President Mike Pence, was refusing to state clearly whether Donald Trump would accept the results of the election.

Instead of any of those closing arguments, Harris and her campaign team chose to emphasize, in a tweet, speech, and animated video, a single portentous word that in a remarkably short time has escaped the laboratory of academe, spread through newsrooms and human resources departments, and now lodged itself firmly inside the White House: equity.

“There’s a big difference between equality and equity,” a slightly bemused, slightly exasperated-sounding Harris explained over the image of an animated young white man vaulting his way confidently through a rock-climbing course after having started out in a more advanced position than his discouraged black counterpart. “Equitable treatment means”—the two hikers, now joined in success after the disadvantaged one was given a boost up, gaze confidently at the horizon from atop the summit—”we all end up at the same place.”

For decades, these two divergent philosophical and public policy concepts were represented by a battle over adjectival phrases. Should we strive for equality of opportunity, or equality of outcome? Though intellectual and political enthusiasm for the outcomes-based approach did have some high-water moments in the 1970s, the long twilight struggle against 20th century totalitarianism produced a rough if sometimes reluctant governing consensus that states powerful enough to promise economic and racial parity were far more likely to produce mass immiseration. Striving for equality under the law—removing legal discrimination by government—was less ambitious, but more doable.

That laudable goal, particularly in the United States, is being elbowed aside. The 21st century rebranding of equality of outcome into the shinier and more malleable term equity, with its redolence of ownership and fairness, gave activists a linguistic workaround to what had previously been a public relations obstacle of utopian unattainability.

You can’t and probably shouldn’t just wave a magic wand to erase observed inequality. But inequity? That sounds to the ear more like an immediate and surmountable wrong, deserving of intervention.

The incendiary racial and gender politics of the past seven years—from Ferguson, Missouri, to George Floyd; #MeToo to Brett Kavanaugh, Donald Trump to Andrew Cuomo—has only increased demand for (and reaction against) identity-based analysis and activism. Democratic politicians have learned that embracing equity is now a campaign prerequisite. And though Joe Biden among the 2020 presidential primary field was arguably the least fluent in the language of identitarianism (notably clashing with his future vice president over their respective views on court-ordered school busing to achieve racial integration), his administration nonetheless codified the e-word into policy literally on Day 1, with an executive order titled “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.”

“I believe this nation and this government need to change their whole approach to the issue of racial equal—equity,” the president said five days later, while signing some follow-on orders. It was a revealing slip of the tongue. The customary aspiration of leveling the playing field is being supplanted by a more ambitious promise to audit the validity of the final score. The administrative state is being explicitly tasked with rooting out the “unbearable human costs of systemic racism” by subjecting all regulations, federal agencies, and spending initiatives to the test of whether their impacts are spread equitably across populations.

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