Equity vs. Equality is a Distraction

Kamala Harris recently tweeted the following video wherein she purports to explain the difference between equity and equality. Take a look:

Let’s begin by steel manning her argument.

Harris is pointing to a real problem. Certainly, Black and other minority populations in the United States have endured terrible atrocities in the form of enslavement, genocide, and other ills. It’s also plainly true that, when compared to peer populations, these afflictions impeded their ability to compete in the “meritocratic” spheres of economic and social mobility.

By my lights, then, the steel man version of her argument is that a just society renders aid to devastated populations. Equity is therefore a moral vision in which a society ought to render aid to historically oppressed populations. Equality, by contrast, is a moral vision in which a society ought not render such aid, or at least bears no obligation to.

At the level of the grand sweep of history, most Americans would be Equitarians. Surely slaves and Native Americans deserved a better lot than they received, and only a disgusting moral hubris could imagine newly freed slaves or relocated Native Americans had the same access to the engines and tools of betterment as their peers.

Advocating for mere Equality in this context — that is to say, rendering precisely zero aid to a devastated population — would be morally wrong. The problem is, however, after careful consideration very few Americans would disagree with that conclusion, save a small faction of hardened Libertarians.

The American Dream of upward mobility, wherever it’s realized, hinges on the belief that in a just society, everyone has equal access to the means of betterment. Whether you’re born poor or rich, white or black or brown, the morally arbitrary results of a genetic lottery should not set the limits of your mobility. The implicit, sometimes unacknowledged corollary of this view is that communities with diminished access to the means of betterment deserve outsize investment to level the playing field.

Thus, most Americans cheer when an underserved community is buoyed by a special charter school or grant. On this scale, then, most of us are Equitarians.

We begin to diverge from each other, however, when we start to look the truly hard questions in the face. Questions such as:

  • Even if an oppressed group deserved special aid in past centuries, is there a good reason to think their descendants deserve it?

The problem with framing the debate about racial justice as Equality vs. Equity is it pretends the major fault line of the national conversation is over whether to create a level playing field. That is, it imagines the country falls into two camps: those who subscribe to fairness and those who do not. If this were true, we should expect to see regular streams of unwashed illiberal masses protesting to defund playing field-levelers such as public libraries, schools, and hospitals.

And yet we do not, because the real debate, is over the stone cold questions I laid out above. Any serious participant in that debate must take stock of, for example, the formidable historical problems with attempting to guarantee equality of outcome — namely, soup lines and the Gulag a la Solzhenitsyn.

But eliding the hard questions is how wokeism proceeds: by way of a language game it invites us to imagine the central problem of our time is a glut of morally bankrupt citizens. The important task is not the rigorous pursuit of answers to the hard questions, but rather moral absolution for the masses.

The reply must be — however ugly and difficult — can there ever be enough absolution?