Sometimes, it’s just so much easier to explain something with a picture.
This is the most commonly used graphic in the world of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) to explain the difference between equality and equity. So let’s dig into what it’s really saying.
You can immediately appreciate the difference between the 3 figures, who are the same on each side: a grown man, a child, and a toddler. Each of them wants to see the baseball game, but two of them are not tall enough to see over the fence.
The image on the left shows what happens in an “equal” society, when everyone is given the same advantages, treatment, rights, and resources (at least, to the best ability of that society’s government).
But as the graphic shows, giving everyone the same treatment is not the same as giving every individual the treatment they need. So with “equal” resources, one kid can just see over the fence and the toddler can’t at all. The conclusion: equal treatment is not necessarily sufficient to ensure everyone has a shot at truly thriving in society.
On the other side of the image, the change is obvious. When we tailor the division or allocation of resources to individuals and their different needs, we’re able to give more of them a chance to “watch the game.” The metaphor is powerful because it combines access and inclusion—the kids can now see what’s happening over the fence (access) and are sharing in the experience with the grown-up (inclusion)—who was tall enough that he never needed a box, anyway!
I’m belaboring this point because it’s such a critical concept for understanding where we are today in the struggle for diversity, equity, and inclusion across all segments of our society.
Equality is the bare minimum
In the United States, in particular, much of the historical narrative and cultural consensus has focused on the struggle for equality: equal rights, equal treatment, and equal opportunity. And of course, we should celebrate our collective struggle for equal civil rights as one of the most critical achievements in this nation’s history. It was only half a century ago that the principles of our Constitution were finally written into laws that granted all people the same treatment before the law—regardless of “race, color, sex, or national origin,” as the Civil Rights era formula goes.
But equality was just the bare minimum. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. saw this clearly in the years before his assassination. In 1968, he addressed an audience of Black sanitation workers in Memphis and made the point starkly clear:
“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968)
Dr. King pointed out that it effectively cost the government nothing (besides political capital) to extend equal protection under the law to all races, religions, genders, and ethnic backgrounds. What would have cost them money would have been an equitable solution—i.e., one tailored to individuals bearing the brunt of the historical and economic reality—that actually corrected 100 years of ignoring the 14th Amendment’s implications.
The story of that 100 years is worth recapping here. The end of slavery in 1865 was the effective beginning of the Jim Crow era that saw Black life, liberty, and wealth continuously attacked in the wake of Emancipation (especially, but by no means exclusively, in the South). This era lasted right up until the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.
In that time, Black families who amassed any degree of wealth faced mob violence and limited economic mobility; local Black politicians were ousted from their positions; Black votes were suppressed; Black children could not attend high school; Black people were excluded from welfare reforms in the 1930s New Deal; Black soldiers could not access the economic advantages granted to veterans after WWII; Black neighborhoods were denied access to prime credit markets; Black people paid taxes, but could not attend the state schools they funded. And so on.
Any way you cut it, the lack of basic equalities in our country made it impossible for Black individuals and families to pursue the American Dream. And all of this comes down to the fact that there was nothing stopping individuals, businesses, or government from discriminating against people of color in the fields of employment, education, housing, and politics.
On paper, that all changed in the 1960s. But the impact of 100 years of economic disadvantage can’t be unwritten with legislation. That was Dr. King’s point above. And it’s where the concept of equity starts to come in, as Americans have seen the same racial disparities persist in the wake of all these crucial, but ultimately insufficient, changes.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 is a good example, written into law in the weeks that followed Dr. King’s assassination and resulted uprisings. In theory, this final great piece of Civil Rights legislation made it illegal to discriminate against anyone in the sale, rental, or financing of housing on the basis of race, religion, sex, or national origin. A monumental achievement, but it did nothing to revalue the properties that had been artificially deflated in red-lined, “Black neighborhoods” since the 1930s. It didn’t give Black WWII veterans (nearly 1 million of them) the zero-down-payment mortgages their white counterparts received. It did not change the culture that refused to welcome Black families into many suburban neighborhoods. Nor could it help address the macro trend of white families moving to those suburbs with their wealth while the Black population flooded into urban centers (nearly tripling between 1950 and 1980). With high unemployment, these urban communities became susceptible to rising crime and poverty rates. That consequence was not an accident: it was the product of 100 years of attacking, preventing, or severely circumscribing the development of Black wealth—which includes land ownership, home ownership, education, and access to good credit.
Inequity’s long legacy
Today, many of the “red-lining” patterns that the American government created in the 1930s to designate which neighborhoods were “uninsurable” for housing loans—i.e. poor, majority-Black neighborhoods—remain “stubbornly intact,” as Nikole Hannah-Jones has written. It should have been the government’s responsibility to address this inequity when it wrote the Fair Housing Act into law. But that never happened.
This is an example of a failure to understand and implement equity. The result of this failure and many others is the racial disparity in wealth and employment that continues to this day.
The wage gap between white and Black men is effectively the same as what it was in the 1950s, when you adjust for the numbers of Black men who are currently incarcerated. Even when you don’t, Black men make 67 cents for every dollar white men make. It’s even worse for Black women who are paid 58 cents for every dollar white men make and 21% less than white women.
Black family wealth continues to trail white family wealth. For every $100 of wealth owned by a white family, Black families on average hold $10. Black median household income is half that of white households —the same as it was in the 1950s. And none of this comes down to differences in poverty levels (poor white households have more wealth than affluent Black households), spending habits, or cultural differences. (I urge you to read Nikole Hannah-Jones’ brilliant piece for more details on this.) It comes down to a century of legalized disadvantage, economic trauma, racial violence, and active exclusion.
When equality alone doesn’t lead to better outcomes
One of the other fields in which equity quickly became relevant following the Civil Rights Era was education. Brown v. Board of Education did not instantly overturn a century of segregation in schools. In the first half of the 20th century, many Southern communities had even operated without segregated high schools because of the belief that Black children did not need to go to high school. It took federal intervention to allow Black students to enter some majority-white schools. And to this day, schools remain effectively as segregated as they were in the 1950s, in terms of how integrated student bodies actually are and how many students of color attend majority-white schools.
Accordingly, many educational institutions have tried to take an equitable approach into their own hands by ensuring their student bodies are more diverse. Less well-known than Brown v. Board of Ed, but extremely important for our story is a Supreme Court Case from the 1970s that would eventually ratify the constitutionality of that approach: Bakke v. Regents of the University of California.
In this landmark case, a white medical student argued that he had been discriminated against because of his race when applying to UC-Davis’ medical school. At the time, the school reserved 16 out of 100 places for students of color, in an equitable attempt to extend educational opportunities to students who might otherwise be overlooked. The Court ruled that the use of quotas was unconstitutional (it did indeed violate the 14th amendment), but it upheld that universities could use race as a factor when making application decisions.
That ruling has since been upheld two more times by the Supreme Court, which have been important wins for advocates of diversity and affirmative action. And that phrase is an important one to unpack: “affirmative action.” It has acquired a reputation as another way of saying “handouts” or “diversity quotas” in the 21st century. But originally it was intended to describe the federal government and other institutions taking an active approach in affirming the rights of employees, including the right not to be discriminated against based on race, sex, religion, or ethnic background. (The term originally came from executive orders that FDR and Kennedy issued to try to stem this kind of discrimination in the federal workforce, beginning with the Department of Defense during WWII.)
Affirmative action was therefore an early form of equity, in which the powers that be acknowledged that not all employees faced the same treatment by their employers.
In education, it has come to be associated with top-tier universities (and even less prestigious ones) offering students of color a place based on their race. But that’s not actually what the principle is. The idea is to promote diversity by using race as a factor in making decisions about the overall composition of the student body. It’s very much the universities taking an “affirmative” and “active” role. That is why the Supreme Court has upheld the university’s rights in these three cases: there’s nothing in the Constitution that says you can’t try to promote diversity in schools.
Equitable solutions are unequal and that’s the point
The difficulty in most people’s minds is that affirmative action and equitable policies in general feel “unfair” because they are “unequal.” And indeed . . . they are. But as we’ve seen, equality doesn’t magically lead to better outcomes. We’ve had 50 to 60 years to test that hypothesis, and the numbers don’t lie.
Equitable solutions require us to understand history, context, and cultural relativism. They also ask us to consider individuals as just that: individual human beings. People with specific needs and backgrounds, who are not nameless members of a vague, equal-but-separate multitude.
The concept of equity also requires us to look to the future. In theory, equitable solutions and practices have to change as time, society, and the numbers change. They are not designed to last forever, unlike laws and policies that defend equality.
Equity is absolutely not the same as equality, but they play for the same team. Understanding the difference between the two allows us to move beyond professing a belief in an ideal toward seeing it implemented through tangible actions and impact.
This article was adapted and reprinted with permission from Diversity Explained.