There’s a key difference between ‘equity’ and ‘equality’ — and you need to understand it to help dismantle systemic racism in America

Business Insider
Feb 3 · 3 min read

Over the past few months, you’ve probably heard the term “racial equity.” Here’s what it really means.

President Joe Biden.
President Joe Biden prepares to sign a series of executive orders at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, including multiple on racial equity. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

By Marguerite Ward

Over the past few months, you’ve probably heard the term “racial equity” either in conversation with friends, in a company memo, or in the news.

JP Morgan, Walmart, Mastercard, and CitiGroup are just a few examples of dozens of companies that have specifically dedicated millions of dollars (or more) to advance racial equity in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

In our nation’s capital, President Joe Biden recently signed a number of executive orders to advance racial equity: enacting policies that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion training, ending the Department of Justice’s use of private prisons, and directing the federal government to redress historical racism in federal housing policies, among other measures.

But what does “equity” really mean? And how is it different from “equality”? Well, there’s actually a key difference, and it’s important to know it.

Read more: An anti-racist’s dictionary: 19 words on race, gender, and diversity you should know

Equality vs. equity

Social Change UK, a social research and campaign company, explained the difference succinctly in a blog post.

“Although both promote fairness, equality achieves this through treating everyone the same regardless of need, while equity achieves this through treating people differently dependent on need,” their website reads. “This different treatment may be the key to reaching equality.”

Still, that might be hard to grasp.

Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, shared a helpful metaphor of two people competing in a track race.

Both runners are at their starting points, but one is more than half a lap behind the other.

Equality, she explained, would mean giving both runners the same starting time, treating them equally. But that would not be fair, since one runner is significantly ahead of the other. The playing field, to mix metaphors, is not level.

“Equity, in this context, would require giving a bit more of a head start to the runner starting from behind to make up for their deficit, so that they can compete on equal footing as the runner who had been ahead,” Chow told Insider.

Of course, achieving racial equity is not as simple as giving marginalized and oppressed communities more resources.

In a blog post on Medium, Richard Leong, DEI consultant and leadership coach, wrote that there’s more work to be done.

“Driving equity and justice isn’t about tinkering with systems that just ended up being imbalanced, it’s about dismantling oppressive systems that are working exactly as they were designed,” he wrote.

For example, Biden’s executive order on federal housing directs leaders to not only advance the inclusion of Black and brown people in federal housing policies, but work to fix decades of racist policies in housing.

The order recognizes the historic, systemic problem. Federal, state, and local governments implemented discriminatory policies that contributed to segregated neighborhoods and prevented many Black, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, and Native American families from building wealth. It then calls for action to end discrimination, work with those who have experienced housing discrimination, and promote diverse and inclusive communities.

“Systemic racism that has plagued our nation for far, far too long,” Biden said, while signing his executive orders advancing racial equity.

“We’re going to continue to make progress to eliminate systemic racism, and every branch of the White House and the federal government is going to be part of that effort,” he added.

For more great stories, visit Insider’s homepage.

Business Insider

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