Published by Tori Blackwell in the January 2024 Unite Oregon City Newsletter
In January we will celebrate Martin Luther King Day, followed by Black History Month in February. During that period, it is very likely that two terms that come up regularly throughout the year will come up even more often. They are important terms for some but can be anything from confusing to disturbing for others. Those two terms are equality and equity.
Merriam Webster defines the word equality as “the quality or state of being equal” (1), with equal defined as “of the same measure, quantity, amount, or number as another” and “like for each member of a group, class, or society” (2). Combining the two pieces gives you a definition of equality along the lines of – the quality or state of being alike for each member of a group, class, or society”. Notice that equality then is a state of being – a condition.
Merriam Webster also defines the word equity as “justice according to natural law or right” (3) and equitable as “dealing fairly and equally with all concerned” (4). While equality describes a condition, equity concerns actions, actions that lead to the condition of equality.
Why do these two words create so many challenges? People that have fought for their basic rights have often used the phrase “Equal Rights for All”. Using the definitions above, this refers to the end state or condition that are striving for – whether it be equal rights to vote, equal rights for marriage, or equal rights for medical care and treatment. Those words though do not reflect the work that is required to provide those equal rights. The work may mean providing greater access to voting booths in places that have few voting booths, taking away wording that limits who can marry, or monitoring healthcare systems to ensure patients from diverse backgrounds have consistent outcomes from medical procedures.
These actions then are where the important discussions rest. It is easy for anyone to say, “if we treat everyone equally, everything will be fine”. The shortest exploration of that statement though should lead most people down a path of logic that would result in people not being fine when treated equally.
Let’s think about a book with information. A standard book from most bookstores would be written in English and printed on paper, making it inaccessible to anyone unable to read English or that is blind. If “fine” means being able to access the information in the book, then folks unable to see or read in English are not “fine”. Since I have defined “fine” as being able to access information, the only way to ensure that everyone is “fine” would be to make that book available in different languages, in Braille, and as an audiobook – it can now be accessed by many more people. What this does is provide equitable access – access that changes based on the needs of the individual – to reach an outcome of equality – access to the information that is alike no matter the individual.
Would creating these alternative ways to access the information in the book cause any problems? If the end goal is to reach a state where everyone is “fine”, with “fine” being defined as “being able to access the information”, then alternative access creates no problems. In fact, it allows one to reach the wanted end state. If the goal is not “fine” but instead is to limit information access for specific populations or block the use of resources that would improve access so that those resources can instead be redirected elsewhere, alternative access now creates a problem. It creates a problem though because the end state has changed – it is not information access for all, but instead controlled resource usage or limited access to information.
Interestingly, the disagreements begin to appear the moment race or gender enter the conversation. We are all humans, and all humans have their own internal biases that can affect their decision-making. That’s not a bad thing – it’s simply a thing. Those biases come from our past experiences and our information environment. Those biases then show up in our history, our laws, and our systems. Systems and laws crafted through the lens of bias create conditions where equality is not possible because bias, by definition, inclines thinking in one direction over another (5). Looking back at history can be uncomfortable, but it also helps us understand why a law or system looks the way it does. With that knowledge of history, we can use a more equitable lens and attempt to undo the bias in the law or system. This work moves us closer to the equality state that is our goal. Discussions of race or gender should not be eliminated from the work required to reach a state of equality. Instead, they should be keystone, foundational discussions. By understanding how our laws and structures have both positively and negatively impacted all communities, we can craft better laws and structures that lift up all groups and help us achieve a state of equality. It is not about treating a group “differently”, but about treating each group fairly based on their needs so that all groups have equitable outcomes under the law or structure.
What can we do then in our own lives to help shift the discussion from equality to equity? I like to link the two using the idea that equality comes from the use of equitable practices that consider the different groups that could be impacted by a decision. Helping others recognize that equality is the goal, while equity is the work, is one thing you can do. That can be as simple as asking a question like “if we make this change, have we thought about what groups it affects?”. Another easy thing to do is to simply improve your knowledge of your community by taking time to talk with and understand the many different components of your community. Most people know their neighbors and folks with similar demographics. Learning about other groups with different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses makes it easier for you to recognize when one or more of those groups is being left out of consideration.
Lastly, and this can be difficult, but try to avoid having a scarcity mindset – the thought that all resources are limited and as a result giving any resource to one group means fewer for your own group. Although there are definitely situations where resources are limited, understanding that in many cases the actions needed would likely benefit multiple groups, including members of your own group, makes it easier to escape the scarcity mindset. In fact, some may present resources as if they are “scarce” when they are not.
If you would like to discuss Equality vs Equity more, please, join this article’s author, Tory Blackwell, chairperson of the Clackamas County’s Leaders in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at our upcoming monthly meeting!