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7. What’s the Goal? Thinking about Equality and Equity

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 20-25 Minutes

Equality feels like a positive aspiration -- we often think of our goal of being fair people as treating everyone equally. In this MLM, we invite you to think about whether this is the goal we should be aspiring to or whether in fact treating everyone “equally” misses what people actually need.

The idea of fairness as equality often feels intuitively right. Treating people differently based upon bias or prejudice is at the heart of many societal problems. But is the opposite of treating people differently for problematic reasons necessarily “equality?”

Jeff Duncan-Andrade argues here in the context of education that seeking equality only works if everyone has the same needs, but that’s never the case. So what should we be striving for? Equity. For additional context on equity in schools, we invite you to watch this short clip by Professor Pedro Noguera.

Broadly speaking, Duncan-Andrade says the following in response to the question “what’s the difference and why is it important?”

Equity is: You get what you need when you need it. It places the onus of change and responsiveness on the institution and not on the individual. It’s an assessment of: ‘What does this person need and what do they deserve as a human being? And how do we set up a society that makes sure those needs are met?’

This popular illustration by Craig Froehle helps concretize this distinction.

The kids in picture one are being treated “equally” because each is given the same box to help them watch the baseball game.  But in the example, the first kid doesn’t need the box, the second kid gets just the right sized box, and the third isn’t helped at all.  So we can easily see why “equality” can fail to achieve even simple goals.  Equity here makes perfect sense.  Giving the third kid two boxes since the first doesn’t need one allows all three kids see the baseball game.  

How does the metaphor translate beyond baseball games?  In some instances, really well.  For example, in thinking about making public buildings accessible to people with disabilities, escalators or stairs would be equality.  Everyone has access formally, but equity means recognizing that escalators and stairs won’t work for people in wheelchairs. State school funding discussions also benefit from equity over equality -- giving every school the same amount fails to recognize that schools in some districts are already well-funded while schools in other districts are not. 

But there are some risks in the image once we dig deeper -- as Paul Kuttner explains:

The problem with the graphic has to do with where the initial inequity is located. In the graphic, some people need more support to see over the fence because they are shorter, an issue inherent to the people themselves. That’s fine if we’re talking about height, but if this is supposed to be a metaphor for other inequities, it becomes problematic. For instance, if we return to the school funding example, this image implies that students in low-income Communities of Color and other marginalized communities need more resources in their schools because they are inherently less academically capable. They (or their families, or their communities) are metaphorically “shorter” and need more support. But that is not why the so-called “achievement gap” exists. As many have argued, it should actually be termed the “opportunity gap” because the problem is not in the abilities of students, but in the disparate opportunities they are afforded. 

In her recently published analysis, "It Was Never About Busing," Nikole Hannah-Jones unpacked the history and fallout of Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case that found school segregation unconstitutional, and its relationship to busing. A glaring example of the disjuncture between equality and equity is shown in the fact that:

Many Northerners initially applauded the Brown ruling, believing it was about time the South behaved when it came to its black citizens. But that support hinged largely on the belief that Brown v. Board of Education did not apply to them and their communities. When black activists in cities such as Chicago, Detroit and Dayton, Ohio, pushed to dismantle the de facto segregation that existed in their cities, white support for the integration mandate of Brown faded.

In New York, after activists had spent years pushing the public schools to adopt a comprehensive desegregation plan, about 460,000 black and Puerto Rican students staged a walkout in protest in February 1964. With the city’s white population declining, school officials had maintained segregation through racial assignment policies, keeping white schools half empty while black schools in some areas grew so overcrowded that children attended in shifts, half for four hours in the morning, half for four hours in the afternoon, while white children got a full day of instruction.

In places that believed themselves to agree with legislation promising equality on the surface, there was little desire to do the work necessary to ensure that students of color were adequately being served by schools.   Equity -- ensuring that all students received what they needed to learn -- was not even on the table.


We invite you to think about the following:

  • What seems challenging about living out the differences between equity and equality?
  • What are some contexts in which the distinction between equity and equality is more acutely pronounced (school, for instance, is listed as one above)?

After considering what you have read above, it may seem like embracing equity will be easy.  But it is important to think about when the distinction can be more complicated.  Consider the following image:

In this example, equality means that resources are distributed to communities in equal numbers, no matter how many people are on either side or what the objective need is (pay attention to the broken windows, the number of buildings). The focus of equality is to provide the same outputs. Equity, however, means that communities receive the resources that are most responsive to the needs that exist--including allocating resources in the moment that appear to be providing some get more than others. The focus of equity is to engage in the work of providing people what is necessary to meet their needs.  

This is when some people struggle with the “fairness” of an equity model -- suggesting that the community receiving greater resources is given an unfair advantage.  But recall from MLM 4 how redlining and other government programs led to the massive allocation of resources to white communities and explicitly excluded communities of color -- we are still experiencing the consequences of that unequal treatment.  Reverting to an equality model after a long history of inequality will leave the inequality intact -- does that seem fair?  

We also encourage you to think back to the last MLM’s discussion of deficit thinking -- recognizing that the equality vs. equity metaphor has some risks if we don’t keep history in mind.  The artist Angus Maguire created another image to highlight the risks and to start a different conversation:

  • How do these images lead you to think about equality and equity? Which image resonates most with you? Why? 
  • If you had to create your own visual representation of the differences between equity and equality what would it look like? If tasked with filling in the "Your Idea Here" box, what would it look like?

Depending upon your own experiences growing up and in school, you may have intuitively resonated with the idea that even if “equality” in treatment can on the surface seem fair, given the historical inequalities, that model will often fail to meet actual needs.  Or this may be a concept you wrestle with.  Our hope is that as you engage with your mentee, you listen to how they experience their schools and communities and think about what they need to be able to achieve their goals and whether they are currently being provided with what they need.  If not, what needs to change? 

Almost done, click here to finish MLM #7!