Racial Equity vs. Equality: Why the Difference Matters


Group of racially diverse people standing and greeting each other, a man shaking hands with a woman.

People often use the terms “equality” and “equity” interchangeably when discussing social issues such as racial justice. However, these two words have vastly different meanings.  Understanding the difference between these two terms can help us address racism better.

In short, equality promotes sameness whereas equity promotes fairness.  Racial equality promotes equal representation of every race without taking past or current racial disparities into account. Racial equity promotes equal representation across races while offering appropriate reparation for previous and current racial disparities. 

If you are unsure about the difference between racial equality and equity and how these terms manifest in today’s society, this article can help to give you a basic understanding. It can also help you learn why the differences between these two terms are so crucial to the way we approach preventing and ending racism.

What is the Difference Between Equity and Equality?

DEFINITIONS:  How do we define Equality and Equity?

Equity means the “state, quality, or ideal of being just, impartial, or fair.”  Equity means everyone gets what they need from society to live happy and fulfilling lives.

Equality ensures that everyone receives the same things from society to live happily.

Both equity and equality are trying to achieve fairness in society. However, equality assumes everyone starts in the same place. Whereas equity assumes that not everyone starts in the same place, thus fairness can only be achieved when this is taken into account.

EXAMPLES:  How to explain Equality and Equity more simply?

Equality and equity can seem like abstract and complex terms.  But these terms can be explained and understood using everyday examples and scenarios.  For example, consider a group of runners racing on a track. The outer lanes of the oval-shaped track cover a longer distance than the inner lanes.

“Equality” calls for all the runners to have the same start and finish line. However, this would be unfair to the runners in the outer lane, who would have to cover more distance.

“Equity” requires the runners on the inner lane to start the race further behind the runners in the outer lane. This way, the outer runners receive the resources they need to have a fair chance against the inner runners.

A popular quote offers a simpler analogy:

“Equality is giving everyone a shoe. Equity is giving everyone a shoe that fits.”

Dr. Naheed Dosani

Another example is this widely shared graphic that helps people visualize the concepts of equality and equity and how they differ:

How do differences in equality and equity methods impact social issues?

Equality involves distributing equal amounts of resources to everyone across all gender, racial, and socio-economic statuses. Equity demands that more resources be allocated to underprivileged or underrepresented communities to allow them to have the same opportunities as those who don’t require additional resources. These resources can include:

  • Money
  • Housing
  • Education
  • Healthcare
  • Employment
  • Government Programs

In a society where resources are already unevenly dispersed across different populations, the difference between achieving “equity” and achieving “equality” is crucial to understand. Many scholars believe that equality doesn’t do enough to help underprivileged populations get a fairer advantage in society because the same resources they receive are also being given to privileged populations.

In contrast, equity allows resource distribution to be uneven across populations based on their needs to achieve fairness.  And the ultimate goal is justice, as shown in the baseball graphic, where the systemic barriers that caused the inequalities and inequities are removed.

What Does Equality and Equity Mean in Terms of Race?

Today, unfortunately, we live in a society where resources are not distributed evenly to everyone. In most parts of the country, people of color have fewer resources than people who are white. People often misinterpret racial equality by assuming that if people of all races are treated equally moving forward, our country’s racial disparities will be solved. However, they don’t realize that achieving equality is insufficient because it does nothing to change the past and current discrepancies in rights and resources across all races.

Applying Racial Equality and Equity Methods in an Employment Scenario

Consider the example of two employees who have the same job. One is a black employee.  And the other is a white employee who makes more money than the black employee. “Equality” could be applied in two different ways.  First, the black employee and the white employee could receive equal pay raises. Secondly, the black employee could receive a pay raise that would provide her with the same pay as her white co-worker moving forward.

However, the issue with both scenarios above is that at the end of the fiscal year, the white employee will still have made more money overall than the black employee. For the black employee to have equitable pay to her white co-worker, she needs to receive a raise in addition to compensation for the money she was not paid previously. Therefore, both employees will receive the same salary at the end of the fiscal year. 

The scenario above is an example of how equity and equality come into play in the workplace. Just because the black employee receives equal pay moving forward does not mean they have been financially repaired for earlier unequal treatment. Only when they have been compensated for their previous underpaid work will true “equity” have been achieved.

Is Equity Harder to Achieve than Equality?

Yes. Many people recognize that achieving equity is harder because it is more subjective than equality.  Equality is about sameness—everyone gets an equal amount, the same treatment, identical resources, etc.  In contrast, equity requires a more specialized approach that considers unique differences and needs.  Also, equity is about fairness and there are different opinions about what is “fair.”  

For example, Affirmative Action practices were designed to be an equitable solution to reduce racial disparities in employment hiring practices.  However, opponents of Affirmative Action believe the methods are unfair and unjust.  Whose interpretation of fairness should apply?  What does fairness mean in this context?  What should fairness look like as a remedy?   Thus, disagreements about what is an equitable solution can be a barrier to actually implementing equitable solutions.

Is there a Difference Between Racial Justice and Civil Rights?

“Racial Justice” and “Civil Rights” are two other terms often used in conjunction with equality and equity when discussing race issues. But just as equality and equity have two vastly different meanings, many argue that these two terms should no longer be used synonymously to define the goals for eradicating racism.

Civil Rights are “the rights of citizens to political and social freedom and equality.” (Source: Google-Oxford English Dictionaries)  The use of the word “equality” seems to limit this definition.  For example, the Civil Rights Act guaranteed people of color the same opportunities as white people but did not address the hundreds of years of oppression that precluded it.

Now consider the term “Racial Justice,” which is more specific than the term “Civil Rights.”  The term “Racial Justice” narrows down the focus specifically to race. And the word “justice” better denotes that the goal is equitable treatment rather than equal treatment. Although the quest we now see for racial justice would likely never have begun without the enactment of civil rights, many believe the term “civil rights” is too antiquated for the continued progress we are currently trying to make to end racism. When racial equity is the goal, justice is the endgame.

The Difference Between Racial, Social, and Equal Justice

Racial justice is one overarching societal goal.  There are other types of justice that must also be considered to achieve racial equity. Two of the most important of these are social justice and equal justice. Each of these three forms of justice cannot be achieved without the other and are critical to achieving a society based on equity.

What is Social Justice?

Social justice involves “the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.” Social justice applies to not only people of color – it includes any individual who has been denied opportunity. But centuries of segregation and oppression of people of color has resulted in disproportionate amounts of wealth and privilege within society today. Thus, while social justice is not specific to race, it is an integral part of the broader definition of racial justice.

What is Equal Justice?

Equal justice is the fair and impartial treatment of all people as it relates to the establishment of law. This includes providing fair trials and overturning wrongful convictions of innocent people. Again, equal justice does not cater specifically to racial minorities. But fair representation in the judicial system is another major form of equity that people of color have been systematically denied for centuries throughout American History. Thus, racial justice cannot be achieved until people of color are given due equal justice.

How do Racial Equality and Equity Function in Today’s Society?

Racial reforms were passed during the Civil Rights movement in the mid-1900s with the goal of giving equal opportunities for people of color to achieve in the school system, in the workplace, and in communities in general. Though these victories were huge in the scope of the racial disparities plaguing America, it has since become apparent that equal opportunity does not mean the same thing as equal treatment.

Today, there is still a significant shortage of resources and opportunities available to people of color to be able to achieve equal status to white people in many facets of our society. In this section we’ll explore the areas of housing, healthcare, and education as examples of how equality and equity mean vastly different things when it comes to race and privilege.

HOUSING

Understanding Equality and Equity in the Housing Crisis

One of the major racial divides in our country is in housing. People of color have been subject to discriminatory housing practices and policies for decades. The result is that many people of color are unable to acquire affordable housing and are forced into undesirable housing situations. Homes in black and Latino neighborhoods across the country are severely undervalued in comparison to predominantly white neighborhoods. In addition, black and Latino households are more likely to be extremely low-income renters and face higher rates of eviction.

Black man standing in front of a worn-down building with overlay text that says, "People of color have been subject to discriminatory housing practices & policies for decades."

The statistics regarding race and housing are some of the starkest examples of the resource discrepancies between people of color in comparison to white people. But how would this scenario change if we looked at it from an “equality” perspective and an “equity” perspective?

What Would Racial Equality in Housing Equality Look Like?

Imagine two identical neighborhoods that sit adjacent to one another. One neighborhood is predominantly homeowners of color, and the other is predominantly white homeowners. Homes in the white neighborhood have a value of $10,000 more per home. To achieve more equality between the neighborhoods, every homeowner in both neighborhoods receive $10,000 to make home improvements.

Every homeowner receives the same amount of money, but this does not change the fact that the homes in the white neighborhood already have a higher value. When it comes time to sell, the homeowners in the non-white neighborhood are still at a disadvantage to their white neighbors.

What Would Racial Equity in Housing Look Like?

Consider these same two neighborhoods. To achieve racial equity in the neighborhood with residents of color, the city offers to provide every homeowner an additional $10,000 for their home improvement. Though they are receiving more funding than members of the white neighborhood, they will now be able to value their homes at the same amount and have a fair opportunity to sell their home at an appropriate value to incoming residents.

Of course, this is a hypothetical scenario with a much simpler solution than the problems facing cities dealing with racial housing crises. However, it helps us understand why achieving “equality” in housing is not going to change the statistics for renters and homeowners of color who are already at a disadvantage. This is why advocates plead for cities to provide additional support and strategies to assist residents of color. Until they get meaningful assistance towards equity, the housing crisis will continue to fracture.

HEALTHCARE

Tackling Healthcare Reform and Racial Equity

Healthcare is another crucial area to consider for understanding the difference between equality and equity. A study performed by the National Institute of Medicine found that people of color receive lower-quality care and are less likely to receive preventative treatments for medical issues than white people. The healthcare issue is also connected to a larger problem of higher rates of poverty among people of color. People below the poverty line are less likely to be able to afford health insurance than those above it.  This means people of color are less likely to have health insurance than white people.

What Would Racial Equality in Healthcare Look Like?

Many Americans envision a country in which affordable healthcare is given to everyone. It sounds like a dream come true – but imagine if this meant that every individual received the same health insurance plan moving forward to ensure equal healthcare opportunities across racial groups. But because people of color were previously more likely not to have been able to afford health insurance, they may be struggling to pay bills from a previous healthcare issue or have additional healthcare issues that resulted from low-quality treatment that will reduce their quality of life.

While the big picture of affordable healthcare for everyone seems enticing, it’s important to remember what that means for people of color who were already facing disadvantages in the healthcare system. We should consider that no amount of additional insurance can fully make up for years of low-quality and discriminatory healthcare.

What Would Racial Equity in Healthcare Look Like?

Unfortunately, it’s hard to imagine what true healthcare equity would look like because little progress has been made towards achieving it. Many healthcare organizations are working with people of color to raise greater awareness of diseases and health conditions that they are more susceptible to. While this is a meaningful step, it will only go so far until resources are given to treat and prevent past and current social conditions that cause health disparities.

As I write this article, the impact of the COVID-19 virus is disproportionately affecting black people and communities of color.  The Center for Disease Control (CDC) acknowledged that racial and social inequities are the cause of COVID-19 related health disparities.  Inequities in health risks and to healthcare access is caused by inequities in other areas such as employment, housing, and education.  This puts “racial and ethnic minority groups at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.”  (Source: CDC.gov)

The healthcare equity dilemma is one of the most uncertain and highly contested racial disparity issues we face today. Perhaps because it’s so intertwined with other social inequities.  And perhaps because society is not ready to accept that the “the solutions may cause an upheaval of traditional political and social systems.” (Quote by R.J. Quirk of The Welfare Collective.)

EDUCATION

Achieving Racial Equity in the Education System

Racial inequities within the education system have been a source of continued contention in our society for decades. Despite major advancements in the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and ’60s, segregation has manifested itself in many other ways in the years that followed. Today, students of color are less likely to graduate from high school and go to college than white students. They are more likely to attend public schools with fewer resources. And, more likely to be suspended or disciplined than white students.

Male teacher standing in front of a chalkboard with text overlay that says, "Racial inequities within the education system have been a source of continued contention in our society for decades."

What Would Racial Equality in the Education System Look Like?

Unlike the healthcare and housing sectors, we have a decent picture of what educational equality looked like – because that’s exactly what the government attempted to achieve in the mid-1900s. While desegregation of schools gave black students the same opportunity to go to school as white students, many argue it did not do enough to adjust the circumstances or resources that would allow them to excel in school.

The result of this push for equality is painfully apparent.  Today we have highly segregated school systems with resources pooled in successful institutions by wealthy families of white students. While students of color theoretically could attend any school that a white student does, they often do not have the means to take advantage of the opportunity.

What Would Racial Equity in the Education System Look Like?

Although it is not yet a widespread phenomenon, some school systems have been able to move towards racial equity better in recent years. For many successful school systems, the process required a complete overhaul of their current educational system, from replacing education leaders to re-distributing resources. To achieve equity in education, the process starts from the top down. School officials and trustees must unanimously be amenable to focusing every facet of their system on achieving equity.

Although the process of achieving racial equity in schools is not set in stone, there are guidelines from successful school reform models that are working to achieve racial equity. These guidelines include:

  • Using a racially inclusive student curriculum
  • Diversifying school leaders, teachers, and staff
  • Enacting more constructive and unbiased discipline policies
  • Offer students social and educational outlets outside of school
  • Create partnerships with other equity-focused institutions and organizations

Why Does the Difference Between Racial Equity and Equality Matter?

Now that we’ve explored the difference between equity and equality regarding racial reforms, we can see how these terms are not interchangeable when discussing race and social justice issues. If we continue to believe that achieving racial “equality” is enough, we will disregard the historical and current disparities that exist between races. Equality generally looks to fix the future, even if the playing fields started unequally.  Equity looks to fix the future too, but it also includes rectifying injustices that created the unequal starting points from the past.

Understanding the difference between racial equity and equality matters because true equality cannot exist until we achieve equity. The more we can educate ourselves and others on how to differentiate between equity and equality, the greater chance we will have of one day living in a society where everyone can live a happy and fulfilled life regardless of their race.

What Can I Do to Promote Racial Equity?

One of the most important things you can do to promote racial equity in your community is to continue to educate yourself and the people around you on why it matters. And, if you feel compelled to take even further action, consider doing one of the following:

  • Support communities and organizations who champion racial equity
  • Shift your narrative and how you talk about race with others
  • Read up on governmental and community policies that support racial equity
  • Become involved with an organization or charity group that promotes racial equity
  • Keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to ask questions

Key Takeaway

The key takeaway is understanding that equality and equity are two different things, thus there are different methods for achieving each.  And it’s not necessarily a battle of trying to achieve one over the other, but the prudence of knowing when to pursue one or the other or both depending on the outcome you’re trying to achieve.

Ideally, we need both equality and equity in the pursuit of racial justice:

  • Equity to achieve fairness by fixing the disparities and injustices caused by racism.
  • Equality to ensure that everyone has the same rights afforded to each citizen regardless of race and other personal qualities such as gender, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc.
  • Justice to remove and prevent systemic barriers that caused the racial disparities in the first place.  In addition to fixing inequities and inequality, it’s just as important to address and fix the factors that create inequities and inequality.  Only then will we be able to replace systems built on racism with systems that promote a fair and just society.

Achieving racial justice in our society may take a while.  But the more we can create awareness and education on the subject, the closer we will be to getting there. Whether you are an individual looking to promote awareness in a workplace, school setting, healthcare or government, your voice could be the difference between sticking to the status quo or finding a sustainable path towards achieving racial equality, equity, and justice.

Author

  • Writing allows me to provide useful information in a way that is easy to grasp. I hope people are able to use my articles as a springboard for learning, advocating and advancing the causes they believe in.

Shenetta Webster

Writing allows me to provide useful information in a way that is easy to grasp. I hope people are able to use my articles as a springboard for learning, advocating and advancing the causes they believe in.

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