Letter from Washington: The trouble with equity

The Biden administration is all-in on equity

A few days ahead of last year’s presidential election, Kamala Harris tweeted: “There’s a big difference between equality and equity”. In an accompanying video, Harris effectively argued that equality of opportunity was a sham and that “equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place.”

You could interpret Harris’s words as a Marxist argument for equality of outcome (a bold move just before polling day). Thankfully, however, the Vice President of the United States is not a full-bore Communist. Instead, she is a Democratic politician eager to keep up with the left’s ever-changing orthodoxies. According to those rules, “equality” is out and “equity” is in, a rhetorical change that is about more than words. Rather, it represents a profound shift in thinking — a shift that the Biden administration has so far embraced wholeheartedly.

Joe Biden has placed equity at the heart of everything from his Covid response to the $2 trillion infrastructure package he unveiled this week. In January, the president signed an executive order on “advancing racial equity”. It stated that “our Nation deserves an ambitious whole-of-government equity agenda that matches the scale of the opportunities and challenges we face.”

Biden’s order describes “equity” as “the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”

This is a rather neutered, politically palatable definition that avoids the difference between equality and equity that Harris was more explicit about. For instance, if equity applies to “all individuals”, why the need for the list of underserved communities? Is positive discrimination — generally seen as an equity-boosting measure — about “impartial treatment”? The 2015 Encyclopaedia of Diversity and Social Justice is more explicit about the difference between equity and equality: “true equity implies that an individual may need to experience or receive something different (not equal) in order to maintain fairness and access.”

To make the strongest possible case for such an approach on race, American policymakers should place greater consideration on the deep societal wounds inflicted by slavery and segregation. Formal legal equality was a necessary remedy but not a sufficient one. Consider, for instance, the massive 2018 study by Harvard economist Raj Chetty that demonstrates the persistence of racial inequality in America. It lays out the tragically disparate outcomes of black and white boys even when in families with similar incomes, accumulated wealth, education levels and family structures. White boys born rich stay rich. Black boys born rich are more likely to become poor than stay wealthy.

An “equity agenda” could therefore be understood as a recognition of such shocking and enduring injustices and a serious effort to do something about them. But such an argument implies, incorrectly, that the critics of the equity agenda think all that is needed is formal legal equality and nothing more. But I can surely recognise an unequal and unfair situation and grapple with its causes and possible solutions without needing to prioritise equity over equality? It also ignores the problems, some practical, some conceptual that flow from the equity agenda.

First, the equity agenda doesn’t just acknowledge the importance of unjust inequality of outcomes, it focuses on that problem to the exclusion of other, sometimes more important considerations.

To take a particularly pertinent example: How should Covid vaccines be distributed? In a way that saves the most lives? Not according to the equity doctrine. In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued provisional guidelines on vaccine distribution that argued for prioritising essential workers ahead of the elderly. The reported objective was “to bring many people of colour closer to the front of the vaccine line”. Not only would this approach have prioritised equity over saving as many lives as possible, it would have specifically disadvantaged the group hardest hit by the pandemic.

As the centre-left writer Matthew Yglesias argued at the time, “We know the people who’ve been dying the most from Covid are Black senior citizens. The decision here is to not prioritise vaccinating them, but to instead vaccinate a different, less vulnerable group of people and then assert that this creates some kind of abstract collective racial benefit. There have been a lot of takes lately about woke liberals prioritising symbolic racial issues over the concrete needs of non-white people, but this idea really takes the cake.” The CDC eventually advised that the elderly get vaccinated first but liberal American states have put equity at the heart of their vaccine rollout. And if that means anything at all, it means taking an approach other than the one that saves the most lives.

On climate change, the Biden administration has decided against the inclusion of a carbon tax in its plans because of fears that the policy, a potentially game-changing solution with broad support, could disproportionately harm black and Hispanic Americans. It’s no surprise that some on the left oppose this market-based measure, but it is revealing that the merits on the policy appear to depend not on its overall efficacy but on the inequity of its consequences. (As Greg Ip argues in the Wall Street Journal, Biden is foregoing a crucial weapon in the fight against rising temperatures when it is far from clear that such inequities even exist.)   

More important than these practical considerations is the conceptual foundations of the equity agenda. It starts from the position that anything other than absolute equality of outcome is an injustice which needs to be corrected.

The feted antiracist guru Ibram X Kendi is more explicit than the Biden administration about the consequences of the pursuit of equity. Racial inequity, he says, is a situation in which “two or more racial groups are not standing on approximately equal footing”. According to Kendi, any policy which perpetuates or worsens that disparity is racist. A policy which narrows it is antiracist. By that logic, it would be “antiracist” to bring Asian-Americans down a rung or two on the socio-economic ladder. Kendi makes no bones about the consequences of his view: “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist.” Such an approach is, by definition, a kind of social engineering according to which only outcomes matter, their causes irrelevant.

The implications of putting equity ahead of equality aren’t just illiberal but anti-liberal, refuting the central truths of individual agency and basic human equality, and undermining the foundations on which what racial progress has been made are built. To quote the Vice-President, “there’s a big difference between equality and equity”.

As the black economist Glenn Loury recently set out in a must-read testimony to the Senate Banking Committee, “identity-group-based egalitarianism is an incoherent social-justice program”. He argues that “the dogged pursuit of equal results between racial groups across all venues of human endeavour is a formula for tyranny and more racism” and offers the statement of two clear principles as an alternative: “(a) persistent black disadvantage is an American tragedy — a national, not merely communal, disgrace. (b) Wherever inequality is a problem, we should address it forthrightly. But we should do so on behalf of a program of human decency, not racial equity.”

Addressing inequality forthrightly and on behalf of human decency. That seems a more promising approach than an equity programme that quickly descends into a group-identity score-keeping. It also has the advantage of being a deeply American answer to an equally American problem.

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