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The “Equity” Game Has Been in Play For Years. We Just Haven’t Been Paying Attention.
From education to health care, the Great Leveling of America ensures that in order for some to get ahead, others must fall behind
If you’re like me and struggling to make sense of what’s going on in the world now, you’ve probably noticed how confusing our language has become. Whether we’re discussing terrorism, white supremacy, or gender, Americans have been forced into completely different realities because we no longer have the same understanding of the words we use. But one word in particular has probably invited more confusion than any other: equity.
To be fair, equity has always had more than one meaning. From a financial perspective, it means an ownership interest in property. If you buy a home, equity represents the difference between how much your home is worth and how much you owe on your mortgage.
From a legal perspective, equity is a remedy imposed by courts when money will not suffice to make a victim whole. If someone stole your family heirloom, you wouldn’t be satisfied if they simply wrote a check to compensate for your loss; equity would demand that they return the irreplaceable item to you.
Over the past decade, we’ve heard equity used more often in the context of social justice, i.e. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. While many people might assume that equity is synonymous with equality, this is actually not the case. In fact, there’s a reason why these initiatives aren’t branded as Diversity, Equality and Inclusion.
From a DEI perspective, equity means “allocating resources and opportunities as needed to create equal outcomes for all community members.” The picture below perfectly captures the difference between equality and equity.
Note that while the tallest person has the best view of the game, the shortest person is unable to watch the game at all. From a social justice perspective, this is because all members of society aren’t afforded the same opportunities. If we are born into a family that is of color or lower class, we are likely at an immediate disadvantage, i.e. we are born short. DEI defines equity in a way that compensates for this deficiency: the tallest person surrenders their crate to the shortest person, thereby ensuring that everyone has the same view over the fence.
In other words, whereas “equality” ensures that the same rights are provided to all members of society (we each get a crate), equity ensures the same outcome for participants (we lose or gain a crate in order to bring us all to the same height).
This is the essence of the equity game: taking from those who “have” and giving to those who “need” — which, in theory, sounds reasonable because most of us are good-hearted and willing to help those in need. But a deeper dive into the implications of the equity model reveals why it can be problematic.
First, from a legal perspective, equity should only require that someone deprived of rights have their rights restored to make them whole; it shouldn’t require the deprivation of the rights of others.
Second, the social justice perspective of equity also assumes the tallest person has a better view solely because they were born tall; it doesn’t take into account the possibility that a short person may have acquired more crates through hard work, which thankfully can and does happen when people are given equal rights to create their own opportunities.
Lastly, this vision of equity is antithetical to the most fundamental founding principle of this country: all men are created equal and entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We accept that some of us will succeed and that others will fail because we are not guaranteed an equal outcome; we are merely guaranteed the equal right to pursue the best possible outcome, based on our circumstances, effort, drive, and determination.
This possibility of varied outcomes in our individual experiences is the essence of what makes America, well, America.
Of course, no sensible and compassionate person would argue that we should ignore the least fortunate among us. We have a moral and ethical obligation to address the shameful epidemic of poverty, illiteracy, and homelessness that’s overtaken the “richest” country in the world, especially among members of our society burdened by systemic disadvantages. But helping those most at risk should not come at the expense of others, especially those who are only slightly more advantaged, and significantly less so than the most privileged. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening, and herein lies the danger of equity viewed through a social justice lens.
When we’re laser focused on serving the shortest people by taking crates from other people, it means we’re all guaranteed the same view of the game. No one deserves to have a better view over the fence. The aggressive pivot towards equity is reducing the non-elite class to the same level of “acceptable” mediocrity by redistributing rights and opportunities.
This is the Great Leveling of America. It’s been quietly unfolding all around us for decades, but now the pace is quickening. We’ve all been playing the equity game for a very long time. We just haven’t noticed.
Although conservatives have convinced themselves that the equity game is the brainchild of the Left, both parties have been complicit in the Great Leveling. In fact, Republicans were the first team to put the equity ball in play.
When No Child Left Behind (NCLB) rolled out in 2002 under President George W. Bush, the innocuous title of the bipartisan legislation didn’t raise any red flags for most people. Whether you were Democrat or Republican, leaving any child “behind” on the path to a quality education seemed like a really, really bad idea.
Two decades later, however, most experts acknowledge that NCLB was fraught with pitfalls and challenges that led to some successes: generally higher test scores for most students, especially among children of color; more teacher accountability; and more attention to students at risk. Unfortunately, there were just as many failures: teaching students to pass standardized tests instead of learning the material and developing critical thinking skills; the hazards of tying school funding to test scores; and the birth of teacher shortages, especially in rural communities.
However, one poor outcome didn’t receive nearly as much attention at the time as it should have. Contrary to expectations, some children were still left behind: America’s most talented and gifted students.
Supporters of the legislation often fail to mention that the goal of NCLB wasn’t to raise the test scores and academic fitness of all students. Rather, the legislation aimed to close the “achievement gap” between high- and low-performing children by focusing on students from low-income households, those with special needs, and others at risk. As a result, some students received more attention than others. Why? Because teachers assumed that students with the worst grades were lost causes, and the best students would figure it out for themselves. So they focused their efforts on a large swath of students in the “middle” who could potentially make the grade.
The upshot was that America’s smartest kids became bored, frustrated, and unmotivated because they were left idle in classrooms and awaiting instruction that challenged their intellect. About 3 million kindergarten through 12th grade students are identified as gifted, and studies show they now represent between 5% to 20% of students who drop out of school. NCLB essentially flattened the curve by bolstering those in the middle. Our best and brightest students sacrificed their crates to make sure all students had the same view over the fence.
Then the equity ball passed to Democrats.
The Affordable Health Care Act (ACA) rolled out in 2013 with the goal of addressing severe inequities in health care. For the past thirty years, insurance costs have been rising steeply, making premiums increasingly less affordable. The ACA aimed to make health care more affordable to everyone — except that’s not how it played out.
Premiums fell for low-income households and people with pre-existing conditions, but they actually rose, often dramatically, for millions of other Americans. Unlike NCLB, however, the ACA didn’t sacrifice those on the extremes. The poorest Americans received subsidies, and the wealthiest Americans had no trouble meeting rising costs. But the middle class was crushed. Many lost coverage, and those who managed to keep it ended up with much higher deductibles and out of pockets costs.
Once again, the equity game became zero sum: in order for some Americans to receive health care, others had to sacrifice theirs. The ACA didn’t make the health care pie bigger; it simply redistributed the same thin slices.
Fast forward to 2020, when Democrats ran the equity ball into the end zone.
On the heels of protests following the murder of George Floyd, DEI became a buzzword in corporate boardrooms. Suddenly, being white in the workplace meant surrendering your crate (especially if you happened to be white and male, because companies didn’t need “another white guy”). Not surprisingly, this invited claims of reverse discrimination that fell on deaf ears.
The equity game is in full swing in higher education. More than 80% of colleges will no longer require standardized testing (SATs or ACTs) because they “exacerbate systemic inequities and racism.” The American Bar Association recently voted to ditch LSATs for law school applicants, and medical schools are being urged to follow suit. As a result, the equity game is now turning on its own.
Asian-Americans, who were never beneficiaries of systemic privilege, are now losing ground to black and brown college applicants simply because they’ve worked hard to become taller. Harvard University has rationalized taking crates from Asian-American students by using a subjective “personality” scorecard, gauging applicants on qualities such as “likability, courage, kindness and being ‘widely respected.’” According to Harvard’s admissions committee, because “Asian-Americans systematically score worse by these measures than any other racial group,” they have lower admission rates despite their higher test scores.
Don’t get me wrong. As a woman of color, I’m all too familiar with the inherent biases in standardized testing; my SAT scores weren’t stellar by any stretch. But when considered alongside my grades in high school and my personal essay, they helped Princeton’s admissions officers determine that I was academically prepared. For better or worse, standardized tests serve a valuable purpose. According to one elite college admissions officer, if a student can’t break a combined score of 1000 on the SAT, then they are unlikely to graduate, “no matter how much support” they receive. Sending unprepared students to college is not only unfair to them, but to their peers, as well.
The equity game is also playing out with sex and gender. Women and lesbians have been forced to surrender their hard-earned crates to the newest disadvantaged class: transgender women. In the effort to support equity and inclusion, biological women are being forced to compete against their transgender peers who have an insurmountable physical advantage, and gay women are being pressured to abandon their sexual preference for biological women and shamed into accepting transgender women as partners.
We’re even seeing equity in lending: the Biden administration will soon redistribute high-risk loan costs, charging borrowers with good credit higher interest rates to subsidize borrowers with bad credit. Equity is also making its way into the utility industry: electricity in California will soon be tied to income, requiring that higher-income households pay higher rates to subsidize those with lower incomes.
Equity is spreading like a wildfire, with no end in sight. But it’s time to ask the obvious questions: How much equity is enough? Who gets to decide what we should have and who it should be given to? And why should anyone have the right to determine what our view over the fence should look like?
This is a dangerous game that has consequences for all of us, no matter how short or tall we are. Because if our crates can be snatched from us at any time, it will eventually kill our incentive to succeed or to better our lives in any way. We’re already witnessing a generation of youth who are disillusioned by unaffordable housing and education, and millions of working age Americans who are content to survive on government stimulus checks. As a result, businesses are facing a historic labor shortage. Playing the equity game will only make this situation worse.
Ultimately, the obsession with equity is fundamentally flawed because it doesn’t address the root cause of inequities that are swelling the ranks of the disadvantaged, the very people that DEI claims to help. Equity ignores a systemic problem that feel-good slogans and corporate initiatives can’t solve because it transcends race, sex, and gender: we’re all trapped in a predatory, debt-based economy that forces us to compete for fewer resources that become more expensive over time. Black, white or yellow, straight or gay, cisgender or transgender, we are all victims of a toxic System that keeps us from making the pie bigger while steadily siphoning more wealth into the hands of a few.
This is happening because banks, not the people we vote for, control our quality of life — because they control the economy. They have the power to inflate or deflate it, whenever they want. It happened in the 2008 Financial Crisis. It happened in the 2000 Dotcom bubble. And before that, it happened in the 1990 housing bubble.
The money creating power of banks has led to increasingly intense cycles of “booms” and “busts,” occurring more frequently over time; the highs get higher and the crashes get bigger. It’s a vicious cycle that’s been fueling the wealth inequality divide because after every crash, more of us get wiped out, and those at the top scoop up more of what’s left. Life in the world’s “richest” country has become a Squid Game that leaves fewer survivors in each round, and the relentless focus on equity is conditioning Americans to accept this.
Equity may be promoted under the banner of social justice, and it may give comfort to those wrestling with the guilt of their “privilege.” But it’s not going to lead to an outcome that benefits most Americans. It’s merely distracting us from the Bigger Picture that affects all of us on many levels. In the end, equity is just a clever ploy designed to make us content with more “equal”— but increasingly smaller— slices of the pie.
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