Academic journal article Generations

Equality and Equity: Expanding Opportunities to Remedy Disadvantage

Academic journal article Generations

Equality and Equity: Expanding Opportunities to Remedy Disadvantage

Article excerpt

We have been watching a competition between two runners-one race per day over the past week. It is the eighth day as we wait for the next contest. One runner always dresses in a purple jersey and the second in orange. Purple wins each race by at least ten yards. We decide to go to the start to see how Purple manages to triumph so consistently over Orange. Does Purple have an initial burst of speed, a late surge, or is it a steady pace over the entire course? Or is Orange a slow and ineffective runner? We arrive a few moments before the next race takes place. We notice that these races are unusual because there is no official starting line-only a finish line. Orange is prepping for the race ten yards behind Purple. We notify the race official who then moves Orange ten yards forward. The official decides to provide the same treatment to both runners and advances Purple ten yards. The race begins. Purple wins another race.

The foregoing example is exaggerated to illustrate equality versus equity. This article considers these two constructs, focuses on equity as compatible with fairness and social justice, argues how equity can shape our understanding of available opportunities, and provides an example of a program that intends to change inequities in some situations.

Defining Equality

The two terms, especially equality, frequently take on the prescriptive quality of an ideal and are used as a rhetorical device to show unity when there is disagreement (Westen, 1990). A classic example appears in the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be selfevident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness . . . " It is difficult to disagree with these assertions because they prescribe an ideal, equality, in which we should all believe. However, at the time of its writing, women, Native Americans, blacks, and people who owned no property were excluded from opportunities and privileges open to property-owning white men. While debate persists over whether Jefferson intentionally excluded groups from this statement, or if he offered the statement as an aspirational goal, the reference to equality masks the debate and the reality that groups were excluded from the parameters of the document at the founding of the United States (Curry, Riley, and Battisoni, 2003).

Equality, however, is more than a rhetorical device and has substantive roots in philosophical writings and arguments. There is much debate on what people are advocating for, or critiquing, when they discuss equality (Dworkin, 2000). At a minimum, the concept of equality involves responses to two related questions: Equal to, and on, what? Equality involves a reference to some object that may be a normative standard, a person, a group, or another unit by which something is described. It infers a comparison of one of those groups on a topic such as health, wealth, income, or other forms of social status. The concept has gone through different iterations and has led some to conclude that it has no unified meaning. Accordingly, it may be best to see equality as a multifaceted construct that provides a moral compass for addressing disparate positions and outcomes in society (Rae et al., 1982; Rawls, 1971; Williams, 1973).

The nuances and multifaceted dimensions of equality have morphed over time into a shorthand for similarity or sameness of treatment. The concept has been critiqued for its inability to convey the reality that not all people begin at the same starting point. Equality became associated with assimilation into the dominant male, white, or middle-class norms (Gosepath, 2011).

Defining Equity

Equity emerged as an alternative and prominent construct linked to social justice, especially in the fields of health and education. Equity invokes a search for the social, economic, and political causes of an inequality, and for remedies that consider the context and circumstances of disparate outcomes. …

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