Social Justice Usage
The notion of being fair and impartial as an individual engages with an organization or system, particularly systems of grievance. It reflects processes and practices that both acknowledge that we live in a world where everyone has not been afforded the same resources and treatment while also working to remedy this fact. “Equity” is often conflated with the term “Equality” which means sameness and assumes, incorrectly, that we all have had equal access, treatment, and outcomes. In fact, true equity implies that an individual may need to experience or receive something different (not equal) in order to maintain fairness and access. For example, a person with a wheelchair may need differential access to an elevator relative to someone else.
New Discourses Commentary
Notice that, in Critical Social Justice, the meaning of “equity” takes pains to distinguish itself from that of “equality.” Where equality means that citizen A and citizen B are treated equally, equity means “adjusting shares in order to make citizens A and B equal.” In that sense, equity is something like a kind of “social communism,” if we will—the intentional redistribution of shares, but not necessarily along lines of existing economic disparity but in order to adjust for and correct current and historical injustices, both as exist in reality and as have been drawn out by the various critical theories (specifically, Theory—see also, critical race Theory, queer Theory, gender studies, fat studies, disability studies, and postcolonial Theory).
The example given (above) of providing a wheelchair user with privileged access to an elevator is one that few people would find unfair. However, within Critical Social Justice conceptions of the world, specifically disability studies here, invisible systems of power and privilege are understood to hold some people back in often invisible ways because of their race, gender, sexuality, or other marginalized identity factors. Therefore, “equity” requires giving some identity groups privileges in order to redress the perceived imbalance.
In common parlance, this is the difference between attempting to force equality of outcome by enforcing some resource allocation system and equality of opportunity, which Critical Social Justice regards not only as myth but as a harmful ideology that upholds injustices like “white supremacy.”
Because of the blank slatism and simplistic ideas of power and identity found within Critical Social Justice worldviews, all imbalances of representation in desirable areas of work are held to be caused by these perceived power dynamics. Equity is the intended remedy to this problem, and it is made applicable only (and especially) to positions of status and influence. For example, there is no equity program that attempts to increase the number of female sanitation workers, though there are equity programs that seek to increase the number of female doctors and politicians, and these endure even in high-status positions that employ more women than men. Of particular concern are positions that have influence where power is concerned, including in terms of shaping the discourses of society.
For this same reason, the measurement for equity is wholly on assessing the most superficial aspects of outcomes and then ascribing any differences from either demographic parity or parity adjusted upward to “correct” for historical exclusion to systemic bigotry. That is, in practice, an equity approach is almost wholly unconcerned with the root causes of disparate outcomes and merely seeks to identify where they occur and then artificially “correct” them, perhaps through preferential hiring, grading, promotion, pay, etc., by eliminating measurements that reveal disparities like standardized testing, by open, secret, or tacit discrimination against “dominant” group members, or even by installing quotas and specific guidelines for how outcomes must come out, regardless of what leads to them. In that sense, it is a very impoverished theory that is unlikely to achieve any of its stated goals (and will probably hurt most those it claims to help).
Where equality would imply not being particularly concerned with the demography of people filling certain roles, equity is centrally concerned with this. It often calls for wanting to achieve parity with the existing demographics of the population, which would mean that most (status-bearing) professions would employ roughly 50% women and whatever percentages of racial and sexual minorities as are present in the prevailing population. This itself can be considered problematic, however, and often seeks overrepresentation by members of smaller minority/minoritized groups (e.g., trans identities).
Moreover, equity, importantly, is often to be assessed historically, not merely in the present moment. If an identity group has historically been disenfranchised or excluded from a particular (status-bearing) role, equity often implies achieving representation numbers higher than demographic parity to make up for the historical injustice. Thus, we can understand quips like Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s when she said that the proof of equality would be that there are nine women on the Supreme Court of the United States (that is, the entire court is female). It is also in this light that many arguments about reparations, whether material, monetary, or symbolic (e.g., through high-status employment) are situated. That is, equity is not merely about “making up for injustices” but also often about “making up for past injustices.”
Equity is often sought under a combined suite of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI) or sometimes “justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion” (JEDI), and as such, these terms have become major buzzwords in most professional sectors, particularly including education. Often, however, Theorists and activists remark that equity may not be enough, because it is, in some sense, incrementalist in orientation, and therefore that revolution (of the system) might be advocated instead. This is, in fact, the underlying objective of the critical approach—social revolution according to the terms of Critical Social Justice Theory—and incrementalist proposals like diversity, equity, and inclusion are either fallback/compromise positions within liberal systems or half-measures deemed better than nothing.
When equity programs do not meet their intended goals, the “resistance” by privileged people (especially whites) is typically blamed (see also, white fragility). The program itself isn’t allowed to be a failure. This “resistance” is often easy to find “proof” of because equity programs deliberately stack the deck in favor of certain identity groups and occasionally explicitly attempt to reduce the numbers of others (famously, Asian students at Ivy League universities like Harvard), which most people understand as intrinsically unfair, if not a bad idea that places some irrelevant characteristic like demographic identity ahead of relevant characteristics like competence in hiring/appointment decisions (see also, meritocracy). Indeed, the “diversity, equity, inclusion” suite was introduced as a deliberate work-around for Affirmative Action (notably following the 2003 Supreme Court case Grutter v. Bollinger).
In early 2020, and rather shockingly, in the Washington state legislature, an “Equity Task Force” was assembled that offered the following definition for equity: “Equity = Disrupt and Dismantle,” which is to say an explicit call for a systemic revolution. (NB: The Task Force was assembled even after the state voted against Affirmative Action.) The Task Force took pains to explain that they (the Social Justice supporters present) know that equity means disrupt and dismantle, and debated whether or not the language was too naked to be able to be approved by the legislature. In the end, the centrality of disruption and dismantling was considered so crucial to the proper understanding of equity, lest anyone in the future mistakenly leave it out as a result of their euphemisms, that the language was included in the proffered definition.
Blank slatism; Communism; Critical race Theory; Critical Theory; Disability studies; Discourse; Dismantle; Disrupt; Diversity; Equality/Equal opportunity (ideology); Fat studies; Gender; Gender studies; Identity; Inclusion; Injustice; Justice; Liberalism; Marginalized; Meritocracy (ideology); Minoritize; Postcolonial Theory; Power (systemic); Privilege; Problematic; Race; Representation; Revolution; Sexuality; Social Justice; System, the; Theory; White; White fragility; White supremacy
Revision date: 7/13/20