If Equity Is Not Equality, What Is It?

Equity Equality
Definitions matter

There is little doubt that issues of equity, inclusion and diversity are front and center in our political and cultural landscape. While Black Lives Matter may be the most visible embodiment of this movement, we have seen growing attention to the topic in mainstream publications such as The Atlantic (Ta Nahisi Coatescry for reparations) and The New York Times (Nikole Hannah-Jones’ story about choosing a public school for her daughter). In the arts field, organizations of all stripes and colors are adopting statements to address the issue(s). Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA), for example, has adopted a statement on racial equity in philanthropy. Not only has Dance/USA embraced and adopted equity, inclusion and diversity as core values, it actively uses them as a filter through which all of their operations pass. And, most recently, Americans for the Arts (AFTA) issued a Statement on Cultural Equity. While all of these are important steps in acknowledging critical issues, they do not go far enough. Why? Because without an active assertion of what equity, inclusion and diversity really means — what these should look like in practice — the barriers to their existence have little impetus to bend or fall.

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Consider AFTA’s statement, which was the result of a year’s consultation with various stakeholders. It includes language of aspirational commitment, but it misses defining what success in achieving their aspiration would look like:

To support a full creative life for all, Americans for the Arts commits to championing policies and practices of cultural equity that empower a just, inclusive, equitable nation.

…Cultural equity embodies the values, policies, and practices that ensure that all people—including but not limited to those who have been historically underrepresented based on race/ethnicity, age, ability, sexual orientation, gender, socioeconomic status, geography, citizenship status, or religion — are represented in the development of arts policy; the support of artists; the nurturing of accessible, thriving venues for expression; and the fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.

In his analysis of AFTA’s statement, Barry Hessenius, an author and former executive director of the California Arts Council, focuses on the complexity and difficulty in understanding what we mean by these terms and how we put them into practice. He describes how AFTA’s statement goes beyond those of other organizations, such as GIA, and how it aspires to a universal equity throughout society. But, as he also notes — and as Edward Said cogently noted about Islam — a term such as equity is not monolithic. It means different things to different people. For some people, “equity” may be about cultural respect. For others, it may be about valuation, about access, about opening doors to “privilege,” about race, or about power and its lack thereof.

When we talk about “equity,” then, we don’t really mean equality, which would deliver the same result to everyone, and would necessitate a totally different social, economic and cultural system. Hessenius puts it this way:

Very likely there will never be absolute equity. As individuals, as a sector, as a society we all need to live with that reality. And equity doesn’t necessarily mean absolute equality. Rather it means policy and practice that is fair and just. That doesn’t mean that progress doesn’t need to be made where it can so that we get to a point where we are closer to equity. And I think more people understand that we remain too far away at this point in time. We have to do better than we have.

Herein lies the central dilemma that is raging around our society’s discussion of equity. Without a clear definition of what “fair and just” means, we cannot possibly hope to reach a resolution that satisfies all of us, let alone some of us.

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It means different things to different people.

Issues of language and its meaning have been critical to addressing the major topics of our society throughout our nation’s history. In recent decades, the Republican Party in particular has engaged in a conscious, calculated effort to promote its agenda and viewpoint through a careful cultivation of language and meaning. One of the master practitioners of this strategy is Frank Luntz, who introduced the term “death tax” for the estate tax and “climate change” for global warming. Such efforts have been very effective at times, and at least in the public arena is now common to both the left and the right. We also know that if we do not put forward our own definitions and language, then others will put forward definitions and language for us. For anyone pledged to the cause of equity, it would be advantageous to try to control the conversation.

As Hesenius notes in his AFTA comments, the equity discussion is really about how we determine an allocation of resources, for in the absence of equality (where allocation of resources would be equal), there will always be some people who get more of something and some people who get less. The AFTA statement acknowledges this when envisioning a “fair distribution of programmatic, financial, and informational resources.” But again: what does this look like? How do we get there? If we can’t define what we mean by these structured phrases, how can we hope to fairly and justly allocate resources? I suppose one answer might be to simply generate more resources, but this will not always be possible.

What does “inequity” mean?

Take arts funding allocation as an example of establishing equities. Here in the US, we generally subscribe to a donor-directed allocation of public funds built on partnerships with private individuals that receive tax incentives. This lets the active individual, not the passive government, decide to fund what is important to them. While this system leaves many artists feeling left out, they can, in fact, compete for funding with those who do receive support, even as some argue that entrenched inequity and bias create insufficient opportunities for such competitions. In other countries, such as the UK, arts funding allocations are more centralized, funded directly from the national, regional or local budget or by some other system, such as a lottery. This system establishes a different equity by centrally allocating their resources, determining who is entitled to that support and closing off opportunities for those not chosen.

Each of these systems comprises a reasonable means of allocating resources but neither creates equality. They are each justifiable but reflect a different societal choice. They each lead to a different “equity” or, as some would have it, “inequity.” The only possible conclusion, then, is that unless one believes in and would be willing to work toward absolute equality, “equity” always involves some level of inequality. The challenge is for each society to decide what an acceptable level of “inequity” is — how much to tolerate.

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This challenge brings us back to the importance of definition: what does “inequity” mean? Those who already have resources and/or power (that is, “privilege”) are usually loathe to see their allocations diminished. One can assume, therefore, that those with privilege are not going to “solve” this dilemma and may not be interested in the discussion. So it falls to those seeking fair equity to propose a new way to allocate resources, with all the pros and cons on the table, for there to be a basis of discussion.

Put another way, those who call for redressing inequity — and here I’ll expand this discussion to include diversity and inclusion, which suffer from the same definitional complexities — must propose ways to achieve the equity they seek. Standing at the Lincoln Memorial facing a sea of people, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously described his own dream of equity. Dr. King also understood that he who commits to the idea of building a bridge must also offer the path to its construction. Should we fail to follow Dr. King’s example, we are left as people standing on opposite sides of a river shouting at each other, with no real means to cross the river or to meet in the middle.