All Americans believe in equality, but they don’t believe in it equally—an awkward circumstance that politicians have always struggled to paper over.
Bucking that tradition, Vice President Kamala Harris spelled out rather bravely, in a video posted on Twitter two days before the election, that mere equality of opportunity was not sufficient because “not everybody’s starting out from the same place.” That prompted Andrew Sullivan to call Harris a Communist. Now the right has declared a culture war because, during his first two weeks as president, Joe Biden signaled his sympathy to Harris’s view by using the term “equity” rather than “equality” in a series of executive orders and speeches.
It’s a very old fight whose contours are obscured, as conflicts often are, by an ever-changing vocabulary. At the moment, the word “equality” is being used to mean “equality of opportunity,” and “equity” to mean “equality of outcome.” I don’t much like this usage because equality is a perfectly good word to describe both ideals, and because equity makes me think about stock prices. But the distinction is an important one, and to keep things clear I’ll apply the new jargon.
Conservatives try to argue that calling for greater equity represents some sort of departure from American ideals, but throughout history, Americans have always recognized the importance of both equity and equality. Large disparities in economic circumstance have always been judged a departure from the Declaration of Independence’s claim that all men are created equal, regardless of whether these disparities arose from unequal opportunity.
During the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century, for instance, opportunity—with the usual, grim exceptions for women, for African Americans, and for other groups denied full participation—increased across the board, a fact reflected in rising incomes. That’s a stark difference from the past 40 years, when median income has mostly stagnated. Yet the Gilded Age (unlike our own) ushered in an era of often-violent class warfare. Dismal working conditions were the main reason, but workers also recognized that the robber barons, in amassing great wealth relative to everyone else, were accumulating too much power. Eugene Debs didn’t complain that George Pullman provided insufficient opportunity for railway workers to advance within the Pullman Car Company. He said Pullman was “as greedy as a horse leech.”
The equity argument lost political support starting in the 1970s because of resistance to affirmative action programs, Ronald Reagan’s demonization of welfare, and a property-tax revolt that evolved into a full-scale rebellion against progressive income taxation. For many years, Democrats were afraid to argue too openly for greater equality of outcomes. Many still are. But that started to change in 2011 with the Occupy movement’s powerful equity slogan, “We are the 99 percent.” A few years later, the equity slogan “Black Lives Matter” had a similar galvanizing effect. As late as 2018, a majority of voters opposed the Black Lives Matter movement, but an accumulation of horrific news stories about police killings of African Americans compelled the majority to recognize that while, yes, all lives mattered, Black lives were in particular peril from policing practices, and required particular attention.
The right’s demonization of the Biden administration over its emphasis on equity suggests that policies to encourage greater equality of outcomes remain at least somewhat controversial. Even after Occupy’s protest in Zuccotti Park, my friends at liberal foundations were telling me their funders steered them away from disparities in income to focus instead on disparities in opportunity. And Donald Trump’s presidency demonstrated that appeals to racial prejudice were hardly a dead letter.
No sensible person would question that improving equality of opportunity is an important liberal goal. But at least as measured by income, opportunity doesn’t appear to have diminished over the past few decades. A 1992 paper by the economist Gary Solon showed that the United States enjoyed significantly less economic mobility than economists had previously assumed and that, far from being a Horatio Alger-ish inspiration to the world, U.S. mobility ranked behind that of most other countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. (See my 2012 New Republic article, “The Mobility Myth.”) But economic mobility didn’t worsen in the U.S. during the steady increase in income inequality over the past four decades; it merely stayed kind of bad. That would suggest growing income inequality is a more urgent problem than the deficit of economic opportunity.
Similarly, the Black Lives Matter movement highlights racial equity problems that are getting worse, or at least much harder to ignore. It’s doubtful that police treat African American suspects more brutally than they did in the past, but the technology of police cameras has made police abuses much more difficult to sweep under the rug. Meanwhile, the likelihood that a Black male would be incarcerated, which always exceeded the likelihood of a white male being incarcerated, rose from 13.4 percent in 1974 to 32.2 percent in 2001. (Since then, it’s fallen somewhat, but the jailing of Black males remains at levels that can only be called historic.)
Equality and equity are both important, and America needs both opportunities and outcomes to become more equally shared. But equity has come to the fore in recent years for a reason. It’s the problem that’s festering, it’s where public policy has failed Americans the most, and it’s where achieving progress will be most difficult. It’s past time for a White House to acknowledge the truth in Anatole France’s famous epigram that the law, in its majestic equality, “prohibits the wealthy as well as the poor from sleeping under the bridges, from begging in the streets, and from stealing bread.” Different people need different things from their government. Let’s hope Biden and Harris resist the inevitable political pressure to forget that.