Equity v. Equality

Dr. Lorin Bradbury, author of "Treasures from an Old Book, Ancient Wisdom for a Modern World".

by Dr. Lorin Bradbury

Question: I have been hearing a lot about equity lately. Is it the same as equality? If not, how is it different?

Answer: In years past, the terms were often used interchangeably, but in recent years equity has taken on a different meaning, though those who push for equity often hide under the cloak of equality. Today, however, there is a big difference between equity and equality. It’s the difference between equal treatment and equal outcomes. Equality means equal treatment, equal opportunity, equal competition, and outcomes that are impartially judged.

Equity, on the other hand, demands equal outcomes, even if it must be achieved by unequal treatment of others. Proponents of equity have hidden these crucial differences for political reasons. I am certain equity, as currently defined, would not be popular with most Americans if they discovered the difference. Equity flies in the face of the American ideal that all Americans should have an equal opportunity. It reminds me very much of the philosophy of Marxism and the Bolshevik Revolution. It demanded equal outcomes, even if it had to be achieved by unequal treatment of others.

The demand for equal outcomes contradicts the work ethic that built our nation. Equal opportunity allows people like me to rise out of poverty and realize the American dream. This is not to pat myself on the back, but I went to graduate school with five children, four of whom were teenagers. I was not independently wealthy. I left home at 18 years of age with $25 in my pocket. Four out of five of my children have achieved college degrees and I didn’t fund their college education. They paid their own way. Two have master’s degrees and one is working on her doctorate. So, when people tell me they can’t go to college because they didn’t get a grant or scholarship, or possess a certain privilege, I disagree. Get a job and pursue your dream. Equality still exists in our country, but there are some who would like to do away with it in the name of equity.

I can’t help but think of the late General Colin Powell. In his biography, General Colin Powell discussed why African Americans from the Caribbean have been so successful in the United States, while a large segment of the poverty stricken in the United States are of African-American descent. They both came to this hemisphere in chains as slaves. But they came to the United States under different conditions—the Caribbean Islanders came as immigrants to make a better life for themselves, while many American-born descendants of slaves continue to perceive themselves as still in chains. Below I quote General Powell:

American blacks and West Indians…wound up on American soil under different conditions. My black ancestors may have been dragged to Jamaica in chains, but they were not dragged to the United States. Mom and Pop chose to emigrate to this country for the same reason that Italians, Irish, and Hungarians, to seek better lives for themselves and their children. (Powell 1995, p. 23)

You might attribute his successes to affirmative action, or mandatory quotas, but that certainly wouldn’t explain why so many in his family have been successful. In My American Journey (1995), General Powell explains his success and the success of his extended family:

Education had led to an extraordinary record of accomplishment in my family. Among my blood relatives and extended family of lesser kinship, my cousin, Arthur Lewis, served as U.S. ambassador to Sierra Leone, after a career as a Navy enlisted man. His brother, Roger, became a successful architect. Cousin Victor Rogue became a prominent lawyer. James Watson became a judge on the U.S. Customs Court of International Trade. His sister, Barbara, was U.S. ambassador to Malaysia and the first woman assistant secretary of state; another sister, Grace, served as an official in the Department of Education. Another cousin, Dorothy Cropper, became a New York State Court of Claims judge. My cousin Claret Forbes, one of the last to migrate from Jamaica, is a nurse, with two children in Ivy League colleges. My sister’s daughter, Leslie, is an artist with an M.A. from Yale. Yet another cousin, Bruce Llewellyn, Aunt Nessa’s son, is a businessman, philanthropist, former senior political appointee in the Carter administration, and one of this country’s wealthiest African-Americans.

…Most of my parents’ brothers and sisters stayed in Jamaica, and their children have turned out well there too. My Meikle cousins, Vernon and Roy, went to the University of Toronto and the University of London respectively. In the 1970s, when the Jamaican government took a socialist turn and practically wrecked the economy, more relatives left the island, this latest immigrant wave settling in Miami. And the pattern of success began repeating itself. (pp. 21-22)

General Powell rose through the ranks to become chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and secretary of state. He accomplished what he accomplished, and his extended family accomplished what they accomplished because of equal opportunity—equality. Equity would have kept them in chains, at least in their minds, whereas equality allowed them to rise to their highest level of ability.


I think you can tell from my response that your question struck a raw nerve. But I hope I have given you enough information to search the question further.

Lorin L. Bradbury, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Bethel. For appointments, he can be reached at 543-3266. If you have questions that you would like Dr. Bradbury to answer in the Delta Discovery, please send them to The Delta Discovery, P.O. Box 1028, Bethel, AK 99559, or e-mail them to [email protected]

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