Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Thinking About Equity

by Jeff Polet, director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

I recently asked a friend in our student life division if he had seen a picture showing three persons of differing heights standing behind a fence trying to watch a baseball game. “Only about a hundred times in the past week,” he replied. The image has become ubiquitous both on and off college campuses and putatively demonstrates why “equity” is preferable to “equality.”

As Tocqueville observed, political debates in America are resolved at the bar of equality. The Civil Rights Era introduced the distinction between “equality of opportunity” and “equality of results or outcomes,” alongside the time-honored “equality before the law.” While the distinction between opportunity and outcomes carries with it some serious conceptual difficulties, the idea of equality before the law, for good reason, has been accepted as axiomatic.

Until recently. The idea that justice should be blind and administered in an even-handed manner is considered a form of “systemic” racism. Individual racism requires adjustment; systemic racism requires dismantling. The image of the baseball game doesn’t target racist attitudes and policies, which would admit of correction, but instead seeks to reorganize an unjust social world and requires a tearing down of all its structures. Rather than asking how seating capacity can be expanded and prices lowered, it tries to eliminate the idea of seating and pricing altogether. The interest in equality is meliorist while that in equity is revolutionary.

Our age suffers a crisis of jargon and oversimplification, both of which require suspending clear thinking. As Orwell said, such abuses are typically attempts to defend the otherwise indefensible. Often the stakes can be quite high—and that’s true of the preference for “equity” over “equality.” Part of the appeal of the demand for equity, particularly when administered on the basis of visible characteristics, is that it alleviates the need for complexity and nuance. Those who still see complexity, however, will be judged harshly for their lack of commitment to justice so defined.

To understand the issue ask yourself this question: what factors do I use in judging another person? Do I judge that person on the basis of his race? Gender? Height? If so, you are likely guilty of pars pro toto (a fallacy of composition): that is, mistaking the whole of a person for a part. A fairer way to judge a person would be to complete the picture as much as you are able. In what acts does she engage? What is the content of his character? What is the quality and breadth of her thinking? Can he be trusted? These sorts of questions are invitational as they encourage us to get to know the person in his or her totality and to refine our judgments with every encounter.

But the contemporary demand for equity has no interest in concrete knowing. Take the image above. All the figures in the image—the players, the fans in the stands, and the three characters behind the fence—are faceless. We know nothing about any of them except for the three main figures, and the only thing we know about them is their height, which is probably their least interesting characteristic. And yet we are asked to believe that height is their defining feature. This in turn invites us to think about height as our own defining feature. The result is a world where everyone becomes obsessed about height.

We are also asked to set aside the obvious free rider problem in the image (Craig Froehle who created the image has explicitly claimed it’s beside the point). The cartoon stokes in us a deep sense of unfairness, and thus taps into and alters our understanding of the relationship of fairness to justice. It seems unfair that two of the figures can watch the game but the third one can’t. Our concept of fairness is chewed up in the mandibles of entitlement and accidents of birth and loses any relationship to merit, effort, or ability. Any person inside the stadium is abusing an unjust privilege while every person outside the stadium is denied basic humanity.

The sense of entitlement is part of the hidden story of the image and relates to historic understandings of what is involved in claims of “equity.” Equity claims entitled the claimant to a resolution where normal laws or remedies were inadequate. Equity courts, or Courts of Chancery, operated alongside Common Law courts as a means for meting out justice when the law was too inexact, too blunt an instrument, or did not provide for adequate relief. Because of the episodic nature of their authority and the absence of any fixed rule for judgment, Courts of Chancery were regarded as dangerous to liberty and as threats to democratic order. Many of the writers at the American founding regarded equity courts with a great deal of suspicion and sought to write them out of our Constitutional system. In their unrestrained authority Equity courts could easily become tyrannical. This is especially true if such courts operate not on the basis of specific cases but rather on abstract classifications of people so that guilt or innocence is determined by membership in a class.

Now the rule of equity has reasserted itself with a vengeance. Operating off mere assertions to entitlement the new equity officers don’t seek to supplement the legal order but to upend it. The regnant system is, they claim, designed to exclude, for no reason other than exercising power or privilege. A baseball fence, they mistakenly believe, serves no purpose other than to keep certain people from enjoying the game. And so the fence must come down.

Any ordered system has fence builders and gatekeepers. The modern academy, for example, operates with admissions standards that insure some people are not going to enter the park or get on the playing field. The hiring process operates off a frequently corrupt but exclusionary system of credentialing. The reason for this is simple: any human practice requires people who are capable and even expert in it, and requires definable limits for its exercise. Try playing chess with a person believing he is entitled to move his rooks diagonally and you’ll get the point. In other words, modes of human association operate in a nexus that is both expansive and contractive: it has to maintain the integrity of the game while it creates opportunity for those who possess the requisite skills. But those skills must be intrinsically related to the game itself. It is no more necessary for a baseball player to know the Theory of Relativity than it is for a physicist to know how to throw a curve.

The demand for equity tends to transfer extrinsic goods into a practice, so professors are no longer judged on whether they are experts in their field and can communicate their expertise effectively but instead on their attitudes about race. The equity officers first implement “Racial Bias Awareness Tests” that demonstrate you’re a racist even if you think you’re not. Denying you’re a racist proves the charge. By these machinations they try to force your compliance with the central aim: the dismantling and reconstructing of the system. In the case of the university this means transforming it from an institution concerned with the production and dissemination of knowledge into an institution whose fundamental purpose is to solve select social problems. Faculty no longer teach a discipline of inquiry but instead become social reformers in charge of preparing the shock troops.

The ballpark image would have us believe there is something morally wrong with the people inside the fence and completely innocent about those outside the fence. Worse still, there is something wrong with the game itself. Those driven by a rage for equity locate the line separating good from evil not in the human heart but somewhere, like a ballpark fence, in the world. The sheep are on one side of the fence and the goats are on the other, and the Equity officers are tasked with the sorting.

Image from Craig Froehle.


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