The Problem With “Equity”

Why race-based equity, even if well-intentioned, is harmful

Kevin Kelly
12 min readSep 12, 2021

Equity. It’s one of a long list of buzzwords in so-called “woke” thinking. In the context of race, equity is very different from equality. It refers to the principle of treating people differently based on presumed setbacks and privileges associated with their race. Oftentimes I think of equity as taking the “all” out of equality. There’s good reason to look at it that way.

How exactly is equity defined in the sense of social justice? For the answer, it’s probably best to turn to Racial Equity Tools (RET), which is an online database of research, curricula and general information relating to racial justice. RET’s glossary provides the following definitions of “racial equity”:

1. Racial equity is the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares. …

2. “A mindset and method for solving problems that have endured for generations, seem intractable, harm people and communities of color most acutely and ultimately affect people of all races. …”

RET’s glossary also has an entry for “racism” which is written exactly as follows:

Racism = race prejudice + social and institutional power
Racism = a system of advantage based on race
Racism = a system of oppression based on race
Racism = a white supremacy system

The entry continues with a few sentences emphasizing what the sponsors of RET perceive as a distinction between racism and racial prejudice or hatred. As other Medium writers have diligently explained [1,2], many of those who claim to advocate social justice have sought to rebrand the word “racism” this way for their purposes, which is both wrong and harmful to our dialogue on racial issues. Thus it is reasonable to see RET’s definition of “equity” as reflecting the manner in which the “woke” types or “social justice warriors” commonly define it.

Getting back to equity, what’s the problem with it? The short answer is that at a basic level, it is unjust. Its fundamental flaw is that it makes the group, instead of the individual, the focus.

In my previous article, “The Pandemic of Anti-White Negativity,” I had listed two examples of unjust actions that were taken in the name of equity. One was Chicago Mayor Lightfoot’s barring of white journalists from interviewing her. The other was the Michigan State Police department’s higher testing standards for white male officers to be promoted. I think it necessary to describe other cases of such actions in order for my readers to see that this systemic racism — yes, systemic racism — in the name of equity is a widespread problem.

The first case I’ll explain here is President Biden’s debt relief program for non-white farmers. After thirteen lawsuits against it nationwide, the program has thus far been blocked by three judges on account of the fact that the program deliberately excludes white farmers. The purpose of the program is to pay off USDA loans held by “socially disadvantaged” farmers, which includes every major racial group except whites. Non-whites have been very much mistreated and held back throughout this nation’s history, so that can’t be a bad thing, right?

Well, think of it this way. Say you have a non-white farmer who has not been discriminated against by the USDA and a white farmer who has — the latter is a very real possibility given the trend of social and political culture. Who would you say should be given compensation? If you say the non-white farmer, how do you justify that to the white farmer? By telling them that they’re white? In doing so, you ignore the obvious fact that race does not automatically determine one’s circumstances.

Accordingly, there is no evidence that Biden’s relief program sought to target strictly those non-white farmers who are financially disadvantaged as a result, or not, of discrimination. Senior Forbes contributor and researcher Evan Gerstmann notes as much here:

…even minorities who haven’t demonstrated economic need are favored over white people who can demonstrate such need. As the court said: “The Section 1005 program is a loan-forgiveness program purportedly intended to provide economic relief to disadvantaged economic individuals without actually considering the financial circumstances of the applicant.”

An opinion piece from Politico tries to justify the program’s race-based approach with the following argument:

The debt relief program… is a one-time emergency payout — not a perpetual racial preference — and white farmers (can) request in writing to be considered eligible for debt relief on a case-by-case basis. White farmers were not automatically included in the program because there is no evidence of white people experiencing systemic exclusion from USDA assistance programs.

The pitfall of this argument is that it fails to foresee the precedent set by the program: of whites being left out of initiatives to help people because of an overly-broad, sloppily-defined sense of justice. The fact that white farmers have to apply to be considered eligible does not negate the discriminatory nature of the program; in fact, it is discrimination. While there may not have been past systemic exclusion against white farmers, the system discussed here — the debt relief program — is a demonstrable case of systemic racism.

The second case I’d like to discuss is the “representation and inclusion standards for Oscars eligibility” set down last year by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The stated goal of the standards is “to encourage equitable (emphasis added) representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience.” Now, I should qualify this example by noting that I have no problem with handpicking more women and non-whites in film casting. Film is an art form and, as such, does not have the same limitations that most other industries have. The problem with this new aspect of filming is that it makes diversity an absolute demand for prospective Oscar winners. In other words, if your cast — or your crew, your production company etc. — is too white, male and/or straight, you are automatically not eligible. The film must meet two of the four “standards” listed by the Academy for a film to be deemed eligible for the Oscars starting in 2024.

Here’s a sample of the criteria listed for Standard A:

At least 30% of all actors in secondary and more minor roles are from at least two of the following underrepresented groups:
* Women
* Racial or ethnic group
* People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

The evident aim of these standards is both to encourage inclusion and also to give underrepresented groups a chance at being recognized for their work. But let’s ponder this question: if you have a broken leg, should you not try to heal the bone rather than simply walking around with a crutch? In the same sense, if you feel that there is a systemic representation problem in Hollywood, as the Vox article linked here seems to suggest, you should probably address the root of the problem — bias in the selection process — rather than trying to dress it up with quotas. Otherwise, you are merely fostering the suspicion that a film with a more diverse cast, crew etc. does not truly deserve to win. That does not help the perception of the competence of non-whites in the film industry.

Besides, even if a film “overrepresents” one group or another, shouldn’t it deserve to be recognized if the story is of excellent quality? A film with an all-white cast can have a story that, out of all other films, has the most appeal to critics and movie-goers. The same is true for a film with a cast that is all-black, all-Asian, all-Middle Eastern/North African etc.

The problem with these standards is not that they seek to improve diversity, but that they do so by purposely limiting specific groups. No group of people should treated as less desirable based on their skin color. But that is sadly the outcome often produced by equity-based directives such as this list of eligibility standards for the Oscars. In trying to rectify one form of “systemic” racism, it replaces that form with another.

In the third case, I will discuss another equity-based initiative that harms not only whites, but other racial groups as well: affirmative action. Last year, voters in the blue state of California voted down a proposal to overturn the state’s 1996 ban on affirmative action. Yet it’s a decades-old practice that continues to be legal in forty-one states. It has inspired particularly heated controversy in higher education, even though that’s not the only domain to which it is applied. In Fisher v. University of Texas, the plaintiff — white student Abigail Fisher — argued in the Supreme Court that UT’s use of race in deciding which applications to accept violated her right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment. More recently, a suit brought against Harvard University by Students for Fair Admissions claimed that Harvard’s use of affirmative action specifically limited Asian applicants from being accepted. In and of themselves, these suits are not proof of said schools being discriminatory, but there is ample evidence of such discrimination being widespread in higher education.

Like other equity-based directives, affirmative action attempts to address disadvantage among non-whites. But as with Biden’s debt relief program for farmers, there is little if any evidence that, regarding higher education, this goal is specifically directed at individuals who have suffered discrimination or the after-effects of it. Quite the contrary is true. Among blacks, this has been the basis of conflict between those descended from slaves and those descended from voluntary African immigrants. According to a New York Times article, a group called the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) has argued that African immigrants receive undue benefit from affirmative action in college. They reason that because these immigrants have not been impacted by the legacy of slavery in America, the purpose of affirmative action does not apply to them. Children of African immigrants made up 41% of black Ivy League freshmen in 2007 even though these immigrants represent only 13% of the black American population. University officials justify this by contending that while it may not remedy the effects of slavery, it nonetheless serves to increase diversity. There are two main things to observe here: first, the possible abuse of the benefits of affirmative action and second, the prioritization of diversity over individual circumstances. It is for these two reasons that, in this case, we can consider affirmative action an example of misapplied equity.

The case against the “equitable” approach of affirmative action in education goes further still. Constitutional lawyer David French gives a detailed view of just how flimsy, subjective and ideologically biased this approach frequently is. He describes his experience being on the admissions committee at Cornell Law School, which is part the Ivy League. There he witnessed a system in the Ivy League that he calls “one part meritocracy… and one part ideological engineering”:

To make room for black, Latino, and — yes — white students, deserving Asian Americans are pushed aside. …If students were black or the ‘right’ kind of Latino, they would often receive admissions offers with test scores 20 or 30 percentile points lower than those of white or Asian students. …there are times when admissions committees will actually ideologically cleanse the minority applicant pool of minorities who are seen as “less diverse” because of expressed interest in “white” professions such as, say, investment banking. …The ideological cleansing also happens to white candidates… the committee almost rejected an extraordinarily qualified applicant because of his obvious Christian faith. …In writing, committee members questioned whether they wanted his “Bible-thumping” or “God-squadding” on campus.

Altogether, this paints a picture of what can only be described as a frighteningly unjust system. For the sake of equity, white and Asian applicants — i.e. the ones who are deemed advantaged — are limited in favor of lower-scoring black and Latino students, and sometimes the ideological bias of the selection process extends even to religion!

Writing for The Atlantic, UCLA law professor Richard Sander and Standford Law School professor Stuart Taylor Jr. add that affirmative action negatively affects students who would otherwise not be likely to qualify for admission to a given school. They refer to this as the “mismatch effect”:

The mismatch effect happens when a school extends to a student such a large admissions preference — sometimes because of a student’s athletic prowess or legacy connection to the school, but usually because of the student’s race — that the student finds himself in a class where he has weaker academic preparation than nearly all of his classmates. …The student who is underprepared relative to others in that class falls behind from the start and becomes increasingly lost as the professor and his classmates race ahead.

David French concurs with this observation that affirmative action can often create a mismatch between students and the top-quality schools they look to attend:

Even achievement-oriented students tend to work hard enough to accomplish their goals — and no harder. Why tell the best and brightest black and Latino students that they don’t have to do as well, that they can take their foot off the accelerator and still attend the best schools?

It should go without saying, but this is not meant to suggest that black and Latino students are inherently unable to match the competence of their white and Asian counterparts, though some “woke”-minded people might interpret it that way. Regardless of race, any program that props up a student to levels of study for which they are not prepared is likely to negatively affect them. But since affirmative action is aimed towards students who are deemed disadvantaged on the basis of race, this mismatch effect often falls on blacks and Latinos.

Both intentionally and accidentally, the equity-based system of affirmative action is fundamentally unfair even towards the disadvantaged people it aims to serve. The intentional factor is what specifically makes it an example of systemic racism, because within that system is an established practice of racially discriminating.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had spoken of judging people not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. But he also was against the idea that black people, having been subjected to uniquely horrific treatment in America for centuries, should be expected to settle for mere equality without recompense. Indeed, he seemed to advocate something that resembled what some might call “equity.” With specific regard to compensation to black victims of slavery and segregation, he states the following, as quoted by columnist James DeBerry in The New Orleans Advocate:

Whenever the issue of compensatory treatment for the Negro is raised, some of our friends recoil in horror. The Negro should be granted equality, they agree; but he should ask nothing more. On the surface, this appears reasonable, but it is not realistic.

Accordingly, he asserts:

A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for the Negro.

Seemingly in line with this, anti-racist activist and author Ibram X. Kendi has argued that the only practical means of remedying the racial disparities resulting from past discrimination is to apply an “equitable” form of racial discrimination — the kind discussed at length in this article. But upon further reading of what Dr. King advocated, he did not appear to actually advocate any sort of equity on a racial basis, except perhaps to compensate those blacks who were specifically victimized by slavery and segregation. In this excerpt from a 1965 interview, he lays out the scope of an economic assistance program he proposed:

It is an economic fact that a program such as I propose would certainly cost far less than any computation of two centuries of unpaid wages plus accumulated interest. In any case, I do not intend that this program of economic aid should apply only to the Negro; it should benefit the disadvantaged of all races.

Whether such economic aid would have had the effect he intended is debatable. But it is noteworthy that he did not seek to exclude other races — including whites — from it, even if he might have thought it fair to do so under the circumstances.

Of course, it’s fairly common knowledge that welfare programs have historically had a backfiring effect in their attempts to help the poor out of poverty, with blacks in America bearing a large portion of this effect. Indeed, as quoted by Justice Clarence Thomas in his dissent in the affirmative action case Grutter v. Bollinger, Frederick Douglass foresaw the pitfalls of giving the wrong kind of help to those who had been historically mistreated:

In regard to the colored people, there is always more that is benevolent, I perceive, than just, manifested towards us. What I ask for the negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice. The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. … I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. If the negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall also. All I ask is, give him a chance to stand on his own legs! Let him alone! … Your interference is doing him positive injury (emphasis added).

In other words, Douglass knew that “equitable” help towards blacks who had been oppressed could very well hinder them from their dream of being able to prosper and thrive.

What can be done to help address the disparities in our country is a subject for another article. The purpose here, which I would argue is more pressing at the moment, is to bring to light the fundamental shortcomings of the sort of equity touted by those claiming to advocate racial justice. It is inarguable that “racial equity” has become widely fashionable, in the private sector among other areas. Many companies voicing support for it likely do not have a true understanding of what “equity” entails, and how it differs from equality. The three situations I’ve discussed, among other points made here, present what I believe is a solid case that equity, in racial contexts, is a divisive and destructive concept that does take the “all” out of equality.



Kevin Kelly

Poetry & opinion writer, nature lover and Upstate New Yorker.