We live in the age of “equity,” a word suddenly on the lips of activists and politicians everywhere. We also live in an age of injustice: the murderous knee on the neck of a suffocating Black man, the systematic erasure of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, lopsided pandemic fatalities among poor, marginal populations. As we come to recognize how our own laws and investments can encourage such inhumanity, calls for “equity” continue to grow across contemporary society, from the boardroom to the classroom.
By the numbers, the notion of “equity” has become more prominent in our cultural lexicon during these past few years. According to statistics compiled by Google, the phrase “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” was practically nonexistent in search-engine queries until about 2014, ballooning in 2020 alongside the twin crises of the pandemic and the George Floyd protests. And as Harvard Law Professor Martha Minow points out in a recent article in the American Journal of Law and Equality, political leaders have increasingly embraced this term in their talking points. Minow points to its appearance in President Biden’s executive orders and in legal protections for Americans with disabilities. One hears it in the speeches of Black Lives Matter activists and in White House press briefings.
This ascent of “equity” as our culture’s ethical North Star, however, has provoked some backlash across the political spectrum. In 2020, the socialist magazine Jacobin published stinging criticism of anti-racist workplace trainings, on the grounds that they “allow employers to consolidate their power over employees under a veneer of social justice.” These workshops, Jacobin contends, “mostly function as a form of legal protection for employers from potential discrimination lawsuits.” Zeeshan Aleem recently discussed a perfect example of this kind of corporate cynicism in a column for MSNBC’s website. The outdoor retailer REI was cloaking its union-busting propaganda in the language of equity initiatives, “signaling that it’s on the right side of things and should be trusted while offering zero concessions” to exploited employees.
But the political Right is home to the most vociferous critics of our cultural and political turn toward the language of equity. In National Review, Christopher Caldwell warns that we “might call equity a no-excuses imperative to eliminate all collective racial inequalities.” Rather than see equity as “a new name for something that Americans have been arguing about for two or three generations”—the equal treatment of minority groups and the expansion of civil rights—Caldwell and others argue that “the equity movement is radically new.” More specifically, Caldwell claims that “equity is derived from so-called critical race theory,” and warns that calls for equity constitute “an invisible legal revolution.”
The upward slope of Google’s statistical graphs, the proliferation of Robin DiAngelo–style corporate training, Caldwell’s nod to vanguard frameworks of legal academia—these all suggest that there is indeed something “radically new” about equity as an ethical and legal concept. But this suggestion could not be further from the truth: “equity” is in fact one of the oldest principles of Western ethics, standing far above our moment of degraded partisan politics. We impoverish our understanding of it by consulting only the last two decades rather than the last two millennia. Hardly some novel “legal revolution,” the notion of equity has always set before us the perennial challenge of doing both what is lawful and what is right.
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