Which can government actually provide and enforce — equality or equity? And for which should we strive? Kamala Harris’ closing-argument animated video argues that nothing but end-stage equity is her aim, which prompted critics to accuse Harris of espousing “Marxism”:
There’s a big difference between equality and equity. pic.twitter.com/n3XfQyjLNe
— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) November 1, 2020
So there’s a big difference between equality and equity. Equality suggests, ‘oh, everyone should get the same amount.’ The problem with that [is] not everybody’s starting out from the same place. So if we’re all getting the same amount, but you started out back there and I started out over here — we could get the same amount, but you’re still going to be that far back behind me.
It’s about giving people the resources and support they need, so that everyone can be on equal footing, and then compete on equal footing. Equitable treatment means we all end up at the same place.
There’s plenty to criticize here, starting off with the base assumption that equality means “everyone should get the same amount.” That’s not equality in any form of polity except that which uses nothing but top-down distribution; it is “equity,” but only in theory. We have seen exclusively top-down distribution models in practice, and the result has never been equality or equity. The ruling class — that which controls the distribution — ends up at the top of the mountain, living in dachas with access to whatever they need. Everyone else gets the equality of serfdom.
Equality has never promised that “everybody gets the same amount,” which what prompted these criticisms from Republicans:
Sounds just like Karl Marx.
A century of history has shown where that path leads.
We all embrace equal opportunity, but government-enforced equality of outcomes is Marxism. https://t.co/76GRFhl34X
— Liz Cheney (@Liz_Cheney) November 1, 2020
Full blown Marxist https://t.co/FJNAzC1sAt
— Matt Wolking (Text TRUMP to 88022) (@MattWolking) November 2, 2020
Rep. Dan Crenshaw offered the most substantive Twitter review:
The false promise of the left, in 1 minute. Start out with a well-intentioned point on equality of opportunity, only to end it with the true Marxist intent: equity in outcomes.
They leave out the part where equity must be enforced with unequal -and tyrannical- treatment. https://t.co/Hflv16okCo
— Dan Crenshaw (@DanCrenshawTX) November 2, 2020
All of these are fair points, but let’s not lose sight of what Harris intends with this ham-handed final play. She may have gotten the concept of equality wrong in her introduction, but her actual argument is for equality of opportunity — and it speaks to a real concern among black voters. There is a chronic issue disparity in wealth accumulation between white, black, and Hispanic families, and it is part of the perception that Harris evokes with this mountain graphic. It is perceived as the hangover of slavery and Jim Crow, and Harris is exploiting the despair felt in black communities over the “head start” whites have in competing economically. It’s this issue that continues to fuel the reparations movement, and this hints that Harris and Joe Biden might jump on that bandwagon in the next four years.
In 2017, the Federal Reserve acknowledged the wealth-accumulation disparity. However, it found very different reasons for the problem:
In addition to the differences in the levels and types of wealth previously described, the data also indicate substantial variation by race/ethnicity in many of the factors that are associated with the accumulation of wealth.4 Among the potential reasons that wealth is relatively high among white households, for example, is that they tend to be older, more highly educated, more likely to have received an inheritance, and less likely to be a single parent than their black and Hispanic counterparts (table 2).
Wealth generally increases with age and plateaus or modestly decreases from near-retirement age onward, reflecting life-cycle earnings and saving behavior. Just over half of white households are headed by someone 55 or older, compared with 38 percent of black households and approximately one-fourth for Hispanic households.
Wealth is also correlated with family structure because of higher levels of saving among families with more earners or lower living expenses. Black households stand out for being the least likely to have a married or partnered head–just 37 percent–compared with more than 54 percent for each of the other three groups. White households are the least likely to be headed by a single parent (8 percent), compared with 16 percent among Hispanics and 27 percent among black families. Black families are less likely to be dual-earner households than the other groups of families.
White and other heads of households are much more likely to have obtained a college degree or some advanced level of higher education (39 percent and 36 percent, respectively). In contrast, only 23 percent of black heads of households and 17 percent of Hispanic heads of households have a college degree or higher level of education. Furthermore, the proportion of families that consist of two spouses who both have at least a college degree also varies by group: 18 percent of white families, 5 percent of black families, 6 percent of Hispanic families, and 16 percent of other families.
These differences across groups in educational attainment appear to persist across generations as well. For 31 percent of white families, one or both parents of the head had at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 19 percent of black families and 14 percent of Hispanic families.
The Fed also found that one perception of “white privilege” is based in fact:
White families stand out as the most likely to have received an inheritance or other major gift–26 percent of white families have received an inheritance, compared with less than 10 percent of black families and Hispanic families. Most white households (71 percent) report being able to get $3,000 from family or friends in a financial emergency, compared with less than half of Hispanic and black households (49 percent and 43 percent, respectively).
That’s bound to be true when white families are better arranged to accumulate wealth. However, it’s also true that white families had a better shot at accumulating it during the Jim Crow years too, at least in those places with Jim Crow-esque restrictions on economic engagement targeting blacks. Hence we get the mountain analogy and the different starting ground between the black and white characters in it. The data suggests that the real solution is cultural rather than legal or political, but Harris doesn’t offer any solutions — only pandering to the despair of the perceived situation.
But it’s effective pandering. Whether or not one agrees with this message, and whether or not one agrees on the solutions to it, Harris understands her audience. This isn’t about an esoteric fight over the definition of equality, equity, or even Marxism. This is about signaling to a specific audience and saying, “We’re with you.” The fact that Harris feels the need to send up this signal suggests that Team Biden might be a bit worried about Donald Trump’s latest rap-world endorsements.