When the Torah lays out a prescription for a just society, its starting point is an affirmation of human equality — each of us is created in the “image of God” (Gen. 1:27) and is considered, therefore, equally holy and entitled to equal treatment under the law. “You shall not render an unfair decision; do not favor the poor nor show deference to the rich; judge your fellow fairly” (Lev. 19:15).
But there’s more to the story. Equality is more than a human right, it’s a fact of our humanity. To be human — male, female, older, younger, black, white, gay, straight, deaf, hearing — definitionally, is to be equal in heaven’s eyes. Equality is not something to be achieved; it’s to be acknowledged.
But the Torah also recognizes how societies, ancient and modern, don’t function as heaven does. Human beings, with all our failings, fears and frailties, tend to discriminate, marginalize and scapegoat. What’s needed in response is not a commitment to equality but to equity.
Rashi, the 11th century sage, understands the demand for equity as built into the same verse from Leviticus: “Judge your fellow fairly,” he explains, also means “judge each person as meritorious,” (i.e. with compassion and according to his or her particular circumstances). In other words, a just court, like a fair-minded person, understands systemic inequity and works to unmake it.
April 11 of this year marked the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, a landmark civil rights bill passed in the wake of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. April 19 was the third anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death in police custody, and May 14 marks 70 years since the birth of the modern State of Israel. What do these three occasions have in common? Only that each is indicative of ways that historic attempts to achieve equity by and for oppressed populations so often falter.
While progress has been made since the 1968 Fair Housing Act, communities of color still experience, profoundly, the legacy of redlining. Three years after the Baltimore Uprising, days when many (in exasperation) marched in civil disobedience and others (also in exasperation) turned to looting and violence, little has changed for black Baltimoreans. The murder rate, beginning to decline, is still perilously high. The opioid crisis, widespread, multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multi-class, disproportionately affects communities of color.
As for Israel, Theodore Herzl’s grand vision of Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State), meant to eliminate anti-Semitism by normalizing Jewishness in the realization of long-held Jewish national aspirations, has scarcely ended Jew-hatred. On the contrary, Israel is regularly subjected to a double standard in international arenas, with individuals, groups and nation-states trotting out well-worn stereotypes and bias mapped onto the State of Israel itself.
A few years ago, Craig Froehle, a business professor at the University of Cincinnati, created a meme that went viral. It was an image of three kids, of different heights, trying to watch a ballgame over a fence. The rendering made a distinction between conservative and liberal worldviews, but it was quickly adapted to distinguish between equality and equity. In the “equality” version, each boy stood on a crate, enabling the tallest to see clearly, the medium child to peek over the fence and the shortest not to be able to see at all. The “equity version” reapportioned the crates so that the shortest boy could see as well as the tallest.
The image was shared and reshared millions of times, in thousands of different forms. Those repurposing the meme pointed out, among other things, it didn’t depict people of color, girls/women, those with disabilities, etc.
Moreover, it didn’t sufficiently address the real problem with systemic inequity which is that many systems of oppression like racism or anti-Semitism don’t begin with problems inherent to the people themselves (like height) but with prejudice against those who look different or believe different things.
This is well-articulated by Paul Kuttner of the University of Utah who says, for example with regard to educational inequities, people assume “… marginalized communities need more resources in their schools because they are inherently less academically capable.” But research (and the Torah) tell us this is patently false. The problem isn’t the kids; it’s the fence; or it’s the deficit from which so many people are forced to even begin.
A version of this blog post can be found at https://www.jmoreliving.com/2018/04/20/equality-equity/.