One of the most nuanced distinctions I have ever come across is the difference between inequality and inequity. Inequality just means that two things are not the same. For example, consider the difference between yourself and your grandmother. In terms of physical strength, I am going to go out on a limb and say that you are probably much stronger than her. There is an inequality in strength between the two of you. This is a valid statement—it simply describes the state of the world. Likewise, in life, when two things are not equal, it just means that they are not the same—by itself, this says nothing about whether or not this difference is fair. To better understand inequalities, one must talk about equities and inequities. Inequity means that the difference between two things is unfair. This distinction between inequality and inequity may sound incredibly odd at first. Most people use inequality and inequity interchangeably because the connotation of inequality usually assumes that a difference is unfair to begin with. This is due to the fact that, in all honesty, many inequalities are also unfair and therefore inequitable. But the two terms are not always perfectly synonymous. An inequality need not be unfair. As I demonstrated in the example above, the difference in strength between you and your grandmother has nothing to do with fairness at all—it results from the natural process of aging. Theoretically, the linguistic distinction between inequality and inequity is actually not too hard to understand. The real problem arises in determining whether an inequality is equitable, inequitable, or neutral in its fairness. Two summers ago, I spent a week working for an organization that fought for environmental justice in Harlem. The head of this nonprofit told me that the level of childhood asthma in Harlem is significantly higher than that in lower Manhattan. Based on this point alone, we can say that the levels of asthma in the two neighborhoods are unequal because they are not the same. Simple enough—no value judgment, right? However, he continued with an explanation. As students at Columbia, many of us ride the buses that serve as a form of public transportation in Manhattan. When off duty, these buses enter facilities called bus depots, where they undergo cleaning and maintenance. Unfortunately, these bus depots produce an incredible amount of pollution from the increased concentration of smog-producing buses and thus elevate the risk of childhood asthma in the surrounding community. You may find it surprising that six of seven diesel bus depots in Manhattan are near facilities like schools and hospitals in northern Manhattan. The wealthier residents of lower Manhattan pressure New York officials to place most of the city's bus depots in the area around Harlem. Since Harlem residents often have less money and power, it is harder for them to persuade the city officials otherwise. As a result, Harlem bears an excessive burden of this city's pollution. And its children pay with increased levels of asthma. I believe this inequality of asthma levels is also an inequity of asthma levels. I do not think it is at all fair that more children in Harlem have to deal with asthma because their neighborhoods are home to an increased concentration of bus depots. However, others may not agree with me. They may not think the inequality in asthma levels is also unfair. And therein lies the problem. It is much easier to say, "That's unequal," than to say, "That's inequitable." How do you determine inequity? Is there an objective definition of what is fair and just? I do not know, nor will I pretend that I have the authority to make that judgment. Now, I do believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings, and by this I take the strict definition of equality—that there is no difference. But that does not change the fact that in daily life, we see countless examples of the inequalities faced by different people. There are differences in income, health and health care, access to jobs and opportunities, living conditions, political and social freedoms, etc. Are these inequalities also inequities? That is where you come in. Consider these inequalities and reflect on your own values, beliefs, and judgments. And then ask yourself: If you believe that an inequality is unfair, what are you going to do about it? Nicole Dussault is a sophomore in Columbia College majoring in economics-political science. The Mirror Effect runs alternate Thursdays.
Columbia Spectator Staff