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Terry McLaughlin: This is NASA’s purpose?

Walking through my living room, out of the corner of my eye I caught an advertisement on the television screen. I thought it said, “NASA: Mission — Excellence.” With the miracle of DVR, I was able to scroll back and freeze my screen to find I was mistaken. What it said was: “NASA: Mission — Equity.”

I thought about that image for days. I always believed NASA’s mission was space exploration, technological advancements, scientific study, and training qualified astronauts, engineers and scientists as a means to achieve that mission.

But equity? I was compelled to check the NASA website for their mission statement, and sure enough, the statement reads to “drive advances in science, technology, aeronautics and space exploration to enhance knowledge, education, innovation, economic vitality and stewardship of Earth.”



While I was relieved to see that NASA’s mission has not changed, I wondered why this advertising campaign was focusing on equity, rather than excellence. And that made me wonder what the difference is between equity and equality. If you thought they were synonyms, you wouldn’t be alone — but you would be wrong.

In the context of social policy, equality is the right of different groups of people — men and women, Blacks and Whites, Catholics and Protestants — to enjoy the benefits of similar social status and receive the same treatment without fear of discrimination. The legal principle of social equality in the United States was confirmed in 1868 by the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which states that “nor shall any state … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”




Equity, on the other hand, refers to provisions and manipulations of varying levels of support to achieve particular outcomes.

Jeffrey Polet, professor of political science at Hope College, explains in Law & Liberty how “Equality is out. Equity is in. … Official policy recommendations no longer argue for … equality, but for equity. The transition has been so seamless and so uncommented upon that its occurrence may strike the observer as inconsequential. … But for those of us who cling to the rapidly diminishing view that words are carriers of meaning and that semantic distinctions matter … the substitution of ‘equity’ for ‘equality’ has serious consequences.”

Equity was instituted under common law by “equity courts” whose job was to provide legal remedies in extraordinary cases when the normal legal remedies were not sufficient. An example would be a trademark infringement claim wherein awarding monetary damages would not be enough to compensate for the infringement, but would need to be accompanied by a cease-and-desist order. But equity courts could not operate properly if guilt or innocence was presumed in advance by virtue of membership in a specific class (or race or gender or religion).

The power of equity courts, Polet explains, was “potentially so expansive that (Thomas) Jefferson sought restrictions that would provide strict rules … and preserve impartiality against the tendency to administer justice according to the whims and interests of those in power. … Likewise, (Alexander) Hamilton noted in Federalist 83 that equity courts should operate only in ‘extraordinary’ cases that deal with exceptions.”

At the time of the framing of the U.S. Constitution, there was a concern that the power of equity would be too easily abused, thus the framers sought to put strict limits on it. Hamilton stated that unleashing the power of equity from the general rule of law would be to unleash “a monster whose existence should not be suffered one moment in a free country wherein every power is dangerous which is not bound up by general rules.”

Jefferson and Hamilton’s concerns may be justified. Unlike equality, equity produces a claim of implicit guilt that must be rectified through compulsion to act. And by compelling remedies not for particular cases but rather for “systemic” ones, and assigning guilt or innocence to a specific race, gender, etc., we are potentially transforming citizens, faculty members, employees, employers and so forth into social reformers and administers of abstract justice. Which inequities will they be expected to repair? How will they do it? Who will be held responsible? Who will make these determinations?

Today, Polet explains, “Equity means tearing down any and all structural barriers that ideologues believe stand in the way of equal outcomes. The dream of a colorblind society has passed. Anti-racists have dismissed (Martin Luther) King’s compelling moral vision and an idea of law that does not permit the performing of one injustice in order to rectify another. The blindfold on Lady Justice that ensures equality before the law has been ripped off by demands for equity. Not just our political system, but more disturbingly, our legal system becomes a struggle to put her thumb on the scale and upset the balance. n order to avoid playing favorites, she plays favorites. An eye for an eye re-emerges as a standard, but a standard applied without regard to particular persons. Guilt and victimhood are assumed with no evidence required.”

For a scientific and technological enterprise such as NASA, the slogan “NASA: Mission — Excellence” would be much more appropriate. Rather than seeking equity, the goal for our educational institutions, businesses, scientific and medical endeavors, and more should be equality of opportunity for all to collaborate in achieving excellence.

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Grass Valley, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.


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