On a recent episode of his cable television program, Bill Maher asked Bernie Sanders to explain the difference between equality and equity, and the long-winded senator was at an unusual loss for words.
“I don’t know what the answer to that is,” Sanders mumbled after an awkward pause. Pressed to clarify his position, Sanders composed himself and offered only that he supports “equality of opportunity” over equal outcomes. He does?
If this answer is sincere, it would put Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, substantially to the right of the “equity”-obsessed Biden administration and today’s public education establishment. If, on the other hand, Sanders was merely being politically adroit, his answer demonstrates how quickly the Left’s language game breaks down when basic definitions are required.
Sanders isn’t dumb. He knows what the legacy media are loath to admit, particularly on the issue of racial inequality: most Americans, including most Democrats, strongly favor equality of opportunity over government’s assurance of equitable results.
One reason the Left doesn’t want this debate can be seen in the fight over teaching critical race theory in American schools. Recall that CRT bills itself as an academic theory that emphasizes how race intersects with societal institutions to reproduce and sustain unequal outcomes observed across racial groups today. Focusing only on whether CRT is formally being taught in K–12 lesson plans, however, is a distraction. The Left prefers to keep the dispute focused on this point of contention, which boils down to precise definitions, because it obscures a larger fight: a clash between politically popular principles of color blindness and nondiscrimination, on the one hand, and deeply unpopular schooling policies and practices that emphasize race-consciousness and equitable outcomes, on the other.
Don’t take our word for it. In a recent study, “A House Divided? What Americans Really Think About Controversial Topics in Schools,” researchers at the University of Southern California concluded that “despite the noisy debate around CRT . . . we found broad agreement on certain racial beliefs, especially that our goal as a society should be that all people should be treated the same without regard to the color of their skin.”
The USC survey revealed even more. Most Americans know little about the tenets of CRT. The largest source of public confusion is the mistaken belief that CRT embraces the principle of color blindness. Nine out of ten Americans told the USC survey team that they favor treating all Americans equally without regard to race, yet 84 percent also mistakenly said that CRT proponents embrace this same color-blind ethos.
“Despite the explicit opposition of CRT to colorblindness,” the authors noted, “more than 80% of [Americans] who claimed to have heard of CRT either did not know that colorblindness is not aligned to CRT or were wrong and thought that it was.” What’s more, “this was the only [survey question] for which most respondents confidently answered but were incorrect.”
An even more intriguing finding lay buried in the survey. The researchers asked Americans whether they supported teaching CRT in K–12 schools and whether parents should be able to opt their children out of lessons containing content that they disagree with. Except for political party, the biggest factor shaping respondents’ answers to those questions was whether they falsely believed that CRT embraced principles of color blindness. For example, among those who mistakenly said that CRT was consistent with color blindness, nearly half favored teaching it in schools. Yet among the much smaller group who understood that CRT stands against color blindness, fewer than 20 percent were comfortable with teaching its tenets in K–12 schools.
Why such ignorance? The news media are part of the story here. Elsewhere on the survey, the researchers asked what types of information sources respondents relied on to learn about what is being taught in schools today. Americans who relied the most on television news and social media were far more likely to believe, wrongly, that CRT embraces color-blind principles. More than 90 percent who said that both sources were major influences on their thinking about these issues made this mistake.
In other words, the manufactured belief that CRT is merely a continuation of civil rights–era efforts to ensure equality of opportunity provides valuable cover for those pushing race-conscious policies and practices that prioritize equity in outcomes.
Bernie Sanders may not know the difference, but Americans deserve to know.