Equity vs. Equality and Other Racial Justice Definitions

Updated on April 14, 2021, and originally posted August 24, 2020, by the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Image depicting equality vs equity

Often, race-focused con­ver­sa­tions derail because peo­ple are using the same terms in dif­fer­ent ways. One of the chal­lenges of com­mu­ni­cat­ing effec­tive­ly about race is to move peo­ple from the nar­row and indi­vid­u­al­ized def­i­n­i­tion of racism to a more com­pre­hen­sive and sys­temic awareness.

To illu­mi­nate racism, we need to name it, frame it and explain it.”

Estab­lish­ing a shared lan­guage to present data, describe con­di­tions and out­comes and iden­ti­fy root caus­es of inequities serves an impor­tant func­tion. A com­mon lan­guage cre­ates a nar­ra­tive that makes it eas­i­er to com­mu­ni­cate the com­mit­ment to racial equi­ty, both inter­nal­ly and exter­nal­ly, and it cre­ates a plat­form for coor­di­nat­ed work toward equi­table out­comes.

Learn how to trans­form lan­guage into equi­table outcomes:

Down­load the Race Equi­ty and Inclu­sion Action Guide

The fol­low­ing are def­i­n­i­tions of core con­cepts that can help groups devel­op a shared lan­guage for racial equi­ty and inclu­sion:

Def­i­n­i­tions and core concepts


Equi­ty is defined as the state, qual­i­ty or ide­al of being just, impar­tial and fair.” The con­cept of equi­ty is syn­ony­mous with fair­ness and jus­tice. It is help­ful to think of equi­ty as not sim­ply a desired state of affairs or a lofty val­ue. To achieve and sus­tain equi­ty, it needs to be thought of as a struc­tur­al and sys­temic concept.

Equi­ty vs. Equality

Equi­ty involves try­ing to under­stand and give peo­ple what they need to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equal­i­ty, in con­trast, aims to ensure that every­one gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equi­ty, equal­i­ty aims to pro­mote fair­ness and jus­tice, but it can only work if every­one starts from the same place and needs the same things.

Sys­temic Equity

Sys­temic equi­ty is a com­plex com­bi­na­tion of inter­re­lat­ed ele­ments con­scious­ly designed to cre­ate, sup­port and sus­tain social jus­tice. It is a dynam­ic process that rein­forces and repli­cates equi­table ideas, pow­er, resources, strate­gies, con­di­tions, habits and outcomes.

For exam­ple, com­mu­ni­ties with a siz­able por­tion of incar­cer­at­ed res­i­dents are eco­nom­i­cal­ly bur­dened and, con­se­quent­ly, lack resources to sup­port fam­i­lies appro­pri­ate­ly. A Shared Sen­tence offers sys­temic and equi­table pro­pos­als to sup­port chil­dren and fam­i­lies dur­ing and after parental incarceration.

Learn how the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion has been help­ing Atlanta’s South­side com­mu­ni­ties dis­man­tle sys­temic bar­ri­ers for peo­ple of col­or in Chang­ing the Odds: Progress and Promise in Atlanta.


Inclu­sion is the action or state of includ­ing or of being includ­ed with­in a group or struc­ture. More than sim­ply diver­si­ty and numer­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion, inclu­sion involves authen­tic and empow­ered par­tic­i­pa­tion and a true sense of belonging.

Learn what it takes to cre­ate a cul­ture of inclu­sion in the work­place in Advanc­ing the Mis­sion: Tools for Equi­ty, Diver­si­ty and Inclu­sion.

Racial Jus­tice

Racial jus­tice is the sys­tem­at­ic fair treat­ment of peo­ple of all races that results in equi­table oppor­tu­ni­ties and out­comes for every­one. All peo­ple are able to achieve their full poten­tial in life, regard­less of race, eth­nic­i­ty or the com­mu­ni­ty in which they live.

A racial jus­tice” frame­work can move us from a reac­tive pos­ture to a more pow­er­ful, proac­tive and even pre­ven­tive approach. Learn the impor­tance of lead­er­ship devel­op­ment for racial jus­tice and how to devel­op and sup­port lead­ers that con­tribute to the move­ment in Lead­er­ship and Race.


Race is a social­ly con­struct­ed sys­tem of cat­e­go­riz­ing humans large­ly based on observ­able phys­i­cal fea­tures (phe­no­types), such as skin col­or, and on ances­try. There is no sci­en­tif­ic basis for or dis­cernible dis­tinc­tion between racial categories.

The ide­ol­o­gy of race has become embed­ded in our iden­ti­ties, insti­tu­tions and cul­ture and is used as a basis for dis­crim­i­na­tion and dom­i­na­tion. It can even be dif­fi­cult for those in sup­port of racial jus­tice to start sin­cere, authen­tic con­ver­sa­tions about race.


The con­cept of racism is wide­ly thought of as sim­ply per­son­al prej­u­dice, but in fact, it is a com­plex sys­tem of racial hier­ar­chies and inequities. At the micro lev­el of racism, or indi­vid­ual lev­el, are inter­nal­ized and inter­per­son­al racism. At the macro lev­el of racism, we look beyond the indi­vid­u­als to the broad­er dynam­ics, includ­ing insti­tu­tion­al and struc­tur­al racism.

Inter­nal­ized Racism

Inter­nal­ized racism describes the pri­vate racial beliefs held by and with­in indi­vid­u­als. The way we absorb social mes­sages about race and adopt them as per­son­al beliefs, bias­es and prej­u­dices are all with­in the realm of inter­nal­ized racism.

For peo­ple of col­or, inter­nal­ized oppres­sion can involve believ­ing in neg­a­tive mes­sages about one­self or one’s racial group. For white peo­ple, inter­nal­ized priv­i­lege can involve feel­ing a sense of supe­ri­or­i­ty and enti­tle­ment, or hold­ing neg­a­tive beliefs about peo­ple of color.

Inter­per­son­al Racism

Inter­per­son­al racism is how our pri­vate beliefs about race become pub­lic when we inter­act with oth­ers. When we act upon our prej­u­dices or uncon­scious bias — whether inten­tion­al­ly, vis­i­bly, ver­bal­ly or not — we engage in inter­per­son­al racism. Inter­per­son­al racism also can be will­ful and overt, tak­ing the form of big­otry, hate speech or racial violence.

Insti­tu­tion­al Racism

Insti­tu­tion­al racism is racial inequity with­in insti­tu­tions and sys­tems of pow­er, such as places of employ­ment, gov­ern­ment agen­cies and social ser­vices. It can take the form of unfair poli­cies and prac­tices, dis­crim­i­na­to­ry treat­ment and inequitable oppor­tu­ni­ties and outcomes.

A school sys­tem that con­cen­trates peo­ple of col­or in the most over­crowd­ed and under-resourced schools with the least qual­i­fied teach­ers com­pared to the edu­ca­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties of white stu­dents is an exam­ple of insti­tu­tion­al racism.

Struc­tur­al Racism

Struc­tur­al racism (or struc­tur­al racial­iza­tion) is the racial bias across insti­tu­tions and soci­ety. It describes the cumu­la­tive and com­pound­ing effects of an array of fac­tors that sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly priv­i­lege white peo­ple and dis­ad­van­tage peo­ple of color.

Since the word racism” often is under­stood as a con­scious belief, racial­iza­tion” may be a bet­ter way to describe a process that does not require inten­tion­al­i­ty. Race equi­ty expert John A. Pow­ell writes:

‘Racial­iza­tion’ con­notes a process rather than a sta­t­ic event. It under­scores the flu­id and dynam­ic nature of race…‘Structural racial­iza­tion’ is a set of process­es that may gen­er­ate dis­par­i­ties or depress life out­comes with­out any racist actors.”

Learn more about struc­tur­al racism and what it means for com­mu­ni­ty build­ing and youth devel­op­ment. You can also sub­scribe to our newslet­ters on Com­mu­ni­ty Change and Thrive by 25® for the lat­est data, reports and news on these topics.

Sys­temic Racialization

Sys­temic racial­iza­tion describes a dynam­ic sys­tem that pro­duces and repli­cates racial ide­olo­gies, iden­ti­ties and inequities. Sys­temic racial­iza­tion is the well-insti­tu­tion­al­ized pat­tern of dis­crim­i­na­tion that cuts across major polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social orga­ni­za­tions in a society.

Pub­lic atten­tion to racism is gen­er­al­ly focused on the symp­toms (such as a racist slur or the adul­ti­fi­ca­tion of Black women and girls by an indi­vid­ual or group) rather than the sys­tem of racial inequity.

Racial Priv­i­lege and Racial Oppression

Like two sides of the same coin, racial priv­i­lege describes race-based advan­tages and pref­er­en­tial treat­ment based on skin col­or, while racial oppres­sion refers to race-based dis­ad­van­tages, dis­crim­i­na­tion and exploita­tion based on skin color.

Con­tin­ue learn­ing about racial equi­ty and inclusion

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion offers a vari­ety of reports and resources to help pro­mote racial equi­ty and inclu­sion in Amer­i­ca. Explore the resources below and sign up for our newslet­ters to learn more and help pro­mote equi­ty and inclu­sion in your life:

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