As spring is coming, the plants inside my house are beginning to grow their leaves hungrily toward the windows in order to capture the light.

Noticing a smaller plant in the back row, I moved it closer to the window to give it an advantage while the larger plants are still receiving the same exposure. I treated my plants with equity to equal amounts of light, which is a way of being inclusive of all sizes of plants on my window sill and promoting diversity. 

The terms “equity,” “equality,” “diversity” and “inclusion” are important to distinguish in the discussion about countering xenophobic tendencies.

Okay, definitions are in order: Xenophobia is the fear of “otherness” usually applied to the dislike or injustice against people from another country, race or group.

Equity and equality are not the same thing; while equality means that every subject receives the exact same treatment, equity means that every subject receives whatever they need in order to achieve the same outcome. 

Equity has a different meaning in a financial context, but let’s ignore that for now. In order to achieve equity — for example, in a workplace — people are not treated equally, but rather those who need more support are given preferential treatment to achieve the same goal.

Herein lies the difficulty because the uneven distribution of resources in any group can lead to a sense of unfairness and feelings of jealousy.

Let’s try to find an example of this in the tidepool.

After the winter, there are large numbers of small shells of periwinkle snails. As the young hermit crabs settle into their first life stages as crawlers rather than drifters, they find one of these empty shells and move in.

If all the crabs and all the snail shells are about the same size and every crab can find a shell, you might say there is equality: equal resources for every crab.

Periwinkles are grazers and occur in very large numbers. A slightly larger snail, the dog winkle, is common, but as a predatory snail (it feeds on barnacles) it occurs in much smaller numbers in the tidepools. As the young hermit crabs grow bigger, they need a dogwinkle shell to move into, which are in short supply.

In nature, this situation now causes a fierce competition, in which only those hermit crabs that are able to find and defend a suitable snail shell survive to grow bigger. 

An example for equity might be that of different seaweeds accessing a different part of the light spectrum.

Red seaweeds use a pigment called phycoerythrin, which captures blue light. Since blue light is the wavelength that penetrates the farthest through the water column, red algae can grow deeper than green algae.

Green algae use chlorophyll a, just like most land plants, and need a longer wavelength of light. Sea lettuce is usually limited to depth very close to the surface. The light requirements of brown algae or kelp are somewhere between the wavelengths preferred by green and red algae.

If you were to grow all three kinds of seaweed in one given location in the ocean, you would have to make arrangements so that each type of algae received their required part of the light spectrum.

You would treat them with equity, but not equally. In a simple picture, three people treated equally are given the same box to stand on when trying to reach something.

For a very large person that may be more than needed, while a very short person may still not reach. Treated with equity, each person is given a box that has the correct size for them to reach.

Equal opportunity does not result from equal treatment. If equal opportunity for all people is the goal, then resources need to be awarded with equity in mind.

Think of an educational system where the goal can be set to have all students meet the same standards by a certain time — for example, graduation. Each student will require a different share of the resources to achieve this goal. Some will slide through easily, while others may need extra time, extra instruction or special help.

There is a significant fraction of American people who do not support the ideal of equal opportunity because treating people with equity means that some receive more of the resource pie than others.

In the hermit crab example, the bigger crabs would not give up their house to give another crab a chance. In a school of herring, a large fish would not voluntarily eat less so that the smaller fish can eat more and grow faster.

I cannot think of an example in nature where animals give up resources to others that are not related to them in order to give equal opportunity to all.

There are exceptions where animals exhibit compassionate behavior like raising another’s young or nursing an injured individual. The difference is that these are individual actions, not systemically uneven allotments with the goal of achieving equal standing in the future.

The inherent desire for justice in the form of equal opportunity may be one of the things that sets humans apart.

A society that truly takes care of its disadvantaged people and allocates resources with equity is a far stretch from present-day American society. Nonetheless, this is a country that is proud of its diversity and multicultural origins.

Again, back to our hermit crab example: When every crab had access to resources, there was no competition and many small crabs could coexist. As the year moves on and the crabs grow and have increased needs, fewer crabs can grow larger at the expense of the population size.

This principle is the same in a human society. In countries where the total wealth is distributed more evenly, the standard of living improves for all. I remember when travelling in Norway a couple of years back that I was struck by the impression that people looked happier, prettier and wealthier.

I don’t have all the answers. The goal of living peacefully in a diverse culture where everyone has equal opportunity will not be easy to achieve. A very amazing man told me recently that the worthiest tasks are those that will never be accomplished and you are never allowed to stop trying.

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