Wednesday, October 5, 2022


A number of years ago an antacid remedy conducted a widely disseminated television advertising campaign. The ads included the question: “How do you spell relief?” To which the response was “R-O-L-A-I-D-S,” spelling out the name of the product.

It is not entirely surprising that after a few years of incessantly seeing and hearing this commercial, it was reported that when students in a certain school were asked to spell the word “relief” on a test, they wrote, presumably under the influence of the public relations campaign, “R-O-L-A-I-D-S.”

If we hear something often enough, we can become entirely entranced by what we have been hearing. We may stop thinking and instead react instinctively under the influence of the external stimulus.

I thought of the Rolaids example as I noted the relentless use of the word “equity” in our public discourse. Everywhere we turn, we can hear references to this notion of “equity.” Politicians, including the president and the vice president, readily have recourse to the word, as do merchants, corporate executives and professionals. It has become a very common notion reflected in large swaths of our lives. And yet, it is not clear whether the people who use the term fully appreciate the implication of the word or whether they are merely mouthing a word that has been imposed in a kind of hypnotic repetition.

In reality, it appears to me that the word equity is a seemingly more acceptable placeholder for another much-discredited word: “quota.” 

For those of us who are members of small and often disparaged minorities, the word quota has a very distinct meaning and not a felicitous one. Over the course of generations, the United States was plagued by the notion that certain groups, who were deemed less than fully acceptable by polite society, should be limited in their access to schools, jobs, housing and club memberships to their percentage in the population or even less.

Often in the past, subtle means of imposing quotas were devised. Perhaps the most notable is the manner in which many of the Ivy League schools sought to limit attendance by Jews. In the mid-20th century, Jews, usually the children of recent immigrants, began to perform remarkably well in their high school work. As a consequence, by reason of their academic success, they were increasingly admitted into the ranks of entering classes at elite East Coast colleges and universities. Their presence began to elicit concern that the establishment was about to be overwhelmed by these undesirables. 

The administrators of many elite schools did not wish to be perceived as overtly discriminatory. Excluding Jews on the basis of quotas was rather unseemly for respectable people. Therefore, an alternate solution had to be found. As a consequence, an informal and more subtle approach was instituted. It was determined that it would be best to limit admissions of students from the New York City area. Not surprisingly, the vast preponderance of qualified Jewish students lived in that area. Thus, effectively, the respectable solution adopted in order to prevent Jews from coming in large numbers to the elite schools and to pretend that no Jewish quota existed was to institute an “equitable” geographic admissions policy.

Of course, there are far more nefarious examples. During World War II, some European nations, under the influence of Nazi occupiers, were far more direct in their discriminatory approach. They imposed quotas on Jewish participation in all aspects of life. In France, in situations where Jews were not banned outright, the Vichy government generously applied a 2% quota on Jews and, in particular, in university admissions. As the agents of that government noted, this was eminently equitable since Jews constituted only .8% of the French population (and that was before roundups and deportations to death camps).

Quotas, overt or subtle, have been used to discriminate against less favored elements of societies for generations, both here and abroad. They are one of the efficient tools used by those who wish to discriminate. But today, in the United States, just as was the case with respect to the Ivy League schools’ efforts to limit Jewish attendance, using the word “quota” is deemed unseemly. Thus, that term has been removed from our vocabulary and a far more acceptable term has replaced it.

As Shakespeare reminds us, however, “A rose by another name would smell as sweet.” And by analogy, a quota by any other name is just as foul. We may try to fool ourselves into believing that “equity” merely demands establishing standards that require that corporate boards, professional institutions, public agencies and institutions of higher learning reflect the racial, gender and ethnic makeup of our society. But what we are really doing is imposing quotas by another name and thereby systematically undermining the meritocracy that we have so carefully sought to create in the United States.

As our society imposes more and more quotas in the name of equity, we may yet get to the point where some children when asked on a spelling test to spell the word “quota” spell it “E-Q-U-I-T-Y.”  That would assuredly be demeaning to the real concept of equity, which is commonly defined as “the quality of being fair and impartial.” There is simply nothing fair or impartial about quotas.

• Gerard Leval is a partner in the Washington office of a national law firm. He is the author of “Lobbying for Equality: Jacques Godard and the Struggle for Jewish Civil Rights during the French Revolution,” published earlier this year by HUC Press.

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