In most people’s vocabularies, “equity” is a positive word signifying fairness or evenhandedness. In the vocabulary of today’s woke social justice warriors, though, equity can signify something far from benign.

Writing in First Things, a pseudonymous critic contends that the equity principle has been weaponized by activists to advance their agenda. According to this author — an attorney writing under the presumably self-protective pen name “Frank Resartus” — the idea that drives what he calls “the coercive equity regime” is this: “Any disparity in outcome between groups, whether defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or sex (or more recently, sexual practices and gender identification) is evidence of injustice.”

According to Resartus, the principal targets of the equity principle are heterosexual white Christians. But they aren’t the only ones.

This fall the Supreme Court once again will test the viability of equity as it relates to college admissions in cases involving Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina). The court has set Oct. 31 as the date for oral arguments in the cases, which already have attracted widespread notice.

This is by no means the first time the Supreme Court has weighed pros and cons of making race a factor in college admissions. Starting in 1978 with the famous Bakke case, in which the justices approved affirmative action but said no to racial quotas, the court has agreed that schools can consider race as one element among many in seeking to create a diverse student body.

It repeated that in 2003 in a case involving the University of Michigan and again six years ago in a case involving the University of Texas. Writing for a five-member majority in the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said race-conscious admissions policies should be “limited in time” and 25 years should be time enough to achieve the desired results.

In the cases now before the court, a group called Students for Fair Admissions argues that the admissions policies of Harvard and UNC operate unfairly to hold down the number of Asian students in the name of campus diversity. The Grutter decision, the group contends, “abandoned the principle of racial neutrality” and has come to be used by schools as “a license to engage in outright racial balancing” — something that, in the present instances, works to the “appalling” disadvantage of Asian Americans.

Schools typically contend that race is only one thing among many, which they take into consideration in making admissions decisions, and that to the extent they consider race at all, it’s for the sake of diversity — something deemed highly desirable for students as part of their campus experience. The curmudgeonly response to that, as articulated by conservative columnist George Will, is that the real purposes are “to keep campus peace and attract funds.”

It is hard to disagree that, viewed in isolation, admissions policies that foster equity by considering race along with other criteria serve a reasonable and benign purpose. But what about policies that, in the name of diversity, systematically work — as is alleged here — to the disadvantage of a particular racial group?

Considered as an element of Resartus’ coercive equity regime, diversity like that looks dubious at best. As an alternative, he suggests this: “Any justification [of discrimination] must be strictly necessary and narrowly tailored to achieve a superior educational outcome.” Whatever the Supreme Court decides, it is certain to resonate far beyond Cambridge and Chapel Hill.