Equality vs. Opportunity: Two Words that Define our Politics

Last week, the LBJ Presidential Library hosted a Civil Rights Summit to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Summit reflected on the civil rights legislation passed by President Lyndon Johnson while examining civil rights issues in America today.In a speech at Howard University in 1965, Johnson offered his rationale behind the development of affirmative action: “Imagine a hundred-yard dash in which one of the two runners has his legs shackled together. He has progressed ten yards, while the unshackled runner has gone fifty yards. At that point the judges decide that the race is unfair. How do they rectify the situation? Do they merely remove the shackles and allow the race to proceed? Then they could say that “equal opportunity” now prevailed. But one of the runners would still be forty yards ahead of the other. Would it not be the better part of justice to allow the previously shackled runner to make up the forty-yard gap, or to start the race all over again? That would be affirmative action toward equality.”

Of course, affirmative action is a very discordant topic, and this rather famous quote has always intrigued me for that very reason. The basic premise of Johnson’s statement has its supporters and detractors, to be sure. For me, perhaps no two terms better define the perspectives of our primary political parties than the terms “equality” and “opportunity.” I have come to believe that an individual’s endorsement of either concept is a good proxy for knowing whether that individual is a Democrat or a Republican.


For Democrats, at the core of their beliefs is the notion that government programs should fundamentally pursue “equality,” particularly in outcomes. Put another way: any benefits or liabilities of a properly designed government program or policy should ultimately be distributed proportionately across socio-economic categories – race, gender, income levels, etc. Any concentration among one class of people is prima facie evidence that the program was flawed in its design.

Meanwhile, the prevailing Republican philosophy is that the government should not be in the business of creating winners and losers. Instead, public policy should safeguard the “opportunity” to engage – either through government action or, more frequently, by the government staying out of the way. Ultimately, a particular person’s successes or failures are about capitalizing on their strengths and compensating for their weaknesses, not some artificially mandated outcome.

Affirmative action is not the only program grounded in these two concepts. Virtually every government interest, from taxation to education, is debated in terms of “opportunity” and “equality.” Of course, these terms are not mutually exclusive; perhaps we can all aspire to both? After all, who would object to greater opportunity or more equality? However, having worked for Democratic lawmakers as well as Republicans, I have observed that the more rabid partisans on each end of the political spectrum tend to more strongly support one concept over the other.


Why would this be? I would characterize this syndrome as resulting from the “myopia of one’s own experience.” It is difficult to look past the familiarity of one’s own personal perspective, and even more challenging to acknowledge any contradictions in that perspective. Moreover, extremists in both parties tend to surround themselves with folks who look and think and act just like them – via Fox news, internet chat rooms, the liberal media, yada yada yada – thereby creating a very unbalanced perception of the world around us.


Those coming from the right of the political spectrum tend to take the position that there are inherent differences between individuals that prohibit true equality from ever taking root. Some folks are tall, some are short; some are athletic, some have two left feet; some are smart, some less so. These are differences that can be celebrated in some contexts, but they can be limiting in other respects. In their view, the beauty of the American experience lies not in the demand for false equality of result; rather, it is the earnest equality of opportunity that allows for achievement through merit.

And they have a point. There is tremendous anecdotal evidence that social and economic playing fields were leveled long ago. We can all point to examples of people who have overcome perceived limitations imposed by their race, gender, religion, socio-economics, etc., to achieve success in their chosen field. The true path to social justice is not social engineering, they say; rather, it is economic opportunity through the private sector. After all, this is ‘Merica, the Land o’ Opportunity.


On the other hand, some on the left feel that certain historic prejudices remain today, decades and even centuries after they were outlawed. Sure, progress has been made, they say, but the playing field is not level. The wealth discrepancy between the richest among us and the rest of us is greater than it has been at any time since the Gilded Age. Women’s income issues are a central topic in the Texas Governor’s race, decades after the Equal Rights Amendment was first introduced. African-Americans and Hispanics lag behind whites with respect to educational achievement, at least part of which can be attributed to the conditions of the schools and the quality of instruction in minority communities.

They, too, have a point. These inequalities between our peoples were developed systematically, in statute and in practice. After all, the Declaration of Independence identified the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal,” but our nation’s founding was predicated on denying women the right to vote, preserving slavery and counting African-Americans as 3/5th of a person. Moreover, they argue, in most instances, it was the government, not the private sector, that ultimately rectified the prejudicial treatment of the oppressed. And only by measuring some degree of equality of outcome can we determine that Johnson’s “shackles” have been removed and the “40 yard gap” has been truly been overcome.

For my part, I am not endorsing or advocating either position. I can see the merits of both. I simply find it interesting that despite the complexity of American life today, so much about our political parties’ philosophical perspectives can be boiled down to one word or the other.


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