All people are created equal in rights, dignity, and the potential to achieve great things. The theme of equality was central to our nation’s founding, with the declaration that “all men are created equal.” Our country’s history has witnessed the gradual evolution of that core principle from a ruling class that countenanced slavery and subordination toward an egalitarian vision that embraces the inherent equality of all people.
Ensuring equal opportunity in the 21st Century demands a nuanced understanding of the progress that we’ve made as a nation, as well as the nature of contemporary bias and systemic inequality.
In practice, though, Americans’ race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation affect his or her ability to receive quality health care or to own a home. The needs of Americans with wheelchairs are not considered as fully as those who use their feet in designing a home, or a bus or a courthouse. Americans who have not yet mastered English are expected to navigate a legal system conducted only in English. American Indian tribes—endowed by our Constitution with a sovereign status equal to the 50 states—are treated as if they were just another group of people.
Ensuring equal opportunity in the 21st Century demands a nuanced understanding of the progress that we’ve made as a nation, as well as the nature of contemporary bias and systemic inequality. It requires understanding, for example, how stereotypes based on gender, race, and other social characteristics can come together in unique ways that require individualized attention—what Shirley Chisholm called, in the case of African-American women, “the twin jeopardy of race and sex…and the psychological and political consequences which attend them.” It includes the reality that we are all capable of bias and discrimination, including against members of our own group. And it requires acknowledging and addressing the instances of overt discrimination and bigotry that do remain in our society without believing that those are the only kind of inequality worthy of our attention.
Together, we can not only end overt and intentional discrimination, but also root out subconscious bias and reform systems that unintentionally perpetuate exclusion. This is achievable, but it requires proactive efforts to remake our institutions in ways that ensure fairness and inclusion. As the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “with equal opportunity must come the practical, realistic aid which will equip [people] to use it.”