Equal Opportunity is Not EnoughRoundup
tags: racism, civil rights, inequality, Jr., Urban League, Whitney Young
Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor is an associate professor of African American History at Kent State University. She is the author of Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness (UNC Press, 2009) and is currently writing a book about the National Urban League’s New Thrust.
What does equality actually look like? That is a question on the table after weeks of protest and demands by activists to fix the systematic inequality that has been exposed in recent months with the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
While President Trump has claimed that the best path to combating racism is equal opportunity and economic prosperity, he is wrong. The history of white American responses to efforts to combat structural inequality during the 1960s and 1970s reveals that black Americans need equal results in all areas of life, not simply equal economic opportunity. The myth of America as an equal opportunity society has historically allowed white Americans to hold out equality as a promise redeemable in the future but rarely available in the present. Conceiving of equality as an equality of results offers a more concrete response to our current yet long-standing crisis.
A little more than 50 years ago, one mainstream civil rights organization, the National Urban League, asked a fundamental question: Why do Americans believe equal opportunity leads to racial justice and equality? In 1968, poverty, unemployment, segregated housing, police brutality and failing schools blighted too many African Americans’ lives despite the Civil Rights movement and the War on Poverty. In response to the glaring absence of equality, the executive director of the Urban League, Whitney Young Jr., announced the League had adopted a “New Thrust” which rejected the nation’s failed promise of equal opportunity. Instead the New Thrust proclaimed the League’s commitment to an equality of results whose achievement would redress race-based inequalities and make America more just. The Urban League defined equality of results as group-level equality, that is, the United States would become a more equal nation only when the same proportion of any group in American society succeeded or failed in the same proportion as other groups. Equality of results meant Americans’ lives would no longer be shaped by persistent race-based gaps.
The League came to three realizations: First, its decades-long efforts had never achieved equal opportunity for African Americans given the lack of a national commitment to equality. The executive director of the D.C. Urban League, Sterling Tucker, pointed to the nation’s “stubborn unwillingness to focus on the real problems” and America’s failure “to guarantee freedom, to provide equality of opportunity.” Too many only paid lip service to a “superficial ‘equality of opportunity.’”
Second, the Urban League recognized the equal opportunity framework itself was unequal. When Americans claimed equal opportunity worked, they measured progress for black Americans against the lives of earlier African American generations. Such progress charts, according to Tucker, were meant to “convince us that democracy can work, and that America is indeed a land of equal opportunity.” However, Young insisted, “The measure of equality has to be group achievement; when, in each group in our society, roughly the same proportion of people succeed and fail, then we will have true equality.”