All people are created equal in rights, dignity, and the potential to achieve great things. True opportunity requires that we all have equal access to the benefits, burdens and responsibilities of our society regardless of race, gender, class, religion, sexual orientation, disability, or other aspects of what we look like or where we come from.
Equal opportunity means treating similarly situated people similarly, while taking account of human, cultural, and other differences. It means, for example, that a person’s race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation should be irrelevant to his or her ability to receive quality health care or to own a home. It also means, however, that the health care women and men receive should be appropriate to their different needs. It means considering the needs of Americans who use wheelchairs as well as those who use their feet in designing a home, or a bus or a courthouse. Expecting Americans who have not yet mastered English to navigate a legal system conducted only in English is not equal opportunity. Nor is treating American Indian tribes—endowed by our Constitution with a sovereign status equal to the 50 states—as if they were just another group of communities. Equal opportunity is not treating everyone identically but, rather, treating everyone as an equal.
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. We fought a civil war in part to give life to this proposition. It is embodied in our Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under law, and in the other Civil War amendments. And epic social movements of the past two centuries have moved our country, in fits and starts, further still toward the reality of truly equal opportunity. As Abraham Lincoln said of the Founders’ vision: “They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
Equal opportunity is also central to the system of international human rights that the United States helped to craft after World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” It goes on to guarantee all people equal protection of the law, equal pay for equal work, equal access to education, equal access to public service, equal rights as to marriage, and an equal right to vote, among other protections. Virtually every human rights document contains a similar guarantee of equal treatment. And the conventions on the elimination of racial discrimination and discrimination against women make concrete the affirmative obligations of all nations to provide equal opportunity. The race convention, for example, requires governments “to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” And it recognizes the need, in some cases, for measures that affirmatively promote the inclusion of members of previously excluded groups “as may be necessary in order to ensure such groups or individuals equal enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
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 Chisolm 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.
Finally, equal opportunity means not only ending overt and intentional discrimination, but also rooting out subconscious bias and reforming systems that unintentionally perpetuate exclusion. 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.”