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Equality and Education
Federal Civil Rights Enforcement in the New York City School System
By Michael A. Rebell, Arthur R. Block
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1985 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
AMERICAN EGALITARIAN IDEOLOGY
Equality and the American Experience
More than two hundred years ago, the American colonies announced their Declaration of Independence to England and the world by declaring as a self-evident truth "that all men are created equal." In essence, "[t]he equal legal and moral status of free individuals was America's reason for independent existence." The American Republic established the concept of equality as a revolutionary, democratic principle in the eighteenth century, and egalitarianism has remained a dominant concern of American politics ever since.
America's unique role as the midwife of egalitarianism in modern history can be traced primarily to three factors. First was the image and the reality of its geographical location in a "new world." The allure of an unsettled continent of virgin territory, separated by thousands of miles of ocean from the turmoil, the discontent, and the inequities of the European continent made America seem the veritable "promised land" of biblical imagery.
The second important aspect of America's early experience that contributed to the development of egalitarianism lay in its liberal origins. The original American colonists brought with them from Europe a strong commitment to Lockean liberalism, which emphasized the dignity of each individual, his equal role in the establishment of the political state, and the corresponding obligations of that state to promote each individual's self-development. This liberal ideal was able to take root and thrive in the virgin American soil, free from the ideological competition of the feudal heritage of England and other European countries.
The third egalitarian dimension of the original American experience was its strong rejection of the status orderings of European society. Although economic differentials have always marked the American scene, the absence of a hereditary elite class and entrenched privilege has led commentators from early times to the present to emphasize the unparalleled "equality of esteem" that marks social relationships in the United States.
In short, then, America's new world setting, its adherence to the liberal ideal, and its revolutionary break with aristocratic trappings combined to create an egalitarian credo based on the "ideals of the essential dignity of the individual human being, of the fundamental equality of all men, and of certain inalienable rights to freedom, justice and a fair opportunity [which] represent to the American people the essential meaning of the nation's early struggle for independence." This egalitarian credo marked a new era in world history. It symbolized for the nation's citizens, and for the established political orders throughout the world, a radical break with past assumptions concerning the limits of the human condition and the potential of human nature.
Egalitarianism, by its very nature, is a revolutionary doctrine. "Once loosed the idea of Equality is not easily cabined." As Tocqueville put it (not without some foreboding): "It is impossible to believe that equality will not eventually find its way into the political world, as it does everywhere else. To conceive of men remaining forever unequal on a single point, yet equal on all others, is impossible. They must come in the end to be equal upon all.
Despite these predictions however, American society clearly has not achieved the full flowering of equality that Tocqueville and other early commentators had anticipated. To be sure, in certain areas, such as extension of the franchise, egalitarian practices which the founding fathers would have considered radical have been implemented. But these have not been accompanied by equal sharing of political power or by equal distribution of wealth.
The dynamic growth of the American economy has substantially reduced the prevalence of the kind of grinding poverty which was experienced by the masses in traditional European society, and which continues to be the plight of peasant populations throughout much of the world today. However, in terms of the relative distribution of wealth, proportionate holdings of the top and bottom strata of society have remained remarkably constant throughout America's history. And, significantly, despite the promise of America's original egalitarian revolution, the contemporary patterns of economic distribution in the paradigmatic new world society are scarcely different from patterns of distribution in the old world European societies: income differentials in the United States today are roughly similar to those of the European democracies. Such patterns of relative economic inequality, of course, tend to perpetuate political inequalities.
The main reason for America's failure to develop fully and consistently its initial egalitarian potential is apparent: America's liberal vision also incorporated the capitalistic ethic and related goals of economic development — and equality and economic efficiency are not easily reconcilable. Paradoxically, America became the prime locus for the flowering of the capitalistic ethic in the modern world for many of the same reasons that it developed the new egalitarian credo. Its tabula rasa environment allowed unfettered development of a Lockean liberal ideal which emphasized the virtues of "equal" opportunity through untrammeled individual self-development. When combined with Calvinist notions of the righteousness of material accumulations in an environment where traditional social and economic barriers to individual enterprise held little sway, Lockean individualism accelerated the development of the capitalistic ethic.
Thus, even at the time of Tocqueville's visit to America, when the expansion of Jacksonian democracy was in its heyday, countertrends of wealth and position stemming from economic enterprise already were beginning to take hold. In the decades that followed, the accession of the industrial revolution further fueled the original capitalistic ethic and caused the pursuit of economic development to dominate the American scene.
The dominance of economic development perspectives, combined with the monopolistic hold of liberal ideology in America, explains why a socialist reaction, which developed after the outset of the industrial revolution in Europe, never seriously took hold in the United States. Ironically, then, America, which had first brought the ideals of equality to world consciousness, divorced itself from the sustained further development of those ideals which occurred in Europe through the socialist movement. The substantial egalitarian pressures of European labor organizations and social democratic parties have had no real ideological counterpart in the United States.
Given these developments, it might well be asked why the egalitarian credo did not become even more submerged on the American scene. Despite a favorable climate initially, the weight of two hundred years of intense capitalistic economic development might have been expected to stifle egalitarianism and result in marked hierarchical social ordering, at least as compared with the European democratic societies. (Centralized trends inherent in advanced industrial economies, of course, create the preconditions for expanded governmental activities and welfare state expectations, but South African history has shown that industrialization and centralization also can lead to an expansion of privilege and hierarchy.)
Since America lacked the kinds of working-class movements organized around Marxist and socialist ideologies that had impelled egalitarian developments in Europe, another force must have accounted for the continuing egalitarian thrust in American society. The factor that explains that thrust would appear to be the intense racial dynamic of American history. The confrontation between America's pristine, new world egalitarian ideals and the realities of probably the most oppressive slave society known in post-Renaissance times created a unique "American dilemma," one which ignited a strong egalitarian spark that, since the mid-nineteenth century, has been a driving force in American history. Indeed, the unfolding of the racial confrontations of the Civil War and Reconstruction era led to a revitalization of the nation's egalitarian ideals.
American egalitarianism, while driven by its contradictory liberalism/racial oppression dynamic, also has been shaped by an optimistic economic assumption that unbounded wealth is available in this new world society for all those willing to work to obtain it. As a result, at the core of American egalitarianism is a concept of equality of opportunity which derives from economic development imperatives, but which simultaneously acknowledges a commitment to remove barriers to individual opportunity erected during slavery, the Reconstruction era, and its aftermath. In comparison with egalitarianism in Europe, therefore, American egalitarianism reflects a philosophy of pragmatism more than a theory of social transformation. Its premise is that society needs to be opened up, not remade; its focus is on historically stigmatized racial and ethnic groups, not on wealth-related class divisions; and its prime concern is with practical political remedies, rather than with ideological confrontations.
In sum, the concept of "equality" in the American context is a complex phenomenon that has emerged from two centuries of contradictory, yet complementary, idealistic and racist elements. Accordingly, America's fundamental egalitarian "ideology" encompasses a variety of egalitarian perspectives and meanings, which come into focus only in the political interchanges attendant upon implementation of specific social reforms. Therefore, to understand the dynamics of egalitarianism in America, it is necessary to define more precisely the categories of "equality of opportunity" and "equality of result," the two major analytical poles along a continuum of complex elements that constitute the fundamental American egalitarian ideology.
Equality of Opportunity and Equality of Result
As discussed above, the American liberal tradition was heavily influenced by the writings of John Locke. In contrast to conservative theorists, Locke assumed that all men are endowed with a substantial attribute of reason; they are therefore equally capable of comprehending the laws of nature (which are based on reason) and of agreeing to establish political institutions that will inure to the benefit of all. Reason further shows us, according to Locke, that "God has given us all things richly," and that each individual in the "state of nature" is assumed to have staked out a fair share of available property. Government institutions, therefore, are instituted as a "convenience" to regulate and promote the natural rights to life, liberty, and property, which were the original legacies of all individuals in the state of nature.
Starting from these premises of fundamental natural equality and open access to nature's bounties, government for Locke can be said to have existed for the purpose of promoting "equality of opportunity" so that each person could continue to develop fully his individual talents and "property." The open fertile environment of the American continent, which had been analogized by Locke himself to his ideal original state of nature, provided a logical locus for the flowering of such equal opportunity.
It is, however, precisely in the pursuit of these individual opportunities that the inherent conflict between the two basic strands of liberal thought, equality and liberty, comes to the fore. In order to enjoy an untrammeled path to the opportunities they sought, those individuals who emerged more successful in the social competition tended to emphasize the inviolability of particular liberties and property rights. They sought ways to assure the primacy of the pursuit of life, liberty, and property and to uphold these values in the face of both envy and the egalitarian pressures of the masses of their less successful fellow citizens. In this connection, John Stuart Mill expressed grave apprehensions about the potential "tyranny of the majority," and he articulated the need to establish certain basic rights, such as freedom of speech, as a bulwark for full development of the creative potential of those capable of outstanding achievement.
In this way, equality of opportunity came to represent a balancing of the ideals of equality and liberty. Each individual was to be encouraged to develop fully his natural abilities, and both the individual and society as a whole were expected to benefit from the resulting release of talent and energy. Limited governmental interventions (such as antitrust, minimum wage, and occupational health and safety laws) would ensure that over-zealous pursuit of personal gain by one individual or entity did not unduly interfere with the "equal" potential of other individuals to similarly pursue their opportunities. At the same time, certain definitive rights were established to provide bulwarks for the "liberty" of self-fulfillment, so that majoritarian "factions" could not stifle legitimate individual enterprise and expression. The resulting liberal ideal was summarized in 1878 by Ralph Waldo Emerson. "Opportunity of civil rights, of education, of personal power, and not less of wealth; doors wide open ... invitation to every nation, to every race and skin, ... hospitality of fair field and equal laws to all. Let them compete, and success to the strongest, the wisest, and the best."
But the equality of opportunity ideal which Emerson toasted has always been tarred by deep-seated disquiet about the fairness of the competitive setting. This problem is often illustrated by analogizing equality of opportunity to a footrace, in which the field is open and those who fairly outpace the others are entitled to their prize. Contemporary advocates of equality of opportunity recognize a need to remove discriminatory hurdles that in the past blocked the paths of some of the runners. Critics of equality of opportunity, however, charge that removal of all the long-entrenched barriers, especially those created by the long history of slavery and state-mandated segregation, is an extremely difficult — if not insuperable — task.
In addition to the problems of eliminating the barriers on the field, an additional and conceptually even more difficult issue is that at the very starting block some of the competitors are disadvantaged, since they come weighted down with unfair handicaps and burdens stemming from prior economic or social position. As President Lyndon Johnson forcefully put it:
You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him to the starting line of a race, and then say you are free to compete with all the others, and still just believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates. ... We seek not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and equality as a result.
To be fully fair, however, society would need to compensate for these initial disadvantages before the life race had begun. Traditionally, the provision of equal educational opportunity has been advanced as the optimal form of such compensation. Recent research, however, has indicated that the schools, at least as they have operated traditionally, at the traditional levels of resource commitment, have not been able to accomplish this enormous task.
Disillusionment with the society's historical failure to provide meaningful opportunities for the underprivileged has led some commentators to conclude that society must go beyond providing equal educational opportunities, that it must take steps to overcome the most basic differentials in family wealth and other environmental limitations. To be fully consistent on this point, it would probably be necessary to interfere massively in private lives by radically restructuring job allocation procedures, constantly redistributing wealth and prohibiting inheritance rights, raising children apart from their parents, or even tampering with initial gene pools.
Excerpted from Equality and Education by Michael A. Rebell, Arthur R. Block. Copyright © 1985 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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