Equality in America

The American Experiment is a test of racial, religious, and ethnic integration. It’s about the meaning of ‘equality.’– The Lonely Realist

“Out of many, one” – e pluribus unum.

The “American Experiment” is founded on the “self-evident truth” that “all men are created equal.” It is this presumption of equality – equal access to government, equal voting rights, a blindfolded Lady Justice – that forms the philosophical and moral foundation of America. The concept of universal “equality” is quintessentially American, fundamental to the belief that every American has the opportunity to succeed and attain a better life, and the reason why immigrants of all colors, faiths and nationalities flock to America’s shores. That American Dream makes America the only aspirational multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-cultural country on the planet. “Give me your [black, brown, yellow, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Ukrainian, Sudanese, Vietnamese] tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore” is not merely a poem inscribed on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty. It is the core of Americanism.

The last time American “equality” was questioned was 164 years ago when the New York Daily Tribune asked: “Is it possible for a Government to be permanently maintained without privileged classes…? Is the democratic principle of equal rights, general suffrage, and government by a majority, capable of being carried into practical operation, and that, too, over a large extent of country”? The answer for most of American history, unfortunately, has been “no” – efforts have been genuine, but success has been elusive. After all, the original definition of “equality” endorsed racial slavery. The concept of “equality” also embraced a top-down belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority. Although slavery morphed after the Civil War into the fig leaf of “separate but equal” (validated by the Supreme Court in 1896 in Plessy v. Ferguson), in practice the definition mandated racial separation, racially-specific facilities and radically unequal opportunities. That separateness was supposed to have been overturned by the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which formally consigned “separate but equal” to history’s dustbin. That, however, hasn’t been the reality. Americans of all races, religions and ethnicities continued practicing both racially-motivated and de facto segregation. The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown did not repeal racism or religious or ethnic divisions. It did not compel Americans of different races to live or work together. Tribalism, after all, is innate to Homo Sapiens. No law or legal ruling can change that. After decades of racial quotas, busing, and related affirmative action policies designed to enhance diversity and create racial balance, success has been … unsuccessful equivocal. Racial, religious and ethnic enclaves may not be called ghettos today, but races, religions and ethnicities have continued their separateness. Federal desegregation experiments policies have achieved a measurable degree of integration, but they have not eliminated the racial gap or leveled the economic playing field. Separation continues … and continues to be unequal.

Today’s Supreme Court has explicitly supported that reality by eliminating curtailing the judiciary’s role in dismantling segregation, apparently on the basis that, after 70 years, Federal experiments based on Brown and its progeny have not significantly enhanced racial balance or ensured equal access to facilities and opportunities. A Supreme Court majority therefore views its obligation under the 14th Amendment as a reactive one in which it will rule against only those actions that are overtly racist. The Court no longer will validate Federal government intervention in American life, whether in education, the workplace, politics, voting rights, or etc.

Evidence of this change is found in the Supreme Court’s 2023 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, where the Court struck down race-conscious admissions practices that had been a cornerstone of affirmative action. The plaintiff, a non-profit created for the purpose of challenging race-based admissions, argued that the admissions processes at Harvard College and the University of North Carolina [and virtually every other institution of higher learning] violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by considering race as one of several factors for admission. A 6-3 Supreme Court majority agreed, redefining the reach of the 14th Amendment by mandating a version of “color blindness” that prevents the use of race-conscious admissions that favor African American applicants. The ruling does not mark the end of affirmative action because it doesn’t prevent colleges from fostering diversity through admissions processes that focus on varied backgrounds and talents – presumably via economic disadvantage. It does, however, preclude fostering diversity on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity. The decision is an explicit rejection of racially-driven affirmative action and of the multi-decade American policy effort to remedy historical race-based injustices. It and similar holdings (for example, Alexander v. South Carolina State Conference of the NAACP, which distinguished “political gerrymandering” from “racial gerrymandering,” and Shelby County v. Holder) mark a sea change in legal jurisprudential thinking.

The failure of the American Experiment to fully achieve integration to date among races, religions and ethnicities is neither surprising nor based on insufficient effort or will. The lack of success to date is because the policies themselves were experiments. Some worked and some didn’t. Whether valid or not, the Supreme Court has determined that 70 years of arguably somewhat successful experimenting means that the costs no longer should will be judicially ratified and that, going forward, the American Experiment must succeed or fail on its inherent merits. The reality is that achieving equality depends on equal access to opportunity … and equal access to opportunity requires equal access to high-quality education, especially high-quality grade-school education. That is not true today. The decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard does not impact on America’s public and charter school systems. As TLR has long-advocated, the American Experiment can succeed only if quality education is made available to all of America’s children.

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