Equality of Opportunity - History

Equality of Opportunity - History

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Equality of Opportunity - History

A Timeline of the Struggle for Equal Rights in America

13th Amendment outlaws slavery

Ku Klux Klan (KKK) founded to maintain white supremacy through intimidation and violence

Freedman's Bureau formed during Reconstruction to assist freed slaves in the South

Civil Rights Act grants citizenship to native-born Americans except Indians

14th Amendment grants equal protection of the laws to African Americans

15th Amendment establishes the right of African American males to vote

Civil Rights Act grants equal access to public accommodations

Supreme Court nullifies Civil Rights Act of

Supreme Court validates the principle of "separate but equal" in Plessy v. Ferguson

Niagara Movement founded to fight for school integration, voting rights, and assist African American political candidates, forerunner of the NAACP

Greensburg, Indiana, race riot, the first of many in reaction to African American migration north

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) formed to fight for civil rights through legal action and education

Refounding of the Ku Klux Klan

19th Amendment gives women the right to vote

American Indians granted citizenship and the right to vote

Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) founded to fight for civil rights using nonviolent, direct-action protests

President Harry Truman ends segregation in the U.S. military

In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court overturns the principle of "separate but equal"

Rosa Parks begins the Montgomery Bus Boycott

President Dwight Eisenhower sends U.S. Army troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the desegregation of schools

Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) founded to coordinate localized southern efforts to fight for civil rights

Sit-in at the F. W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, February 1

Hundreds of university students stage a sit-in at downtown stores in Nashville, Tennessee, to protest segregated lunch counters

Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) founded to coordinate student-led efforts to end segregation

Civil Rights Act reaffirms voting rights for all Americans

Integrated groups of protesters join Freedom Rides on buses across the South to protest segregation

Hundreds of thousands of Americans take part in the March on Washington to call for racial equality

24th Amendment outlaws poll taxes for national elections

Civil Rights Act outlaws discrimination in public accommodations and by employers

Organization for Afro-American Unity (OAU) formed to promote closer ties between African Americans and Africa

Voting Rights Act nullifies local laws and practices that prevent minorities from voting

Liberty and Equality Today

It was a unique moment in world history that a scattered and diverse people in America could stop at a critical period to deliberate over a whole new government and the founding of a nation on a core set of principles. The promise of America in the vision of the Founders was that of liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The natural rights republic new concept was grounded upon principles that did not change with the passing of time or the changes in culture. This novus ordo seclorum—“new order for the ages”—was not created for a particular race, privileged aristocratic social class, or member of an established religion, but for all equally.

The promise of America in the vision of the Founders was that of liberty and equality in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The natural rights republic new concept was grounded upon principles that did not change with the passing of time or the changes in culture. America has always been and continues to be a diverse country. One question that will confront all Americans is how to ensure that every citizen, regardless of skin color, sex, or religion, will enjoy the liberty and equality that the country was founded upon.

Equality of Outcome

Equality of Opportunity is partly motivated by the plausibility of treating individuals equally and partly motivated by the unattractiveness of giving each person the same, or Equality of Outcome. Equality of Outcome requires that individuals have some share of goods, not merely a chance to obtain them without the hindrance of some obstacles. A focus on outcomes with respect to literacy among young children may seem appropriate, since it is important that children actually become literate rather than have an opportunity to read, which could be missed. But a focus on outcomes may seem less plausible in other cases, such as equalizing the results of standardized tests. It is a further worry about Equality of Outcome that it might stifle individuality leading to uniformity of character, of preferences or of ability.

Equality of Opportunity distinguishes itself from Equality of Outcome in two main cases. In cases involving goods that cannot be distributed equally, Equality of Opportunity specifies a fair way of distributing unequal outcomes. For example, there may be ten children for every place at a charter school. Unless we are happy to waste school places, Equality of Outcome can’t help us decide here, so we need another principle. Equality of Opportunity may help us to decide to run a lottery where each child has an equal chance of getting a place. In cases involving individual choices, such as voluntary gambling, Equality of Outcome condemns inequality resulting from win or loss as wrong or unfair. Equality of Opportunity, however, is often understood as allowing for these inequalities and many consider this to be a decisive advantage of focusing on opportunity. If a person chooses to act in ways that diminish her prospects for admission at a good college, it may seem wrong to compensate her at the expense of other candidates. “Why should other conscientious students be worse off to ensure that she is admitted?” critics will claim.

However, in some cases, it may be impossible for individuals to collectively realize the outcomes that they have equal opportunity to secure. In these cases, Equality of Opportunity may seem unfair. This is the case with scarce goods, such as jobs or college places at elite institutions. For example, imagine that only 1,000 doctors can be appointed in one year. If there are 10,000 applicants then each has, insofar as the relevant obstacles are removed, an equal opportunity, but not all can in fact realize that opportunity with effort and hard-work, even if they would also be considered qualified enough to do the job well. These opportunities are competitive and in those cases we might prefer equal outcomes to having some people realize the opportunity at the expense of others. To address this concern, we might understand Equality of Opportunity as requiring that, with certain effort, and overcoming only relevant obstacles, any person, and any number of persons, can, independent of the actions of others, realize the good that they have an opportunity to secure.

Three Important Benchmarks in the History of Educational Equity and Equality in the U.S.

The fight for equality in education has been longstanding, influenced by social, legal, and political situations of various historical periods. As a result, the benefits of a free and equal education have not been available to all children at all times throughout the history of education in America. Race and gender have been two major areas where issues of equity and equality have arisen most prominently.

In many ways, the refusal of slave owners to allow slaves to be educated is evidence of the historical perception of the power of knowledge possible from education. Slave owners believed that educated slaves were more disobedient and prone to unruliness and violence. They used fear and the law to ensure the ignorance, and hence the servility, of slaves. Education of African Americans was a low priority until Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. However, once barriers to education were removed, the stark contrast in education levels was evidenced by an increase in literacy rates of less than 10% in the 1860s, to 55% by 1890, and 89% around 1940.

The practice of segregation in Southern schools has previously been discussed. Even though laws to support segregated schools did not exist in the North, the practice of segregation was just as prevalent. In many Northern schools, segregation was facilitated by school district attendance policies. Because neighborhoods were segregated, children attended segregated schools in their respective neighborhoods. Because school district funding was dependent on the area’s tax revenues, and black neighborhoods of the time tended to be lower income, segregation resulted in differences in the quality of education received by White and Black students. On the whole, White schools had better facilities and teachers who were paid better than their counterparts in Black schools.

2. Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka

The Supreme Court ruling decision in the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954 changed the course of education in America, and indeed American society, forever. In its landmark decision, the Supreme Court ruled that segregation of African American and European American children in public schools was unconstitutional. The court overturned the previous decision given in the Plessey v. Ferguson case, which allowed states to establish separate public facilities, including separate public schools.

In its ruling, the court opined that separate was inherently unequal and therefore a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. States were ordered to integrate public schools and also to remove laws and statutes that required other segregated public facilities. The case became a beacon of hope for the civil rights movement, which sought to achieve equal opportunities for all, irrespective of race, ethnicity, and gender.

In 1955, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown II that schools be integrated “with all deliberate speed.” States and school districts moved slowly in response to the second ruling, and it was not until the 1980s that the federal courts were able to eliminate legalized segregation in schools.

Throughout American history, and especially in the 17th and the 18th centuries, women were discriminated against in education. There was practically no encouragement for women’s education beyond the basic reading and writing skills. Beyond that, they were taught homemaking skills, which were thought to be important to maintain a household. In colonial days, the general feeling was that girls did not need the same level of education as their male counterparts. Girls from upper-class families had the opportunity to attend Dame schools, but their education concentrated on instruction in dance, music, French, and other skills that were thought important for girls to get suitors.

In French colonial Louisiana, however, greater importance was given to education of girls, even in preference to education for boys. The general perception here was that educating girls was important, because educated females would bring sophistication to society. Boys, it was thought, needed to be trained only for future trades. Overall, however, discrimination against women in American schools was widespread, and even in co-educational establishments, little encouragement was provided to girls. This situation began to change in the late 19th century, when prominent women educators began to encourage the education of women, especially at the higher education level.

Prominent women, including Catharine Esther Beecher, Emma Willard, Mary Lyon, Jane Addams, Susan B. Anthony, Margarethe Schurz, and Mary McLeod, proclaimed the value of having highly educated women. The first women-only college, Vassar College, opened its doors in 1861. The first institution to offer graduate degrees to women was Bryn Mawr College, which was founded in 1885.

In 1972, sex-based discrimination in public and private schools receiving federal funds was prohibited by federal legislation in the form of Title IX. Title IX has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted in many cases to refer (more or less) to athletic programs and the scholarships associated with them, but the law also covers discrimination in academics.

Before 1972, high schools typically segregated classes according to sex. Boys were encouraged to take advanced math and science courses, while girls were dissuaded or even prevented from enrolling in those courses. Although Title IX had a profound impact on girls in athletics, the law also influenced the academic experiences of girls. Today, participation in high school athletics programs is nearly 50% female. Largely as a result of Title IX, there are currently no restrictions on course enrollment for female students.

Gender equity continues to be complex. For girls to benefit from education on par with boys, multiple dimensions of equity in education must be addressed. These include attention to access to education, equity in the learning process, equity in educational outcomes, and equity in external results. Interestingly, these areas have historically been issues in gender equity.

Access to education has been given much attention, and today, girls outnumber boys in college enrollment. Much has been written about the disparity in male and female participation in math and science courses equity in the learning process ensures that girls receive the necessary support and resources to be able to participate in all aspects of the curriculum.

The outcome of education should be based on students’ efforts and talents. Equity of educational outcomes ensures, that gender bias does not exist on measures of students’ achievements and talents. Measured biased toward boys could result in inaccurate evaluation of the ability and talents of girls. Girls should have career opportunities and pay equivalent to their qualifications and achievements. Equality of external results ensures that once girls complete their education, they have opportunities on par with that of boys who have similar talents, qualifications, and achievements.

What is the Equality Act?

A new Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010.

It brings together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single Act.

The Act provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all.

It provides Britain with a discrimination law which protects individuals from unfair treatment and promotes a fair and more equal society.

The nine main pieces of legislation that have merged are:

  • the Equal Pay Act 1970
  • the Sex Discrimination Act 1975
  • the Race Relations Act 1976
  • the Disability Discrimination Act 1995
  • the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003
  • the Employment Equality (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2003
  • the Employment Equality (Age) Regulations 2006
  • the Equality Act 2006, Part 2
  • the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

As Britain's national equality body, our work is driven by a simple belief: if everyone gets a fair chance in life, we all thrive.

The West and the Promise of Equal Opportunity

Pat and I were in graduate school together Pat studied foreign policy, national security, diplomacy and strategy. I studied American history. We had teachers in common, as well as an interest in John Quincy Adams. Over the years, as I read and wrote about Adams, I corresponded with Pat. He was working as a strategist at Los Alamos National Laboratory when this began later, he taught at Johns Hopkins and worked on international security issues at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia. As we planned a volume on western expansion covering all US territory that eventually became states—the contiguous continental states as well as Hawaii and Alaska—I thought of Pat. So much of what the US became resulted from the treaties negotiated by Adams during his time as Secretary of State, and Pat understood Adams better than any living person.

George Peter Alexander Healy. John Quincy Adams. 1858. Courtesy of the White House, 1858.1354.1.

Pat never discussed personal matters, and as we began work, I didn’t realize how ill he was. We agreed that he would cover documents related to treaties with Spain, France, the Indians, and Mexico. I would cover US government/Indian relations and settler/Indian relations immigration the character of the West and the way it was “sold” to potential settlers. In the middle of the project, when Pat mentioned that I might have to complete editing some of the documents he’d agreed to edit, I realized he was seriously ill. Yet Pat did finish his part of the work. I offered to write the introduction to the volume, but had completed only the introductory paragraph when I got an email from Pat. He had sketched out a few ideas that I “might find useful.” Reading his “sketch,” I saw it was the perfect explanation of the key issues in the volume I could not improve on it. I suggested that we simply preface it with my introductory paragraph.

I learned a lot from Pat. He also caught errors in my drafts for the volume. When we finished, it was a pretty clean copy. Pat was able to hold the print volume in his hands before he died. He left behind several books, notably In Search of Monsters to Destroy? American Foreign Policy, Revolution, and Regime Change, 1776-1900 (National Institute Press, 2012) and a fascinating website, The Classics of Strategy and Diplomacy, which covers European and Asian classics and some of his own writing. He also finished a book, United and Independent: John Quincy Adams on American Foreign Policy, that will appear later this year.

The introduction to your volume puts the settlement of the West into a strategic context. Garrity writes, “Geopolitical realities created an imperative for expansion.” What were those realities, and did all of the Founders understand them in the same way?

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton by John Trumbull, c. 1805. White House, 1962.203.1.

The Founders did not all understand the West in the same way. The Federalists did not want westward expansion. Hamilton wanted Americans to be crowded into urban areas where they would work in factories, although Steve Knott might put it differently! An industrializing economy, Hamilton thought, would build American commercial and military might, mimicking the British model. The Democratic-Republicans, the Jeffersonians, insisted on westward expansion, because they wanted an agrarian economy based on small family farms. Most Americans wanted this too.

Even before Americans declared independence, they were heading west. The West was always the land of opportunity—where Europeans and, later, Americans went for a new beginning. Native Americans were pushed west as a result of the influx of Europeans, as well as their pre-existing inter-tribal competition for land. After the Civil War, many freedmen headed west. This irrepressible westward movement conjoined with geopolitical strategizing to power the expansion.

To speak of geopolitical realities, the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which established the borders of the new nation, left the British and the Spanish with claims in North America. Neither power was particularly friendly to the new republic. Other powers were also vying for the land on US borders. The competition with Europe for land in North America and the Caribbean became the central focus of American foreign policy.

Jaques Reich, Thomas Jefferson, 1902. National Portrait Gallery (gift of Oswald D. Reich), S/NPG.67.72

British strength in Canada and on the sea threatened the US, but so did Spanish weakness to the South, since geopolitics abhors a vacuum. If France filled the Spanish vacuum, even Jefferson recognized that alliance with the British would be necessary. Lacking military strength, our new nation needed to manipulate European powers to get control of what North American land they could. Everyone understood that control of the Mississippi River, and therefore of New Orleans, was key. Jefferson did the important work of buying Louisiana from France when Napoleon needed money, resolving many problems.

Other issues were resolved by John Quincy Adams through his treaties with the Spanish, most importantly the Transcontinental Treaty. Adams was not an advocate of an America dominated by an agrarian economy, but he realized national greatness depended on an empire that stretched from sea to shining sea, as we sometimes sing.

Yet Adams, like Lincoln, opposed the Mexican American War, which resulted in the addition of Texas, California and the Southwest to the US.

Yes, because he thought it was pushed by the slave power. One might see Adams’ post-presidential career in Congress as an effort to make amends for having negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty, which brought us territory soon flooded with slaveholders. In Congress, Adams relentlessly opposed slavery. An excellent debater and strategic thinker, he made fools of those who tried to impose the gag rule on him. He befuddled and overcame the slaveocracy in much the same way he overcame the Spanish.

Writing about the movement west, Garrity says, “No government of that time could have erected barriers to stem the tide of a restless, enterprising people.” Yet he says “the Founders intended to manage expansion carefully so that it would be republican in character. . . . Territorial expansion would be peaceful, gradual, orderly, and limited to North America.” Was this vision fulfilled?

That was the intent, true. But you mentioned the war with Mexico. That was followed by “Bleeding Kansas.” The westward movement generated many conflicts with the Indians as well.

The first document in the volume is a report from Henry Knox, Secretary of War, written to President Washington, on relations with the Indians. He criticizes state actions to displace Indians. He compares the actions of Americans unfavorably with those of the Spanish when colonizing Latin America. That’s about as harsh a criticism as he could make! But he made that criticism to show how far we had fallen from the standards that Washington and others wanted the new republic to follow.

Washington initiated efforts, carried on by successive presidents, to deal peacefully with the Indians. Washington felt our young republic had to prove itself stable and capable of maintaining its commitments. Ancient republics had devolved into violence and collapsed. Could our new republic conduct itself honorably? Could it live up to the treaties it signed? Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison and Monroe wanted treaties with the Indians to be made on just terms and kept. There was no doubt in their mind that the land would become part of the United States, but that didn’t have to mean constant war with the Indians and their destruction. That was the hope.

The government planned lasting agreements to protect the Indians those plans were always undone—sometimes by state governments, often by people living in the territories. The federal government never had the power to carry through on all the promises it made in treaties.

Of course, not every American leader wanted to treat the Indians decently—Andrew Jackson and Philip Sheridan show us that. Still, when you read the military order to remove the Cherokee to Oklahoma, which is in the volume, you find that it lays out a plan that conforms to the US military’s current hard-learned understanding of how a military should deal with a civilian population, especially in a counter-insurgency. Yet the military then lacked the logistical capacity to move civilians such a long way. It couldn’t even take very good care of its own troops. The Trail of Tears resulted.

We included examples of treaties with the Indians in the volume. Some would say they were written as fig leaves to cover the government’s real intent. I don’t think that’s true. We include a Supreme Court ruling establishing the principle that the Indian tribes are sovereign nations and must be dealt with as such. Marshall was trying to put dealings with the Indians on the basis of treaties and federal law, making the federal government, a bit more removed from the passions of the people, the government that the Indians dealt with. It is true that many Americans hungered for Indian land, and this was reflected directly in the dealings of the states with the tribes within their borders.

We also include the minutes of a Lake Mohonk Conference of Friends of the Indian in 1887. This group of reformers, many of them former abolitionists, met annually to discuss the Indians’ plight. In 1887, they welcomed passage of the Dawes Act, which split up tribal lands into individual plots and distributed them to Indians who registered with the Office of Indian Affairs. One reformer says, “we failed the freedmen we must not fail the Indians.” But they understood neither the nature of the land being distributed—experienced farmers would have had trouble with it—nor the Indians’ lack of interest in agriculture. Farming was not their tradition. Many Indians sold their land to non-Indians and tried to live by hunting—even though the land they hunted on before was gone.

There’s a document in the collection about the Ghost Dance movement. Functionally, that movement resembled certain versions of militant Islam today. It was an innovation claiming to be a return to tradition, an effort to preserve a vanished way of life.

Despite the egalitarian design of the Homestead Act, in the latter part of the 19 th century western lands and their resources became commodities bought and sold by industrialists and speculators. To what extent did this negate Jefferson’s vision of a nation of small farmers?

A market in land, like any market, allows land to move to those who can best use it. This did happen, as the excerpt from the memoir of Rachel Calof we included shows. After buying the land of settlers who fled the harsh environment of North Dakota, her family prospered.

The federal government gave the railroad owners large tracts of land to reimburse the cost of building the railroads. There was graft associated with this, but the basic idea of trading land for a transcontinental transportation system made sense. When the railroads began selling the land, they did make claims that seem farfetched today, as you can see in the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe poster we included among the volumes’s images. It advertises land in southwest Kansas as ideal for fruit orchards: “temperate climate . . . pure and abundant water!”

Actually, for a few decades following the Civil War, the Midwest enjoyed good rainfall. Yet the aridity of the climate was debated. We include an excerpt from C. D. Wilbur, who claimed that “rain follows the plough.” We also include a map drawn by John Wesley Powell, who marks out the watersheds and a large arid region west of the 100 th meridian.

Those farmers who did settle the West objected most to the monopolization of railroad transport for their crops. The railroads had been set up through government aid yet now, according to the farmers, they were colluding to keep rates high. The farmers wanted government regulation to prevent this. This led to the Grange movement, which began in the 1870s. It was the first of a century of reform movements. In a way, the Progressive movement began in the effort to impose order on the disorderly westward expansion.

For about 120 years, the West accommodated the individual ambitions of Americans hoping to become landowners. But by the end of your collection, Theodore Roosevelt is proposing legislation that would put stewardship of unsettled land into the hands of the federal government, so as to conserve natural resources. Does the history of American settlement of the West help to explain the challenges faced by the American conservation movement today?

Roosevelt’s 1907 speech announced that now not only the land, but also the forests on the land and minerals in it are limited. Roosevelt wanted to manage these resources for the use of future generations.

We include the famous 1890 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Frederick Jackson Turner claimed that the frontier had closed yet what the West represented remains deeply lodged in the American soul. Its unsettled land provided tangible evidence of equality of opportunity. When that ended, Americans had to find this opportunity elsewhere. We’re still dealing with the consequences. I believe there is more equality of opportunity today than in 19 th century America, but it is probably not as clear to people today as it was when any American could look west and see the possibility of a better life.

America, Land of Equal Opportunity? Still Not There

Lack of opportunity is a huge source of economic and social dissatisfaction. Income and wealth inequality aren’t pleasant, and many people want some redistribution, but most seem to accept that luck, drive and natural advantages inevitably create some degree of inequality. But when people feel like they don’t have a chance to move up in the world even if they try hard and do all the right things, that’s when they break out the rakes and pitchforks and storm the castle.

That’s the conclusion of a recent paper by economists Alberto Alesina, Stefanie Stantcheva and Edoardo Teso, anyway. Using surveys in France, Italy, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S., they found that people who believed their society offered less opportunity for people to climb up the economic ladder also tended to support more government intervention to increase equality of opportunity (such as higher education spending). When the researchers presented respondents with information about low mobility, their desire for redistribution rose.

One of the most glaringly unfair impediments to opportunity is racism. But racial barriers are maddeningly hard to confirm. If I don’t get a job, is it because the company didn’t like my skin color or my ancestry, or is it because I wasn’t the best person for the job? Most of us want to assume the best about our society, but sometimes the evidence against the benign interpretation is just too strong.

This is where economists can help. Aggregate statistics and careful analysis can illuminate the underlying processes that underlie day-to-day life. Top empirical economists Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Nathaniel Hendren have been running a huge research project called the Equality of Opportunity Project with the aim of doing just that. And the project’s latest paper has been a bombshell.

Chetty and Hendren, along with Maggie Jones and Sonya Porter of the U.S. Census Bureau, carefully measured intergenerational mobility by race and gender. Instead of focusing on raw income gaps, they measured the likelihood of people moving up or down the distribution relative to their parents. Their findings are summarized in a set of slides, and in a series of interactive graphics created with the New York Times’ Upshot blog.

The basic findings can be seen simply by looking at Chetty et al.’s pictures of mobility. These pictures show the average income rank of children, measured against the income rank of their parents. If children whose parents were at the 40th percentile of income are themselves, on average, at the 50th percentile of the distribution, it means upward mobility if they’re at the 30th, it means downward mobility. Here’s the picture for black and white Americans:

This is a substantial gap in relative mobility -- it means that middle-class black Americans, on average, tend to be lower on the income ladder than their parents, while middle-class whites tend to be slightly higher. For many black Americans, in other words, even being born to parents with a decent income -- and whatever natural talent and household wealth that income implies -- isn’t enough to keep them from slipping into a lower economic bracket when they grow up.

Interestingly, though, this racial mobility gap only existed for men, as the next chart shows.

For women, the gap was nonexistent, with black women displaying very slightly higher mobility than white women:

This is consistent with the findings of Brookings Institution researchers Scott Winship, Richard V. Reeves and Katherine Guyot, who also found that the economic mobility of black men, measured in terms of weekly earnings, is lower than all other demographic groups.

One likely culprit here is mass incarceration. Black incarceration rates far exceed those of whites. In 2003, federal officials glumly estimated that at the rates of imprisonment then prevalent, one in three black men would go to prison at some point in their lives. A prison term obviously has catastrophic economic implications -- not only do job skills and networks degrade when one is behind bars, but few employers want to hire an ex-convict.

Fortunately, that problem is less severe than it was in 2003. A decade after U.S. crime fell dramatically, the incarceration of black American men finally started to drop. From 2001 through 2015, it fell by more than half for black men under 35:

In addition to being a good thing in and of itself -- since mass incarceration probably no longer plays a role in reducing total crime rates by much if at all -- this is a good sign for the future of black men’s economic mobility in America. More needs to be done to reduce incarceration of nonviolent offenders, but the recent trend provides reason for hope.

But Chetty et al.’s results don’t just show that black men are uniquely disadvantaged -- it shows that white men are specially advantaged. White men are upwardly mobile relative not just to black men, but to both white and black women as well. That’s broadly consistent with recent evidence from economists Brian Duncan and Stephen Trejo, who find that after controlling for education, native-born black, Mexican and even Asian men tend to earn less than their white counterparts, but for women there is little or no gap.

Why are white men uniquely upwardly mobile? The most obvious answer is that human social networks are very important for finding a job and getting a raise. A number of economists have found evidence that personal connections are a major determinant of success -- people hire, promote and give money to their friends.

In the past, most corporate executives and other powerful economic decision-makers were white men, and this demographic still dominates the upper echelons of many institutions. It’s likely that white men’s friends and acquaintances are more likely to be other white men, which in turn probably generates higher mobility for said friends and acquaintances.

In other words, the legacy of past racism and sexism now probably perpetuates itself through the natural process of human relationships. Policies to promote diversity might seem unfair, but they could help counteract this residue of historical exclusion by accelerating the rise of women and minorities into positions of economic power. With more women and minorities in the executive suite, hiring their friends and acquaintances, the playing field might be significantly leveled for the next generation.

Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth

The Great Divide is a series about inequality.

President Obama’s second Inaugural Address used soaring language to reaffirm America’s commitment to the dream of equality of opportunity: “We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

The gap between aspiration and reality could hardly be wider. Today, the United States has less equality of opportunity than almost any other advanced industrial country. Study after study has exposed the myth that America is a land of opportunity. This is especially tragic: While Americans may differ on the desirability of equality of outcomes, there is near-universal consensus that inequality of opportunity is indefensible. The Pew Research Center has found that some 90 percent of Americans believe that the government should do everything it can to ensure equality of opportunity.

Perhaps a hundred years ago, America might have rightly claimed to have been the land of opportunity, or at least a land where there was more opportunity than elsewhere. But not for at least a quarter of a century. Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories were not a deliberate hoax, but given how they’ve lulled us into a sense of complacency, they might as well have been.

It’s not that social mobility is impossible, but that the upwardly mobile American is becoming a statistical oddity. According to research from the Brookings Institution, only 58 percent of Americans born into the bottom fifth of income earners move out of that category, and just 6 percent born into the bottom fifth move into the top. Economic mobility in the United States is lower than in most of Europe and lower than in all of Scandinavia.

Another way of looking at equality of opportunity is to ask to what extent the life chances of a child are dependent on the education and income of his parents. Is it just as likely that a child of poor or poorly educated parents gets a good education and rises to the middle class as someone born to middle-class parents with college degrees? Even in a more egalitarian society, the answer would be no. But the life prospects of an American are more dependent on the income and education of his parents than in almost any other advanced country for which there is data.

How do we explain this? Some of it has to do with persistent discrimination. Latinos and African-Americans still get paid less than whites, and women still get paid less than men, even though they recently surpassed men in the number of advanced degrees they obtain. Though gender disparities in the workplace are less than they once were, there is still a glass ceiling: women are sorely underrepresented in top corporate positions and constitute a minuscule fraction of C.E.O.’s.

Discrimination, however, is only a small part of the picture. Probably the most important reason for lack of equality of opportunity is education: both its quantity and quality. After World War II, Europe made a major effort to democratize its education systems. We did, too, with the G.I. Bill, which extended higher education to Americans across the economic spectrum.

But then we changed, in several ways. While racial segregation decreased, economic segregation increased. After 1980, the poor grew poorer, the middle stagnated, and the top did better and better. Disparities widened between those living in poor localities and those living in rich suburbs — or rich enough to send their kids to private schools. A result was a widening gap in educational performance — the achievement gap between rich and poor kids born in 2001 was 30 to 40 percent larger than it was for those born 25 years earlier, the Stanford sociologist Sean F. Reardon found.

Of course, there are other forces at play, some of which start even before birth. Children in affluent families get more exposure to reading and less exposure to environmental hazards. Their families can afford enriching experiences like music lessons and summer camp. They get better nutrition and health care, which enhance their learning, directly and indirectly.

Unless current trends in education are reversed, the situation is likely to get even worse. In some cases it seems as if policy has actually been designed to reduce opportunity: government support for many state schools has been steadily gutted over the last few decades — and especially in the last few years. Meanwhile, students are crushed by giant student loan debts that are almost impossible to discharge, even in bankruptcy. This is happening at the same time that a college education is more important than ever for getting a good job.

Young people from families of modest means face a Catch-22: without a college education, they are condemned to a life of poor prospects with a college education, they may be condemned to a lifetime of living at the brink. And increasingly even a college degree isn’t enough one needs either a graduate degree or a series of (often unpaid) internships. Those at the top have the connections and social capital to get those opportunities. Those in the middle and bottom don’t. The point is that no one makes it on his or her own. And those at the top get more help from their families than do those lower down on the ladder. Government should help to level the playing field.

Americans are coming to realize that their cherished narrative of social and economic mobility is a myth. Grand deceptions of this magnitude are hard to maintain for long — and the country has already been through a couple of decades of self-deception.

Without substantial policy changes, our self-image, and the image we project to the world, will diminish — and so will our economic standing and stability. Inequality of outcomes and inequality of opportunity reinforce each other — and contribute to economic weakness, as Alan B. Krueger, a Princeton economist and the chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, has emphasized. We have an economic, and not only moral, interest in saving the American dream.

Policies that promote equality of opportunity must target the youngest Americans. First, we have to make sure that mothers are not exposed to environmental hazards and get adequate prenatal health care. Then, we have to reverse the damaging cutbacks to preschool education, a theme Mr. Obama emphasized on Tuesday. We have to make sure that all children have adequate nutrition and health care — not only do we have to provide the resources, but if necessary, we have to incentivize parents, by coaching or training them or even rewarding them for being good caregivers. The right says that money isn’t the solution. They’ve chased reforms like charter schools and private-school vouchers, but most of these efforts have shown ambiguous results at best. Giving more money to poor schools would help. So would summer and extracurricular programs that enrich low-income students’ skills.

Finally, it is unconscionable that a rich country like the United States has made access to higher education so difficult for those at the bottom and middle. There are many alternative ways of providing universal access to higher education, from Australia’s income-contingent loan program to the near-free system of universities in Europe. A more educated population yields greater innovation, a robust economy and higher incomes — which mean a higher tax base. Those benefits are, of course, why we’ve long been committed to free public education through 12th grade. But while a 12th-grade education might have sufficed a century ago, it doesn’t today. Yet we haven’t adjusted our system to contemporary realities.

The steps I’ve outlined are not just affordable but imperative. Even more important, though, is that we cannot afford to let our country drift farther from ideals that the vast majority of Americans share. We will never fully succeed in achieving Mr. Obama’s vision of a poor girl’s having exactly the same opportunities as a wealthy girl. But we could do much, much better, and must not rest until we do.

Joseph E. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, a professor at Columbia and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers and chief economist for the World Bank, is the author of “The Price of Inequality.”

A version of this article appears in print on 02/17/2013, on page SR 4 of the NewYork edition with the headline: Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth.

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act takes effect

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act takes effect on August 21, 1974. The new law addressed civil rights issues in education, barring states from discriminating against students based on gender, race, color, or nationality and requiring public schools to provide for students who do not speak English.

In many ways, the EEOA was an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in schools as well as businesses and outlawed the segregation of schools. The Civil Rights Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history, but it did not singlehandedly put a stop to discrimination in public education. Aside from the famous "Massive Resistance" campaign against desegregation in the South, schools continued to fail racial minorities and students for whom English was not their first language.

The EEOA mandated that schools accommodate students regardless of nationality and that they provide adequate resources for students who did not speak English. In effect, this meant that schools must now offer both English classes for non-native speakers and classes in other subjects taught in students&apos native languages. Subsequent Supreme Court cases clarified the full extent of the law. In 1974, the Court ruled that the EEOA mandated that schools offer classes in students&apos first languages while they learned English as a second language. In 1982, it ruled that, based on the EEOA, undocumented students not only had the right to attend public schools but were obligated to do so, the same as all American children.

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