Inequality in the United States

The American Dream is a story of great opportunity, the ability for anyone to find prosperity through individual achievement regardless of circumstance. These opportunities however have historically been unequally afforded to everyone and continue to be today. Perhaps the greatest opportunity we have though is the capacity to continue improving equality for all citizens.

Early American colonies, founded by Pilgrims fleeing an oppressive British rule, established both political and economic opportunity in addition to freedom of religion and speech by lifting many limitations imposed on individuals. “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, the grandest of American ideals, is written into our Declaration of Independence along with the words “All men are created equal”. With these words, America’s Founding Fathers emphasized both opportunity and equality for each individual, through achievement and hard work, to achieve upward mobility and pursue their interests. Such Democratic principles are far from universal though. In China for example, political opportunity and representation is controlled by those in power, and opportunities to own property, for instance, is limited. Even the opportunity to freely speak and practice religion has been oppressed, as seen with censorship in regards to the history of Tiananmen Square and the religious prosecution of the Falun Gong. In India, the Caste system limits upward mobility via social stratification, preventing many of its citizens from escaping the life of poverty they were born into. With such examples of little opportunity among the two most populated countries in the world, it’s easy to see what incredible opportunities the United States offers.

Despite all of the great opportunities afforded to citizens of the United States, equality of opportunity has historically been far from perfect. It was less than a century ago that women won the right to vote with the Nineteenth Amendment, and discrimination against women in the workplace wasn’t illegal until 1964 under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Such discrimination had been used to limit political representation for women and to suppress them from the same employment opportunities as men. And until the Supreme Court ruling in Smith v. Allwright in 1944, African Americans were kept out of Democratic primaries despite having the right to vote, which greatly limited their political representation and opportunities.  Countless examples abound in our history, from racial gerrymandering that kept minorities from gaining proportional political representation, to literacy tests and poll taxes used to deny minorities and the poor from the opportunity to vote.

Indeed, many inequalities still exist today. Segregation from the past still limits educational opportunities for minorities who’ve been unable to escape chronically poor neighborhoods with underfunded and thus unequal schools. This educational inequality, manifested in lower test scores, has prevented many students from moving onto higher education which would otherwise enable them to escape the cycle of poverty by opening the door to higher paying jobs. And despite the Equal Pay Act of 1963 which made wage differences based on gender illegal, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) found as recently as 2008 that women with bachelor degrees make an average of 31% less than their male counterparts. The glass ceiling for women and minorities in the workplace is no secret and continues to exist today, leading to fewer opportunities for career advancement.

But perhaps the greatest opportunity afforded to us by our remarkable Democracy is the opportunity to continually improve equality. Most notably, a federal trial date has been set for January 2010 to challenge the constitutionality of California’s recently and narrowly passed Proposition 8, which limits the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman and thereby prevents same-sex couples from having the same opportunities to marry one another as opposite-sex couples. A Supreme Court ruling in this case could set a precedent enabling same-sex couples across the country to marry and receive equal privileges and benefits. Many view the fight for same-sex marriage with the fight for Civil Rights from the 1960s. Other programs such as Affirmative Action continue to correct the consequences of past segregation that affect many minorities today, and groups like NOW, the National Organization for Women, actively work to resolve wage disparities among the sexes. Even the 2008 national elections highlight just how far we’ve come, with the election of our nation’s first African American President, Barack Obama, who narrowly beat out his female primary opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The United States, with its great opportunity has been a beacon of hope for refugees from around the world that seek our shores. No matter how great the opportunity though, it has also been unequal both in our past and our present. But by continuing to perfect our union, inequalities can be reduced so that someday perhaps every American will have not only great opportunity, but equal opportunity as well.