Equity or Equality of Opportunity

Reprinted with permission from The Eighteenth Century Club, June 27, 2021

See,

George F. Will, “Attacking ‘merit’ in the name of ‘equity’ is a prescription for mediocrity,” Wahington Post, June 25, 2021 (8:00 a.Opportunity. EDT).

Equity versus Equality of Opportunity–with the full text and audio of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a Dream” speech on August 28, 1963

In a not so subtle shift, large segments of the Democratic Party appear to back a change in racial  policy objectives from “equality of opportunity” to “equity” or equality in results.

This shift has led to developments such as the declaration by the new head of NBC news that 50% of new hires would be from minority groups.

Partly as a result of the national outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the mass demonstrations which followed, including the prominent participation of the Black Lives Matter movement, this shift toward “equity” instead of “equality of opportunity” appears to be reflected in the over-representation of African-Americans in the cable news media, including not only hosts but guests and participants in news discussion programs.

With African-Americans representing only 16% of the national population, one would be hard-pressed to justify the over-representation of African-Americans in the news media on the basis of selection of hosts snd guests on merit.

A Harvard philosophy professor, Michael Sandel, has now published a book (The Tyranny of Merit, September 2020) strongly criticizing the model of excellence or merit upon which the equal opportunity principle, embodied in federal law and the Constitution, has been based, particularly since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965.

Sandel, writing from the leafy and privileged enclave of excellence represented by Harvard and Cambridge, Massachusetts, has launched what is, in essence, an attack on the goals of excellence and the distribution of power and social rewards on the basis of merit.

You have to ask yoursel how much experience Sandel has had living or working in countries which don’t aspire to have a government and institutions based on meritocracy and the pursuit of excellence.  We have just had a glimpse for the last four years, under the presidency of Donald Trump,  of what that kind of government might look like.

In other countries, like Afghanistan, we have seen the incoherent policies that result in a country governed not by meritocracy, but by clan rivalries and corruption.

The problem is that if excellence and merit are not the standards used to select officials in government and employees in business, what are the standards that will be used?

If race is used as a criterion for selection, in allocating not only opportunities but also results, how long will it be before those from other races not so favored will rise up in rebellion? What assurances do we have that their rebellion will be constrained by the Constitution and the rule of law?

Maybe it is not the pursuit of excellence or meritocracy per se that is responsible for the racial and social inequities thar exist in society, but a combination of historical, economic, cultural and social forces that have produced the complex reality in which we currently live.

Viewed from this broader perspective, Sandel’s analysis appears to be unduly reductionistic, the product of too much theory and philosophy and insufficient attention to the concrete realities in which people actually live.

Now, George F. Will, a highly respected and insightful conservative columnist for the Washington Post, has written a powerful critique of Sandel’s book and the whole attack on excellence–as an overriding policy goal for society and universities to follow in allocating not only opportunities but also results, i.e., jobs, power, and other social rewards.

Democrats would do well to listen carefully to Will’s arguments.

For the current emphasis on “equity” in the media, including the great over-representation of African-Americans in TV advertising, is likely to have a negative impact on the perceptions and beliefs of white and other citizens and voters who may see, rightly, that their own sons and daughters are being denied the “equality of opportunity” to which, under the law and the Constitution, they ought to be entitled.

Democrats and progressives, if they want to avoid election results that would put Trump’s supporters in control of the House and the Senate, if not the presidency, would do well to stick with the vision of racial equality ariculated by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “I have a dream” speech in 1963, when he said,

SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. (Civil Rights Leader): Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of their captivity.

But 100 years later, the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later…

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: …the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition. In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER

Dr. KING: We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: We have also come to his hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time…

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: …to lift our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. 1963 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again, we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone. And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back.

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, when will you be satisfied? We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive. Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to South Carolina, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our Northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed.

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: So even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream. I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: I have a dream that one day down in Alabama with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right down in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. I have a dream today.

SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith that I go back to the South with. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE

Dr. KING: This will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning: My country, ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrims’ pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true. And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California. But not only that, let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia. Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee. Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: Free at last. Free at last. Thank God almighty, we are free at last.

SOUNDBITE OF CHEERS AND APPLAUSE

–I Have A Dream’ Speech, In Its Entirety

Heard on Talk of the Nation
January 18, 2010 (1:00 PM ET)
With link to audio recording

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.