We like to tell ourselves stories about the virtues of America, particularly as Independence Day rolls around each year. There is, perhaps, no better example than the story we tell our children that no matter your race, gender or wealth, in America you can become anything you want to be. This particular example captures the idea that America is a meritocracy, a place where talent and effort are rewarded. If true, then one is not trapped by circumstances beyond his or her control. We like to believe that the inequities that exist at any moment are not permanent and that those persisting over time are merely a reflection of what individuals deserve. Ultimately, this is a story about equality of opportunity.

Sadly, for many, myth and reality are worlds apart, whether we are discussing the dismal prospects faced by many African-American males or the fact that women are not treated equally in the work place. In America, our social and political institutions have created and maintain a system of privilege for some and disadvantage for others. If you are one of the latter, it is possible to escape your fate, but only if you are able to overcome the odds stacked against you.


If we are committed to the idea that America should be a meritocracy, as I think we are, then we must be committed to equality of opportunity. But, what is equality of opportunity and what does it demand? Despite what many conservatives might claim, it is not the same thing as freedom. Under a common understanding of freedom, you are free if you are not prevented from trying to achieve your goals. This, however, falls woefully short of equality of opportunity. It fails to account for the ways social and economic circumstances disadvantage many through no fault of their own. One needs more than noninterference to have an equal chance at success.

To understand this point imagine a race in which the officials have removed any debris from the track, but allowed some people to start fifteen yards ahead of everyone else. Assuming you are not one of the lucky ones, it is no doubt true that you are "free" to win the race, but your chances of doing so are not equal. Whether you win or not, you would be right to complain that the race isn't fair. Equality of opportunity requires that when we start we have equal chances to win.

As a social value, it requires that we each have an equal opportunity to create a life of our own choosing. This doesn't guarantee that life, but an equal opportunity to pursue it. Some might think that this condemns any program that provides preferences or additional resources to some over others. In some cases this is true. Corporate welfare and tax-breaks for the wealthy are both examples of government involvement that undermines equality of opportunity.

There are other interventions that may, at first blush, seem to conflict with equality of opportunity; and if all other things were equal, they might. In reality, however, the social and political obstacles faced by different groups are decidedly not equal. As a consequence, additional funding for education in economically disadvantaged areas, public funding for health care and other social services, affirmative action, and equal rights protections all promote equality of opportunity by giving each individual an equal chance to succeed.

But what about the rags-to-riches stories that are woven throughout the American narrative? We have all heard them: An individual through grit and determination overcomes the odds. Don't these stories show that anyone can, in fact, succeed?

Certainly there are those who by luck or will overcome the seemingly insurmountable socially constructed obstacles in their path. Their efforts should be celebrated. They are not, however, stories reflecting a just and virtuous society built on equality of opportunity. They are compelling because they are examples of individuals who have overcome injustice.

Whether one is discussing the injustices laid bare by Baltimore and Ferguson, or the persistent inequities experienced by women in the workplace, a failure to take equality of opportunity seriously is a moral failure that we all share in. What is at stake is the very legitimacy of our social and political institutions. What is at stake is the truth of the American dream.

Joshua Kassner is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Baltimore; his email is jkassner@ubalt.edu.