Redefining Equality: Lessons Learned From Brown v Board of Education

Equality ensures that people are treated equally. It reduces discrimination that can cause negative impacts on subgroups of society. Gender equality (equal treatment of women and men) and racial, political, and economic equality are all examples of equality. However, at United Way NCA, we know equity, not equality, is the key to a vibrant community.

Equality of Opportunity

Five distinct cases were combined into the Supreme Court case known as Brown v. Board of Education: Brown, Briggs v. Elliot, Davis v. Board of Education of Prince Edward County (VA), Bolling v. Sharpe, and Gebhart v. Belton. The fundamental problem at hand in all of these cases was state-sponsored school segregation in American cities and towns. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund handled each lawsuit filed by the plaintiffs, who sought an end to segregation in each case. Thurgood Marshall presented a wide range of arguments during the Court’s oral argument to back up his claim that segregated schools were not “equal” by any means and that they violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

 He based his argument on the idea that separate school systems were inherently unequal and argued that social science research supported the conclusion that such a system was psychologically damaging to black children.

This was a significant extension of the strategy first laid out in the 1930s by Charles Hamilton Houston, then the Dean of Howard Law School and a mentor to his star pupil, Thurgood Marshall, who went on to be both the director of the Legal Defense Fund and a Supreme Court Justice. The success of this strategy proved essential to the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown. Today, the work of LDF continues in the spirit of Brown by fighting to end segregation and other forms of inequality that limit the opportunities of people of color. For example, the LDF’s efforts on the School-to-Prison Pipeline seek to replace punitive and exclusionary school discipline policies that disproportionately impact students of color with common-sense alternatives that promote safe, healthy, and inclusive learning environments.

Equity of Opportunity

The movement that grew out of Brown—the fight for other minority rights, feminism, LGBT and disability rights, and more—was not just about the desegregation of schools but about equity of opportunity. However, the gulf between what is promised and what is delivered in American education remains unbridged. Generally speaking, those who argue for equality of opportunity say that advantaged positions and goods should be open to all in the ways they can pursue them without being constrained by arbitrary differences like class, racialized group membership, or gender. This might also be called the “meritocratic” conception of Equality of Opportunity (though that term is sometimes used differently).

However, there are substantial reasons to think this deontic idea about equality of opportunity fails to justify the extent to which economic and social class advantages self-perpetuate. For example, children from wealthy families tend to perform better on standardized tests than poorer ones. This enables them to get better colleges and jobs and eventually out-earn their counterparts from poorer backgrounds.

These thin conceptions of Equality of Opportunity identify only a limited range of factors that count as opportunity-undermining, ruling out caste hierarchy and manifest constraints on competing for or obtaining a good but failing to address a broad swath of other factors that could plausibly be seen as relevant. The distinction between deontic and telic ideas of Equality of Opportunity should be balanced, but it may help draw the contrast between different substantive views.

Equity of Opportunity for Achievement

As the conversation evolves around gaps in educational achievement, one concept that must be considered is equity. It focuses on taking the same opportunities presented to students and adding supplemental resources to turn the playing field into a level one for every student. This includes but is not limited to ensuring that all children are offered a physically and psychologically safe learning environment, quality instruction from well-prepared teachers, curriculum, and content that aligns with cultural and identity needs, intentional recruitment of girls and students who identify as LGBTQIA+ for courses where they are underrepresented, and dismantling written and unwritten policies that discriminate against these communities. Some people believe that a less demanding conception of equality of opportunity is acceptable. They might agree that everyone should be free to pursue happiness, wealth, and education if their obstacles are the same and not impossible. This is also known as the “level playing field” view. This less demanding view of equality is critical because it entails a minor infringement on valuable forms of individual liberty, such as the freedom to make risky investments. However, a growing number of people argue that a more demanding view of equality of opportunity is needed to combat the effects of systemic racism, and they are advocating for a version of equality that requires everyone to face the same obstacles regardless of the circumstances in which they were born or their natural talents.

Equity of Opportunity for Success

A thicker conception of Equality of Opportunity may be more concerned with identifying a more comprehensive range of factors that are impermissible determinants of persons’ prospects for success. Thus, for example, even if direct discrimination based on race, sex, or religion is ruled out by the requirement that positions be open to all, a person’s chances of success might be undermined by other forms of indirect disadvantage that are harder to discern.

Different approaches to this issue have focused on identifying which factors obstruct persons’ enjoyment of a fair chance and then determining how far the relevant principles should limit those factors. Some have argued, for instance, that family nurture disrupts equality of opportunity by creating unequal life prospects. Still, they have defended the family as a social institution needed to serve essential values. Others, however, have argued that this approach needs to be narrower. They have suggested that a defensible concept of Equality of Opportunity ought to embrace the notion of “opportunity pluralism,” which would allow for a more significant number of paths for successfully pursuing roles and positions. This approach is arguably closer to the ideal that was at the heart of Brown v. Board of Education. The family, for instance, is a crucial pathway that allows individuals to acquire the qualities they need to compete in societal competition successfully. This approach should ensure equality of opportunity, at least concerning attaining roles and positions.