A slogan I hear often in Utah is
Equal opportunity, not equal outcomes.
The Beehive State sees itself as a paradise of the American dream. There’s very little regulation, a strong preference for businesses over people, and a limited interest in welfare programs outside of Salt Lake City. When people parrot this slogan, they think they’re saying “if you work hard, you can succeed; if you’re lazy, no one’s going to give you a free ride.” Utah’s white majority is proud of this attitude and sees it as the truest and fairest form of equality. While the sentiment is mostly well-intended, it leaves too much unsaid. In fact, the subtext of this slogan is unavoidably racist, sexist, ableist and otherwise prejudiced—words I don’t use lightly. Let me unpack it for a minute and hopefully you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Affirmative action, diversity requirements, and similar policies are meant to increase the opportunities of minority groups, especially when it comes to college admittance and job acquisition. By that metric they are generally successful. Those policies are also of the sort that “opportunity vs. outcomes” people oppose most heatedly. After all, they argue, isn’t that a form of discrimination? A great deal of the debate comes down to policies like these, which ostensibly reduce the opportunities of a certain number of white men without disabilities in order to provide more opportunity to others.
How is this fair? First consider the statistics: with or without affirmative action, whether measured by raw numbers or percentages, white people are more likely to go to college than brown and black people; men are consistently paid more than their female counterparts; and people without disabilities earn much more than those with disabilities (in fact, people with disabilities can even be paid less than minimum wage under U.S. law).
These statistics are drawn from a large data set, which allows us to isolate the effects of race, sex, and disability from unrelated factors like geography and parentage. And the conclusions are significant enough to indicate the existence of a strong pattern: all other factors aside, your default future—education, salary, status—is determined by genetic traits the day you’re born. A sense of injustice about this is foundational to liberal politics.
There are two different ways you can reasonably interpret inequalities of this magnitude.
If you start with the assumption that society is largely made up of fair and equitable systems (that is, a “meritocracy”), then you must also believe that people of color, women and the disabled are inherently worse than their majority counterparts—that society values them less, gives them fewer high school diplomas and lower salaries, because they are actually less valuable, for no other reason than the characteristics they were born with. This is textbook prejudice. It is the very definition of racism, sexism and ableism. It is ethically and morally wrong.
On the other hand: if you start with the assumption that all people are of equal worth (that “all men are created equal”), then you must also believe that society and its institutions are not fair—that, with no justification whatsoever, they bestow a lion’s share of education, wealth and favor on white men without disabilities.
Your own experiences may not reflect this imbalance. There are plenty of able white men who have not attained education or financial stability, and there are plenty of minorities who graduate from college and become wealthy. But these individuals do not disprove the general trend nor do they invalidate the logic I’ve described. You might present anecdotes like these as evidence that if you are smart and hardworking, the odds are irrelevant to your success—but then you would be forced to conclude that women, people with disabilities and people of color are disproportionately unintelligent or lazy on the average, and this is prejudiced.
There’s no scientific justification for prejudice, no logical path to it that doesn’t start with a gut feeling or a false stereotype. No known evidence can support claims of inherent superiority or inferiority. To claim that the statistics I’ve presented are evidence is clearly circular reasoning. So there’s only one supportable conclusion about the status of minorities in the United States right now: we as a culture, our high schools, our laws, our companies and colleges, our hiring practices and admissions criteria, are actively preventing minorities from achieving just and fair outcomes.
Of course, the solution to this is to stop doing it, to set strict rules to prevent ourselves from doing it, and even to correct for it intentionally when we’re distributing opportunities. That’s what affirmative action and similar policies are for.
Now back to opportunity and outcomes. Here’s a syllogism of sorts:
- If successful outcomes result from taking advantage of opportunities;
- And if two groups of people have access to the same set of opportunities;
- And if both groups are inherently equal;
- Then each group should have as many successful outcomes as the other.
In a fair society, opportunity and outcomes would be statistically inseparable. Sure, individuals may under- or over-perform versus their peer group, and we can ascribe that to hard work or smartness or Zodiac signs. But the trend should indicate that people are as equal as we say they are, regardless of race, sex, or disability. The most appropriate way—perhaps the only way—to measure the distribution of opportunity is to observe the distribution of outcomes.
So when people say they’re in favor of “equal opportunity, not equal outcomes,” we can hope they’re saying it naively. But it’s also possible that they’ve considered the facts and concluded that even if everyone has the same opportunities, minorities in particular will broadly fail to take advantage of them. This is prejudice in disguise. The politicians who peddle it as a fair philosophy are only indicating that they’re comfortable with the way things are, and opposed to any policy that would put everyone on equal ground.
I am not saying that we should create individual safety nets and try to legislate equality on an case-by-case basis, a la Harrison Bergeron. But if we believe in fairness, we must hold ourselves to a standard of equal statistical outcomes among each disability group, race, and sex.