Why Some Americans Are More Equal Than Others

Americans pride themselves on an egalitarian society open to all. But some equality and inequality exist uneasily side by side. And the U.S. has never resolved this contradiction.

If the world is lucky enough to produce historians of the early 21st century, one question seems certain to grab their attention. How did so much equality coexist with so much inequality?

Economic inequality—the difference between the richest and the poorest, or between the rich and everyone else —has reached some of its highest levels ever, both in the U.S. and at around the world. Yet our time is also marked by a historically unique conviction that everyone matters equally.

Consider the evidence for equality. Here in the U.S., constitutional law is speeding to declare everyone’s marriage, and more deeply everyone’s love, equally valid and important. Gender equality and racial equality are untouchable constitutional principles—even though there is sharp disagreement over just what they mean. From the president’s Cabinet and the Supreme Court to entering classes at top universities, we judge institutions by their representativeness; everyone must be there, even if only in token numbers. Mandatory accommodations for the disabled make room for people who were unthinkingly excluded from social and economic life for centuries. Campaigns against bullying make a political issue of the casual cruelty of the strong against the weak, the cool against the uncool, that used to be part of the Hobbesian jungle of growing up. Instead of statues of generals, we put up monuments to ordinary soldiers, lists of names rather than men on horseback.

And inequality? It isn’t just Thomas Piketty’s now-famous findings on wealth and income, which show a new Gilded Age emerging. It’s the way that growing inequality affects every area of life: college applicants and students, for instance, are much more strategic than they once were, more focused on the “return on investment” from their classes and other involvements, because the economic game of life has become more lavish toward its winners, harsher on its losers. Applications to top schools are much more competitive because everyone is aware that the society is sorting itself into the successful and everyone else.

A certain callousness toward everyone else seems to be part of the package. Mass incarceration sets aside a big chunk of the male population, especially black men, as more or less unemployable and often unable to vote—sometimes for terrible crimes, but often for nothing worse than what many of the “winners” will do in their college dorms. Illegal immigration has produced a caste of legally vulnerable workers who do much of the manual labor in large parts of the country, meaning the workforce is stratified by race and language, with much of the essential work done by people not “like you.” Black family wealth remains between one-ninth and one-twelfth the level of white family wealth, a shocking disparity. Militarized policing means that, while privileged citizens can assume that the peacekeepers are more or less on their side, some communities feel they are living under occupation.

So much equality and so much inequality. What is this era when they coexist in such strong forms? How do they relate to each other?

There’s no easy answer, but here are three takes on how our equality and inequality are connected, each with some claim to be right.

ONE: They’re consistent. On this take, our inequality is just the flip side of our equality. Americans are individualists and capitalists. We treat everyone alike, right up to the starting line of life, and then let the chips fall where they may. On this theory, equality just means equal opportunity—to succeed or fail.

There’s something to this. U.S. politics, culture, and constitutional law all have long histories of treating equality of opportunity as the only equality that matters. Still, this take doesn’t explain racial disparities in a satisfactory way. It can’t show why so few Harvard students come from non-wealthy families. Its most basic problem is that it can’t justify where we put “the starting line of life”: Why do we tolerate massive inequalities in family resources, educational opportunities, neighborhood safety and policing practices, etc? Yes, we have a foreground of market and meritocratic competition that runs against a background of unequal resources; but to call this equality of opportunity is more a slogan, or a joke, than an explanation.

This leads to TWO: Equality and inequality are consistent, but in a bad way. Inequality is compensatory. It’s precisely because there’s so much inequality that we make such a show of treating everyone alike. This take has undertones of the Marxian theory of false consciousness—we’re suckered into thinking we’re egalitarian when really we’re the opposite—but one of its loudest exponents is Justice Clarence Thomas, the arch-conservative who denounces affirmative action as an aesthetic Band-Aid on a deeply elitist and exclusionary education system. Justice Thomas said this most famously in a case involving affirmative action at the University of Michigan, where former justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that affirmative action enables the country’s elite institutions to appear open to all, and hence legitimate, without taking on the awkward question of how open they really are.

But this cynical take is too glib and sweeping to explain everything. Equal access for disabled people, anti-bullying campaigns, and—front and center these days—meaningful equality for all kinds of sexual identities really do make the country more humane. They aren’t just compensating for something else. Whatever the ironies of affirmative action, the people who implement it are anything but cynical: They are trying to maintain decently open and diverse institutions in a deeply unequal society. Equality and inequality are all mixed up together, but it isn’t because gains in equality are covering up inequality.

Maybe, then, a THIRD take is right. It’s all contingent, as historians like to say—one damned thing after another. Maybe it just turned out this way. From the 1970s forward, struggles for multiculturalism, gender equality and diverse sexuality won decisively in certain spheres—education, especially the universities, and the culture industry, especially television—and have become touchstones of right-thinking people. At the same time, in contests over material inequality—whether it was universal day care, unionization, or school funding—people seeking greater equality were losing. American capitalism was becoming more brass-knuckled, profits were up—especially for the deregulated financial industry—and wages were stagnating. On this take, two contests over inequality have been happening for 40 years or so. The left won the cultural contest, and the right won the economic one. It just happened that way.

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There’s a lot to this, but even if it “just happened,” it wasn’t random. It suggests a way that the changes are consistent, after all. The country has become more libertarian across the board. In cultural matters, this change tilts left because it protects people’s identities and private decisions. In economics, it tilts right because it cuts back regulation and accepts unequal market outcomes.

The origins of this libertarianism are not in philosophical consistency, but in political power: It turns out that Big Money can fight a lot more effectively for its interests than Old Bigotry can—at least in this hyper-mobile, media-savvy, and economically unequal world.

It’s ironic that we are so equal and so unequal at the same time; but the bigger irony is elsewhere: it’s the effect of our libertarianism on the political imagination. In our ever-more-equal culture, we are happy to imagine dozens of ways that people can live, together or apart. For a couple of decades now, racial and cultural identities have been outrunning the Census, while sexual identities keep proliferating. Again, all of this is good; it makes the world more humane and open, avoids unnecessary suffering and shame, and puts bigotry to bed, maybe for good.

But at the same time, our massive economic inequality has spurred very little serious and visible thinking about alternatives. In the last Gilded Age, you could find socialists, communists, various kinds of Christian reformers, populists and neo-Jeffersonians all clamoring to put the economy on a fairer basis.

By contrast, our economic libertarianism seems to have shut down the capacity for real political imagination about inequality of wealth. Most of us act as if we really believe Margaret Thatcher’s famous line, “There is no alternative” to the way we live now, so complaining is useless. If we don’t overcome that inhibition and find ways of imagining a fairer economy—as a democratic problem—the internal contradictions of our oh-so-equal and oh-so-unequal society will keep proliferating.