What does equality actually look like? That is a question on the table after weeks of protest and demands by activists to fix the systematic inequality that has been exposed in recent months with the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
While President Donald Trump has claimed that the best path to combating racism is equal opportunity and economic prosperity, he is wrong. The history of white American responses to efforts to combat structural inequality during the 1960s and 1970s reveals that Black Americans need equal results in all areas of life, not simply equal economic opportunity. The myth of America as an equal opportunity society has historically allowed white Americans to hold out equality as a promise redeemable in the future but rarely available in the present. Conceiving of equality as an equality of results offers a more concrete response to our current yet long-standing crisis.
A little more than 50 years ago, one mainstream civil rights organization, the National Urban League, asked a fundamental question: Why do Americans believe equal opportunity leads to racial justice and equality?
In 1968, poverty, unemployment, segregated housing, police brutality and failing schools blighted too many African Americans’ lives despite the civil rights movement and the War on Poverty. In response to the glaring absence of equality, the executive director of the Urban League, Whitney Young Jr., announced the Urban League had adopted a “New Thrust” that rejected the nation’s failed promise of equal opportunity.
Instead, the New Thrust proclaimed the Urban League’s commitment to an equality of results whose achievement would redress race-based inequalities and make America more just. The Urban League defined equality of results as group-level equality, that is, the U.S. would become a more equal nation only when the same proportion of any group in American society succeeded or failed in the same proportion as other groups. Equality of results meant Americans’ lives would no longer be shaped by persistent race-based gaps.
The Urban League came to three realizations: First, its decadeslong efforts had never achieved equal opportunity for African Americans given the lack of a national commitment to equality. The executive director of the D.C. Urban League, Sterling Tucker, pointed to the nation’s “stubborn unwillingness to focus on the real problems” and America’s failure “to guarantee freedom, to provide equality of opportunity.” Too many only paid lip service to a “superficial ‘equality of opportunity.’ ”
Second, the Urban League recognized the equal opportunity framework itself was unequal. When Americans claimed equal opportunity worked, they measured progress for Black Americans against the lives of earlier African American generations. Such progress charts, according to Tucker, were meant to “convince us that democracy can work, and that America is indeed a land of equal opportunity.” However, Young insisted, “The measure of equality has to be group achievement; when, in each group in our society, roughly the same proportion of people succeed and fail, then we will have true equality.”
As Tucker observed in 1969, when Black Americans are more likely to be killed by police than white Americans; when Black Americans’ voting rights are more likely to be obstructed; when Black Americans don’t have the same access to health care as white Americans; and Black Americans suffer more from unemployment than white Americans, there is no equality of opportunity.
These failures meant Americans needed to work toward equal results for all based on major structural and systemic change. Tucker called for “the redistribution of capital, resources, and power. … If whites believe democracy can work, they must believe in it enough to make it work.” The Urban League proposed a national “Economic Security Program,” including raising the minimum wage, expanding unemployment benefits, creating a family allowance plan and “guarantee[ing] jobs for all who are able to work.”
In seeking equal results, however, the Urban League did not focus only on economic equality. The New Thrust’s vision of equality as equal results for Black Americans demanded “altering institutions which are inherently oppressive for masses of blacks.” Young called for an end to the “continued emphasis on law and order at the expense of justice” and the Urban League promoted community control of police departments.
During the New Thrust, the Urban League launched programs to improve public education for Black youths. To end inequality, Young called on white Americans to address their own racism since the “problem was not with the Negro community but with the white.” Americans would only end oppression and achieve justice by moving beyond the narrow definition of equality as equal opportunity and finally working for more equal results for all. While equal opportunity had opened doors for a few African Americans, “so long as Black people are at a disproportionate disadvantage in jobs, health, education and housing,” according to Young, equal opportunity operated as a “cruel myth.” Redefining equality as equal results for all Americans, however, would move the nation closer to eliminating these persistent inequalities.
The Urban League proposed its New Thrust and call for equal results at a moment when the nation and the civil rights movement were still reeling from the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. By 1968, the movement that had come together in the 1963 March on Washington had fragmented. The announcement of the League’s New Thrust met with some skepticism from more radical organizations such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). However, in 1969 when Rep. Shirley Chisholm, D-N.Y., spoke during the Urban League’s annual conference about “positive political action,” she offered approval of their new direction when she decried “ ‘false democracy’ ” and, like the League, called for an end to “the reality of two Americans, one white, comfortable and free; the other dark, poor and fettered.”
The Urban League never fully met the ambitious goals it set out in its New Thrust. Whitney Young Jr. met an untimely death in 1971. During the 1970s, the nation experienced declining economic growth as deindustrialization heralded the end of the postwar economic boom. The Urban League, long reliant on external funding sources, saw its funding decline.
Furthermore, most white Americans believed the legislative and judicial victories of the civil rights era had led to equality. Instead, the U.S. continued its ongoing embrace of “law and order” and the War on Crime. By 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan reaffirmed the American myth of “the noble concept of equal opportunity” while criticizing affirmative action. Reagan’s support of equal opportunity and the belief it led to a colorblind meritocracy has helped sustain Americans’ commitment to a version of equality that has never produced racial justice and equality.
America’s failure 50 years ago to answer the Urban League’s call for equal results has led to a country where the ravages of inequality are our lived reality. As the Washington Post reported this summer, “the gap between the finances of blacks and whites is still as wide in 2020 as it was in 1968.” Despite the decadeslong promises of equal opportunity, white Americans still have more wealth, higher incomes and greater access to health care than Black Americans. Black Americans have higher unemployment rates, and are more likely to live in poverty and die of COVID-19 than white Americans.
Making equality real in our time demands Americans go beyond Trump’s promises of equal opportunity and commit to solving our problems and creating a more just society by enacting broad structural change. In short, equal results, not equal opportunity, matter if we really want a more just and equal America.
Elizabeth M. Smith-Pryor is an associate professor of African American History at Kent State University. She is the author of “Property Rites: The Rhinelander Trial, Passing, and the Protection of Whiteness” (UNC Press, 2009) and is currently writing a book about the National Urban League’s New Thrust. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.