Overview of Equal Opportunity
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and The Leadership Conference Education Fund believes that equal opportunity has successfully extended equal opportunities to qualified women and people of color for over 25 years, leveling the playing field and encouraging diversity in the areas of education, employment, and government contracting.
Americans for a Fair Chance (AFC), a project of The Education Fund, was created to educate the public and the media on the ways that equal opportunity benefits the nation. Equal opportunity means taking positive steps to end discrimination, to prevent its recurrence, and to create new opportunities that were previously denied qualified minorities and women.
President Lyndon Johnson explained the rationale behind the use of equal opportunity to achieve equal opportunity in a 1965 speech: “You do not take a person, who for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still believe that you have been completely fair.”
The debate over equal opportunity carries with it enormous implications for the lives of women and people of color, since such programs have created opportunities too long denied them.
Opponents of equal opportunity, however, have attacked these policies in the federal courts with increasing frequency. In June 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision on equal opportunity, upholding the use of race in admissions decisions.
Reiterating America’s commitment to equal opportunity, the court concluded that “effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized.”
In employment, equal opportunity encompasses a broad range of actions intended to ensure a fair chance at job opportunities for all Americans. Examples of equal opportunity programs in the employment context include:
- Identifying and dismantling discriminatory barriers such as biased testing or recruitment and hiring practices;
- Conducting outreach to underrepresented women and minorities by targeting colleges, ethnic media, or women and minority organizations;
- Increasing workplace diversity by allowing factors such as race, ethnicity or gender to be among those considered in evaluating qualified candidates;
- Instituting and reviewing mentoring and targeted training programs;
- Addressing hidden biases in recruitment, hiring, promotion, and compensation practices, such as unnecessary job requirements; and
- Setting flexible goals for managers and supervisors.
Similarly, federal economic development programs counter the effects of discrimination that have raised artificial barriers to the formation, development, and utilization of businesses owned by disadvantaged individuals, including women and people of color.
As a result, women and people of color have broken down barriers at all levels and in all segments of the American workforce – as professors, police officers, doctors, engineers, pilots, firefighters, and corporate executives.
Affirmative efforts to extend equal educational opportunities to qualified women and people of color have significantly increased the participation of underrepresented groups in the mainstream of our society – to the benefit of our entire nation.
In fact, gains in the employment context have often been made possible by equal opportunity programs that created educational opportunities for women and people of color in colleges, law schools, medical schools, and elsewhere.
In the 1978 decision of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that diversity could be a compelling governmental interest that permits the use of race as a factor in a narrowly tailored university admissions program.
In opposing the use of race as a factor in university admissions, opponents fail to acknowledge that admissions decisions have always been based on factors in addition to grades and tests scores, such as geography, unusual talents or experiences, athletic participation, or whether the applicant is a son or daughter of an alumnus. For the past thirty years, using race along with other factors has enriched the educational experience on our nation’s campuses and broadened equal opportunity for minorities in higher education.
Nonetheless, challenges to equal opportunity programs continue to mount. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit barred Texas public colleges from considering the race of prospective students; Proposition 209 amended the California Constitution by banning equal opportunity in higher education admissions, as well as public employment and contracting; Washington state passed Initiative-200, which also banned use of equal opportunity policies in higher education admissions, public employment, and contracting; and in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush implemented an executive order eliminating the use of race and gender in government employment, contracting, and higher education admissions decisions.
Twenty-five years after Bakke, in a closely watched decision on equal opportunity, the Supreme Court reaffirmed that universities may take race into consideration as one factor among many when selecting incoming students. In a 5-4 opinion written by Justice O’Connor, the court in Grutter v. Bollinger specifically endorsed Justice Powell’s view in Bakke that student body diversity is a compelling state interest that can justify using race in university admissions.
Gratz v. Bollinger involved a separate challenge to the undergraduate admissions program used at the University of Michigan, which differs from the program used at the law school. In a 6 to 3 opinion written by Chief Justice Rehnquist, the Court held in Gratz that the university's use of race in this program was not narrowly tailored to achieve the university’s asserted interest in diversity.
A Demonstrated Need
- Opponents of equal opportunity argue that the playing field has been leveled, therefore rendering equal opportunity futile. But "judging simply by the results, the playing field would appear to still be tilted very much in favor of white men. Overall, minorities and women are in vastly lower paying jobs and still face active discrimination in some sectors" (The Washington Post, October 1998).
- The continuing need for equal opportunity is demonstrated by the data. For example, the Asian American Justice Center reports that although white men make up only 48 percent of the college-educated workforce, they hold over 90 percent of the top jobs in the news media, 96 percent of CEO positions, 86 percent of law firm partnerships, and 85 percent of tenured college faculty positions.
Anyone committed to social justice and equal rights must concern themselves with the importance of preserving equal opportunity as a way of helping to ensure that all individuals in our society have an equal opportunity to succeed.