Yesterday, I participated in a panel discussion on equality. The panel was part of the 10th Annual O’Bannon Institute for Community Service, held at Ivy Tech Community College in Bloomington.
Our panel’s charge was very broad: we were supposed to discuss “equality” and consider America’s progress toward achieving it. In addition to me, the panel included a retired Pastor who heads the Bloomington Human Rights Commission, a social worker who founded and runs an organization called “Fair Talk” focused on equal rights for GLBT folks, and an 86-year old former football star who was the first African-American recruited by the NFL.
Beyond sharing stories from our different perspectives, we confronted a question: what do we mean by equality? No two people, after all, are equally smart, equally good-looking, equally talented or hardworking. What sorts of equality can we reasonably expect to achieve?
At the very least, we agreed that all Americans are entitled to equality before the law. Laws that disadvantage people based upon race, religion, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation—laws that treat people differently simply based upon their identity—cannot be justified. America’s greatest promise has been that our laws treat individuals as individuals, and not as members of a group. As a country, we are making progress toward that goal. The progress is halting, and the culture sometimes lags, but we’re getting there.
That’s the good news. The bad news, as the pastor reminded us, is that inequalities of wealth and power in this country are enormous and growing. The wealthiest Americans not only control a huge percentage of the country’s resources, their wealth also allows them to exercise disproportionate political power. America is in real danger of becoming a plutocracy.
I hasten to assure my readers that there weren’t any socialists on that panel; no one was advocating class warfare or massive redistribution of wealth. We all understand the benefits of market economies, and recognize that inequalities are inevitable in such systems. The problems arise when the inequities become too large, and when they are seen as the product of privilege and status rather than entrepreneurship and/or diligence. It is then that they breed social resentment and create political instability.
America is doing a reasonable job of leveling the legal playing field. But you can’t eat legal equality, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it won’t cure cancer.