Troubled by growing inequality—as we all should be—Christine Sypnowich argues that opportunity-based egalitarianism is an insufficient tool for promoting a just society. I welcome her emphasis on equality of outcome, her focus on the non-material dimensions of flourishing, and her recognition that putting outcome-based egalitarianism into practice can be challenging because we all envision the good life differently. She effectively shows how far the landscape of liberal egalitarian thought has shifted toward opportunity-based egalitarianism over the last five decades.
In doing so, she joins a long debate over the meaning of President Lyndon Johnson’s ambiguous injunction to seek “equality as a fact and equality as a result.” This issue occupied many social scientists in the 1960s and 1970s. In thinking about how outcome-oriented egalitarian visions might be strengthened today, we should recall the pitfalls of these earlier arguments. In particular, outcome-oriented egalitarians must be explicit about the causes of unequal outcomes in order to avoid suggesting that cultural or biological factors—rather than unjust social and political arrangements—are to blame. Which results one is seeking to equalize—test scores, income, wealth, or other measures of flourishing—also matters enormously in generating the political will to translate egalitarian theory into practice.
On the first point, it is instructive to revisit the debate over sociologist James S. Coleman’s influential report, Equality of Educational Opportunity (1966), which was commissioned under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite its title, the report is notable for laying emphasis on outcomes; it spurred a new research paradigm that helped launch movements for educational testing and accountability. But both its findings and its methodology proved controversial. Based on statistical analysis of data from one of the largest national surveys of educational inequality produced by the mid-1960s, which surveyed 4,000 public schools and 645,000 students, the report found that factors such as increased school funding or per-student spending, improved facilities, and greater extracurricular offerings were not associated with better outcomes—test scores, in particular—for poor and minority students, though it did note that school desegregation by race and class was slightly correlated with smaller achievement gaps. “Whatever may be the combination of nonschool factors—poverty, community attitudes, low educational level of parents—which put minority children at a disadvantage in verbal and nonverbal skills when they enter the first grade,” the report concluded, “the fact is the schools have not overcome it.”
Many advocates of racial equality balked at this causal agnosticism, fearing that it opened the door to victim blaming. As I have detailed elsewhere, leading social scientific voices in the civil rights and Black Power movements—including Charles Hamilton, who coauthored Black Power with Stokely Carmichael in 1967—thought that Coleman’s study, even if well intentioned, could backfire. Others worried that by exposing the persistence of unequal educational outcomes despite efforts to equalize educational inputs, such arguments could be used to blame African American families for achievement gaps, let racist school systems “off the hook,” and rationalize reduced educational spending. This was no idle worry in the years when the Moynihan Report and Arthur Jensen’s racist work alleging the largely genetic basis of intelligence were reasserting paradigms that “blamed the victim,” in this case suggesting African American communities and culture—rather than structural and institutional racism—were responsible for intergenerational poverty.
Psychologist Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto: Dilemmas of Social Power (1965) helped explain how outcome talk, like opportunity talk, could obscure systemic discrimination. Clark would likely have agreed with Sypnowich that “it is difficult to draw a sharp line between what one chooses—and thus what one can be said to be responsible for—and what is the result of factors beyond a person’s control.” But in the educational context, this has meant that assigning responsibility for academic performance can be difficult—in the worst case, leading to mystification about the sources of unequal outcomes. Decrying a host of racist assumptions institutionalized in Harlem’s white-led school system, Clark wrote:
The fallacy in the assumptions does not mean that a system based upon them will be demonstrated to be ineffective; for once one organizes an educational system where children are placed in tracks or where certain judgements about their ability determine . . . how much they are taught . . . the horror is that the results seem to justify the assumption.
In pursuing equality of flourishing, we should be attentive to these risks of outcome-oriented advocacy that worried thoughtful critics in the past.
As for what types of results should be equalized, this too emerged as a focus of debate in the early 1970s. An influential study by a team of seven sociologists led by Christopher Jencks, Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (1972), emphasized that educational reform could not reduce economic inequality without a wider transformation of employment, tax, and welfare policies. “As long as egalitarians assume that public policy cannot contribute to economic equality directly but must proceed by ingenious manipulations of marginal institutions like the schools,” the authors held, “progress will remain glacial.”
This argument set off a firestorm of protest. Some social scientists accused Jencks of methodological errors. Many civil rights advocates took offense at the study’s claims about race and heredity, and others argued that both Coleman and Jencks misread the political landscape. “Although Jencks’s motives may have been meritorious,” Ronald Edmonds and nine coauthors of “A Black Response to Christopher Jencks’s Inequality and Certain Other Issues” (1973) argued, “in the effort to make his point about the need for fundamental social change his work does a disservice to black and low-income children.” Since most liberals already knew that “it will take social change in addition to educational opportunity to right the wrongs of this country,” Edmonds feared that Inequality would convince policymakers “that we need not worry about education because only social and economic change will bring about educational gain.” And in fact, Inequality was published at a time of pervasive opposition to all types of educational equalization—right before Milliken v. Bradley (1974) undermined urban–suburban busing and San Antonio v. Rodriguez (1973) allowed states to avoid redistributive school finance reform.
To address these concerns, Sypnowich might clarify which outcomes progressives should try to equalize first. The trope of the “undeserving poor” has led Americans to be more generous in their educational than their social welfare policies, and the Inequality controversy illustrates the stark political obstacles to a policy agenda focused on equal socioeconomic—as opposed to educational—results. By removing merit “from the opportunity-results sequence,” Donald Levine and Mary Jo Bane emphasized in 1975, calls to equalize economic results substitute “the notion that people should be rewarded according to their performance with the idea that worldly goods should be distributed more or less equally.” And yet, by suggesting that “no individual really deserves anything,” outcome-based egalitarian visions are “profoundly uncomfortable . . . for people living in a capitalist and ostensibly meritocratic society,” since they imply that “the inequalities so long accepted as proper are, in fact, unjust.”
I applaud Sypnowich for reviving attention to equality of results in a manner that is sensitive to the challenges of past efforts. Even so, since outcome-oriented egalitarianism competes with other deeply held American values—merit, private property, and a notion of family according to which one should be free to pass privilege to one’s children—those of us who join Sypnowich in a pluralist, communitarian effort to promote equality of outcome should brace for a fight.
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