Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

The Myth of Equal Opportunity

There has never been equal opportunity in America. Sure, there’s always been opportunity, but it’s never been equal. The wealthy have always gotten better opportunities than the poor. Whites have always gotten better opportunities than blacks or Hispanics or Asians or Native Americans.

Men have almost always gotten paid better than women for the same work. Taller people make more than their shorter peers and the beautiful make more than those of us who are less gifted in the looks department.

But a lot of folks perpetuate the myth that we all have the same chances to improve our lots and that simply isn’t true.

Wealthy Americans send their children to first-rate schools (who can blame them?). They hire people like them – friends of friends or children of friends or even the friends themselves. We are a country that bestows privilege on the privileged.

And we all are victims of unconscious bias, believing lighter skinned people are better than darker skinned folks. Don’t believe me? You can take the Implicit Association Test developed by Mahzarin R. Banaji of Harvard.

Even black people who take the test generally ascribe better qualities to lighter skinned folks than they do to black people.

We also ascribe better qualities to taller people, prettier people and people who dress better. Study after study has shown that we discriminate subconsciously all the time. How does this play out in denying equal opportunity to all?

Police officers of all races subconsciously assume blacks are more likely than whites to be engaging in criminal activity. Teachers subconsciously assume whites are smarter than blacks. Employers subconsciously assume blacks are more likely to loaf on the job or steal or show up late for work.

Add up all these subconscious biases and you get a pattern of second-class treatment that isn’t intentional or mean-spirited – it’s just the way our brains work.

“I’m not one of them,” you say. “I don’t have those biases.”

Maybe not. Maybe you’re one of the very few who can legitimately make that claim. But probably, like me, you have these biases and you have to deal with them.

And the best way to do that is to acknowledge you’ve got them. Accept that you think – deep below the surface – that white is better than black, rich is better than poor, and handsome is better than ugly. Only then can you begin to overcome those hidden biases, by identifying them and giving them some sort of numerical value that you can gradually lower, each time you make a decision, until the number becomes more and more negligible.


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