WE MUST DO A BETTER JOB AT LEVELING THE PLAYING FIELD:  As long as roughly a third of black Americans sit on the bottom of the nation’s economic pyramid and have little chance of moving up, the United States will have a serious racial problem on its hands.  There is simply no way around that cold reality.  It is pointless to say that the problem is class, not race, if race and class are tightly linked.

During the past several decades, Americans have witnessed an esoteric debate over whether society must provide equality of opportunity or somehow ensure equality of result.  It is, however, something of a phony debate, for the two concepts are not altogether separate things.  If America was, in fact, providing equality of opportunity, then we would have something closer to equality of racial result than we do at present.  The problem is that equality of opportunity has generally been defined quite narrowly – such as simply letting blacks and whites take the same test, or apply for the same job.

Equality of opportunity is meaningless when inherited wealth is a large determinant of what schools one attends (and even whether one goes to school), what neighborhoods one can live in, and what influences and contacts one is exposed to.  In Black Wealth, White Wealth, sociologists Melvin Oliver and Tom Shapiro pointed out that most blacks have virtually no wealth – even if they do earn a decent income.  Whites with equal educational levels to blacks typically have five to ten times as much wealth, largely because whites are much more likely to inherit gifts of substantial unearned assets.  This disparity is a direct result of Jim Crow practices and discriminatory laws and policies.

America is not about to adopt any scheme to redistribute resources materially.  What Americans must do, however, if we are at all serious about equality of opportunity, is to make it easier for those without substantial resources to have secure housing outside urban ghettos, to receive a high-quality education, and to have access to decent jobs.

Ellis Cose
November 24, 1996, Newsweek