Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Exam week, another history essay

Equality, in America?

Robert M. Barga

Equality is an ideal that all people seek to achieve, and yet very few in the world actually have ever seen it, let alone had it. Throughout the entire history of the United States, various groups have tried, and slowly succeeded, in gaining rights and freedoms that others in the country have; these rights and freedoms would make that group equal with the rest. Once that group gets those rights, it usually joins in the status quo and tries to keep others from gaining those rights (i.e. women opposed to black rights, Irish opposed to black rights, black opposed to gay rights). This internal struggle for freedom and rights shows that various members of the country perceive that they are not equal, regardless of whether they are or are not. Now Americans no longer argue (as openly or as much) about gender and race1, but mental attractions (sexuality) and age. Over the years America has changed and accepted more and more people into her borders. Along with her growth, she has become more open, and more accepting. America today is a far more equal society then America was a century ago.

Humans tend to think of freedom, and only freedom, when talking about equality. This is a common misconception, and one that should be discouraged. Equality is far more than just freedoms; it is the very simple concept of being seen, not just treated, as the rest of the community. Class, socio-economic, education, rights, freedom, justice, and the right to be admitted into groups: these are all aspects of equality, and all need to be considered when deciding if America is truly equal.

Starting with class and socio-economic factors, one can see the first threads of inequality in the 1870s. In this decade, and the ones following it, America was broken into various parts. There were farmers, business owners, and barons, all in well-defined class roles. America also had economic divisions based on the location of where people lived in the country. People in the South were typically poorer, while the industrialists in the North had the cash2. Though the social hierarchy was not specifically rigid, for the most part, people who were well off stayed well off, no matter what. As the socio-economic and class structure were rigid3, this factor of equality was lacking.

On the other hand, if one looks at the socio-economic and class boundaries of modern day America they see only a bunch of fluid gray lines. While there are still some class differentials (arguably race and gender, when discussing pay), for the most part, America seems fluid in this regard. The only lines now seen are based on earning a high school diploma or not, and those are only seen after a lifetime4. People rise and fall in modern America, usually not dependent on the class that they were born in to. President Clinton, President Obama, and President Reagan all show that any person can achieve the highest position in the land by working hard and applying themselves. These people started with limited social and financial means, and achieved great things using their own personal skills. It becomes clear that modern day America is far more equal in the socio-economic and class category than the 1870s.

Another facet of equality is the overall quality of education. The more equal and applied education in the country, the more equal the society. In 1870, education was extremely limited. Children were not required to go to school, most people went only part of the year (due to the agricultural nature of the country), and most Americans dropped out before sixth grade. Overall, the quality of the school was also sub par, with kids of all levels learning together. It wasn't until 1870 that schools were governed by the Federal Government5, and they did not do a very good job of it. Even upper-education was not equal, as only the white males were admitted to most universities. There was no equality in education in the 1870s.

In today's America, however, the Federal and State Governments try to work together to ensure a quality education to all children. They try to make sure that students know the basics, and know what is necessary for the real world. Additionally, children are required to stay in school until they are 16, which is a vast leap from the 1870 world. Though there is still a slight disparity in upper-education, most universities enroll roughly 34%6 of minority students, marking a much more equal and fair measure. It is clear that modern education, though not completely equal or fair, is still far more equal than its counter part in the 1870s.

Justice is a key aspect of an equal society. Unless the courts are just – applying the rule of law equally and fairly to all person - there can be no equality in America. Court-rulings favoring whites, and yet with the same evidence and basic case ruling against a black man, is clear evidence of an unjust, and thus unequal, society. Men, women, blacks, white, it should not matter to the courts, nor should it matter in the eyes of law enforcement when they seek to prosecute a case. Without this justice, there can be no equality.

In the 1870s, there was no justice for black men, nor was there justice for women. Blacks were routinely beaten, lynched, and killed while the law enforcers turned a blind eye7. The Chinese were subject to the same treatment, with very little justice given to them when they were wronged. The same was true for women, though to a lesser extent, as many were seen to be less than men. Though there was never a ‘rule of thumb’ (that applied to carpentry)8, women, as well as all other minorities, had little justice in 1870s America. Unless a person was a white male, chances were that they would not get a fair trial, nor exercise their legal rights, anywhere in the country.

In sharp contrast, however, is modern day America. Though there are laws that appear to target minorities (drug laws), the American justice system has made progress towards being fair and just. Gone are the days when courts employed only white juries9 , along with the days when women were kept off of the bench. Minorities now are given a jury of their peers, a jury that shares the makeup of the American people. Though there are cases of police brutality and profiling, most often of Muslims and Latinos, the law enforcement personal are much fairer then in the past. This drastic change in the fairness of justice serves to show that there is more equality, at least in this regard, in the 2000s than in the 1870s.

Rights and freedoms are the quintessential evidence of equality, as it is clear that people are not equal if they are treated differently and given different privileges, and they go hand-in-hand when you seek to discuss the history of the American people. The nation was set up – after the Articles of Confederation fiasco - on the concept that there were certain rights which all persons living in the country would be granted. Of course, there was argument concerning what counted as a person, but the founding fathers all agreed that blacks were not a full person, they were only three fifths of one10. Over the course of her history, America has added one group after another, from women to blacks to Irish to Gays, to being considered full citizens.

In the 1870s, blacks were no longer considered three fifths of a person; the 14th Amendment had given them full personhood and citizenship. That said, however, they were still not granted the same rights as other Americans. Nor, for that matter, were women, Chinese, Irish, or even poor people living in various communities. Once the Reconstruction Era ended, the South moved back into its old ways11. Minorities could not vote, could not hold office, could not sue, and had various other basic rights and freedoms taken away from them. For almost a century, blacks in the south had no basic rights or freedoms, and thus America was not an equal country.

In the 1950s and 60s, Americans were quickly changing the way that minorities were treated. The Civil Rights Movement gave blacks the right to vote, along with various other civil rights that they wanted. Though there have been attempts by various groups to remove these rights, America has left them bestowed upon her people. To drive this point home, the first black president just took office, a feat in equality and rights that was never before believed possible. It is clear that America is recognizes, or at least honors, far more rights and freedoms then she did in the 1870s.

The last prong of equality is not what a country does, but what her people do. The allowance for a person to join a group, a club, or an event is a clear sign of equality, as it shows that they are accepted for who they are, not what they are. In the 1870s, blacks, women, and Irish were not allowed in many clubs. There were men only parlors, colored water fountains, and no Irish need apply signs. The people of America were actively excluding these people from their ranks, and they were doing so with discrimination in the private sector. This is, in no way, equality.

It was not until the 1990s that women were allowed to join various ‘mens’ clubs, like Lions Club and Rotary. Blacks could not go onto golf courses or race in cars until the1980s. Now, however, the most prominent golfer is a black man, and two women drive cars for NASCAR. There is a black president, a black leader of the GOP, and several black governors. America has embraced the allowance of minorities into positions in the public, and in the private. This show, quite clearly, that America is far more equal, in terms of groups and the private life, now then it was in the past.

Equality is, simply put, the fact that people are treated the same, even when they are not seen the same. While it is allowed to discern if a person is white or black, male or female, old or young, it is not permitted to change the actions you take due to this. If the country acts differently in justice, rights, economics, education, or a whole slew of other areas simply because the person is different, then the country is not equal. In the 1870s, America was nowhere near equal. Her minorities were systematically harmed, attacked, and disenfranchised. In modern America, for the most part, all people are treated equally and fairly. It is clear, when looking at the main conditions of equality, that modern America is far, far more equal than 1870s America.

1 Ignore any concern over Obama and Clinton, while mainstream America focused on their minority status, it was not a major deciding factor in votes.

2Rising Wage Dispersion Across American Manufacturing Establishments, 1850-1880, Jeremy Atack

3Education and Social Structure: An Historical Study of Iowa, 1870-1930. Final Report.

4Learn More, Earn More. – last seen 3/12/09

5Elementary Education Act 1870

7 Lynching in the New South – Brundage, William Fitzhugh - University of Illinois Press, 1993 – PG 133

9 Norris V. Alabama 294 U.S. 587; 55 S. Ct. 579

10 US Constitution, Article 1, Section 2, Portion 3

11 Creating Jim Crow - - last seen 3/12/09


Ander said...

How can you support the ideas of equality and equity and still vote?

Barga said...



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