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Equal Opportunity in a Pluralistic Society

  • James W. Nickel


The United States has never been culturally or religiously homogeneous, but its diversity has greatly increased over the last century. Although the U.S. was first a multicultural nation through conquest and enslavement, its present diversity is due equally to immigration. In this paper I try to explain the difference it makes for one area of thought and policy – equal opportunity – if we incorporate cultural and religious pluralism into our national self-image. Formulating and implementing a policy of equal opportunity is more difficult in diverse, pluralistic countries than it is in homogeneous ones. My focus is cultural and religious diversity in the United States, but my conclusions will apply to many other countries – including ones whose pluralism is found more in religion than in culture.



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1 See Reimers, David M., Still the Golden Door (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985), and Ehrlich, Paul R., Bilderback, Loy, and Erlich, Anne H., The Golden Door: International Migration, Mexico and the United States (New York: Ballantine Books, 1979).

2 English is the common language of the United States, but it is not made the official language in the U.S. Constitution. In November 1986, California voters approved an amendment to the state constitution making English the official language of the state. California Constitution Article 3, section 6, (b). For a discussion of this, see Karst, Kenneth, “Paths to Belonging: The Constitution and Cultural Identity,” North Carolina Lam Review, vol.64 (1986), pp. 351–7. Karst views making English the official language through constitutional amendments as “little more than a nativist symbol,” but he allows that “no one can doubt that language is one of the ‘symbol spheres’ that define social groups and provide justification for social structures.”

3 On these distinctions see Lindblom, Charles, Politics and Markets (New York: Basic Books, 1977).

4 R. A. Schermerhorn gives the following definition of ethnicity: “Each society in the modern world contains subsections or subsystems more or less distinct from the rest of the population. The most fitting generic term to designate this fraction of the whole is ‘ethnic group’. An ethnic group is defined here as a collectivity within a larger society having real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, and a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood. Examples of such symbolic elements are: kinship patterns, physical contiguity (as in localism or sectionalism), religious affiliation, language or dialect forms, tribal affiliation, nationality, phenotypical features, or any combination of these. A necessary accompaniment is some consciousness of kind among members of the group.” Schermerhorn, R. A., Comparative Ethnic Relations: A Framework for Theory and Research (New York: Random House, 1970), p. 12. See also Karst, “Paths to Belonging,” p. 308.

5 See “Democracy Versus the Melting-Pot,” Part Two, The Nation, February 25, 1915, pp. 217–220.

6 See Greeley, Andrew, Ethnicity in the United States (New York: John Wiley, 1974), pp. 290318. See also Novak, Michael, “Cultural Pluralism for Individuals: A Social Vision,” Tumin, Melvin M. and Plotch, Walter, eds., Pluralism in a Democratic Society (New York: Praeger, 1977), pp. 2557.

7 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 195201. Using Rawls's theory of stages does not commit one to accepting the rest of the theory. In particular, one need not accept the kind of reasoning Rawls uses in choosing principles of justice or the two principles of justice that he defends.

8 Rawls's initial formulation prescribes that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are … attached to positions and offices open to all,” A Theory of Justice, p. 60. In the pages that follow, Rawls considers several interpretations of this principle and fixes on a “democratic interpretation” that requires not only that “all have access to all advantaged social positions” (p. 72), but also that “those with similar abilities and skills should have similar life chances” (p. 73). Rawls goes on to suggest that ”It is impossible in practice to secure equal chances of achievement and culture for those similarly endowed, and therefore we may want to adopt a principle which recognizes this fact and also mitigates the arbitrary effects of the natural lottery itself” (p. 74). The principle referred to here is the “difference principle”; it works together with the equal opportunity principle and requires that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are … to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged” (p. 83).

9 Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 205–221.

10 Karst, “Paths to Belonging,” p. 328.

11 This kind of account of what an opportunity is can be found in O'Neill, Onora, “Opportunities, Equalities and Education,” Theory and Decision, vol. 7 (1976), p. 276. See also Levin, Michael E., “Equality of Opportunity,” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol. 31 (1981), pp. 110125; and Westen, Peter, “The Concept of Equal Opportunity,” Ethics, vol. 95 (1985), pp. 837–50.

12 See the brief history of concerns about equal opportunity in Coleman, James S., “The Concept of Equality of Educational Opportunity,” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 38 (1968), pp. 712.

13 From the victim's point of view, protection against discrimination in the awarding of jobs, promotions, and contracts in private industry is just as important as protection against discrimination in the awarding of government-funded jobs, promotions, and contracts. However, freedom of association, and perhaps other considerations as well, often make it harder to justify protections against discrimination by individuals and private firms.

14 On economic rights, see Nickel, James, Making Sense of Human Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 157170.

15 A case concerning the permissibility of single-gender social clubs in New York City is currently before the United State Supreme Court.

16 Rawls, Theory of Justice, pp. 90–95. See also Buchanan, Allen, “Reusability and Rational Choice,” Canadian Journal of Philosophy, vol. 3 (1975), p. 395.

17 See Wisconsin V. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205, particularly Justice Douglas's dissent. See also Fishkin, James S., Justice, Equal Opportunity and the Family (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

18 Coleman, James S., “The Concept of Equality of Educational Opportunity,” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 43 (1973), p. 130.

19 Onora O'Neill, “Opportunities, Equalities and Education,” p. 291.

20 Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563, 1974.

21 Lau v. Nichols, p. 568.

22 “Task Force Findings Specifying Remedies Available for Eliminating Past Educational Practices Ruled Unlawful under Lau v. Nichols” Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Dept. of Health Education and Welfare, Summer 1975, quoted in Rotberg, Iris S., “Some Legal and Research Considerations in Establishing Federal Policy in Bilingual Education,” Harvard Educational Review, vol. 52 (1982), p. 153. See also Paulston, Christina Bratt, Bilingual Education: Theories and Issues (Rowley, MA: Newbury House Publishers, Inc., 1980).

23 See the review of research in Iris S. Rotberg, “Some Legal and Research Considerations in Establishing Federal Policy in Bilingual Education,” p. 153. For a more favorable perspective, see United States General Accounting Office, Bilingual Education: A New Look at the Research Evidence (March 1987: GAO/PEMD-S7–12BR), as well as the citations therein, pp. 74–75.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
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