A conceptual history of equal opportunit: debating the limits of acceptable inequality in U.S. history

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A conceptual history of equal opportunit: debating the limits of acceptable inequality in U.S. history

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My dissertation addresses the political problem of economic inequality, through a conceptual history of the phrase “equal opportunity,” and an evaluation of the role equal opportunity has played in debates about how (or even whether) to remedy economic inequalities. I analyzed thousands of U.S. newspapers spanning over 90 years to identify how different conceptual uses affected policy decisions made at different key periods in American history. From the Gilded Age, when reform advocates pushed equal opportunity into mainstream newspaper debates for the first time, to the 1960s when political actors made equal opportunity the preferred way to talk about most inequalities, political actors and analysts increasingly used equal opportunity as the criterion for identifying unjust inequalities that required political attention. Equal opportunity has been institutionalized in American law, governmental regulations, and popular discourse through events such as the 1954 Brown Supreme Court decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Despite these policy advances, and despite the solidity of support for equal opportunity in American political thought and popular discourse, I argue that the concept has ironically impeded efforts to address economic inequality. This is because equal opportunity invokes a metaphor that obscures the most important sources of economic inequality. Equal opportunity functions by invoking the metaphor of everyone being permitted to compete in a race. Yet most political interventions to address economic inequalities focus on historical and institutional disadvantages in laws passed in previous years. Arguing that reforms should “make up the lost ground” such disadvantages imposed under the rubric of a competitive race, however, violates Americans’ basic everyday understanding of fair competition. We do not give runners in a race a head start because they were born into poverty and had worse nutrition and we do not give a basketball team more points to start a game because they have fewer taller players. While equal opportunity provided many American political actors with an effective conceptual frame to fight some forms of discriminations, it was nonetheless ill-suited practically and normatively to address economic inequality.


University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. August 2008. Major: Political Science. Advisor: Professor James Farr. 1 computer file (PDF); iv, 200 pages.

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Illuzzi, Michael Joseph. (2008). A conceptual history of equal opportunit: debating the limits of acceptable inequality in U.S. history. Retrieved from the University Digital Conservancy, https://hdl.handle.net/11299/61910.

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