A fundamental American value, equality is a complex idea that has had different meanings in different eras. Most studies, however, have taken equality as having a single, clear meaning—little considered is how the definition fo equality has been shaped by history. Below, Carl L. Bankston III discusses debates about the definition of equality:
The American nation began with debates over the nature of social and economic equality and over the implications of equality for the establishment of government. The break with European domination involved an ideological break with hierarchies of inherited status, with aristocracy. Early American views of equality, then, were founded on the independence of individuals from hierarchy. But this very independence, some worried, might bring about a new inequality, in the form of a “natural aristocracy.” This was an early form of the contradiction between equality of condition and equality of opportunity. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an ideology of individual, self-reliant upward mobility combined with the compartmentalization of excluded groups to enable Americans to reconcile the contradictory parts of the national ideal of equality.
The ideology of the “self-made man,” communicated through the ubiquitous medium of newspapers, came under pressure from a changing economic environment and evolved over the decades, but continued to be a critical part of our system of beliefs. In the late nineteenth century an expanding industrial economy, with heavy immigration to fill the bottom ranks, encouraged Americans to see their society as providing perpetual opportunity for upward mobility. However, African Americans, who provided much of the unskilled labor, particularly in agriculture, continued to be compartmentalized. A distinction between gender-based public and domestic spheres also continued to compartmentalize women.
In the late twentieth century, two developments, along with the rise of mass visual media, began to bring the contradictions in our commitment to equality to the surface. First, the rise of the affluent society after World War II created the expectation that upward mobility should not simply be an opportunity for all individuals, but a reality for all members of society. Second, the recognition that previously compartmentalized groups had been excluded stimulated demands for promoting and subsidizing the upward mobility of the least advantaged.”