You’re probably familiar with a very old and tiresome debate about whether the Civil War was really fought over slavery or holding maintaining the Union. The key to understanding Lincoln’s achievement as a politician, military leader, and moral visionary is the way in which he was able to convince most of the American people that the only way to save the Union was to end slavery, because the people who were trying to rend the Union were using their slaves to aid the cause, and that only by depriving them of this resource (by emancipating their slaves, enlisting African Americans in the armed forces, and putting the whole issue to rest by ending slavery everywhere) could the nation proceed.
In the long run – certainly not right away, when he lost political support and suffered military setbacks – Lincoln won that argument. He won it as a matter of military policy (the Emancipation Proclamation), as a matter of law (the Thirteenth Amendment), and as matter of enshrining as common sense that slavery simply didn’t work anymore, urging his fellow Americans to dedicate themselves, as he put it in his Gettysburg Address, to a “new birth of freedom.” Within a few years of the end of the Civil War, even the seceded Southern states accepted this proposition, however grudgingly, as the price of their reintegration into national life.
Not that former slaveholders, or their many non-slaveholding allies, became any less racist. Indeed, in many cases there were more determined than ever to keep the newly freed slaves in their place, to use a phrase much favored by such people. Denied slavery, they turned to the next best – maybe even better – thing: inequality. The principal, but by no means only, avenue by which it was achieved was racial segregation. At first, given the efforts of Northern, especially abolitionist, politicians to hold the defeated region in check, segregation was primarily a matter of social inequality, practiced on a local level. Later, as U.S. public opinion became fatigued by the cost, literal and figurative, of the process of Reconstruction, segregation became increasingly political as well. By the end of the 19th century, a Jim Crow regime with pervasive legal, economic, and personal dimensions was cemented in place, and would remain there for a half a century.
But it wasn’t slavery. That’s what we kept telling ourselves. Poll taxes, literacy tests, even lynchings: not slavery. Nor were other forms of inequality: discrimination against immigrants. Exploitative wages that approached, if not crossed the line, into wage slavery. A refusal to let women vote. You might not like these policies, they might even be wrong. But they’re not slavery. Not chattel slavery, anyway.
For some kinds of inequality, particularly those where it wasn’t easy to draw clear lines of race or gender that could be used as an obvious basis of discrimination, there was another tool at hand to justify the status quo: the doctrine of Equality of Opportunity. Of course, not everyone is rich, this doctrine goes. But anyone can be rich. Or go to an elite school. Or whatever. Equality of opportunity does not necessarily mean that one can attain these things easily, or that it won’t be easier for some people than for others. It simply says such things are possible – effortlessly for some, perhaps, but attainable for anyone who wants them badly enough. So it is that the principle equality of opportunity allows the reality of equality of outcome.
Which, again, we all want too badly to let go of. In fact, we want it so badly that we’re willing not to peer all that hard about just how we define opportunity or just how broad it is. Having it remain a little fuzzy makes inequality of condition easier to maintain.
In the twentieth century, however, those old, seemingly clear, lines of race and gender became increasingly problematic. The doctrine of Equality of Opportunity didn’t apply if there were formal rules in place that barred you from even playing the game. In such cases, the gap between theoretical inclusion and the reality of exclusion became glaring, even frightening, in terms of what it might portend if allowed to continue, especially on the part of elites anxious to justify their unequal status to themselves, other Americans, and foreigners. Thanks to the Civil Rights movement, many of these formal barriers were removed. No longer could inequality be officially justified on the basis of race – or race alone. Women and people of other races began appearing, usually in small numbers, at exclusive sites of privilege – schools, clubs, neighborhoods – whose appeal, whose actual essence, was inequality. The question now was how to protect minority status when anyone – even those other minorities – could in theory participate.
Next: The uneasy marriage of meritocracy and affirmative action as partners in the quest for equality today.