With a view of the progress that has been made in the past century of the American struggle for equality firmly planted in mind, the notion that equality has already arrived is an understandably tempting one to espouse. In a society that often declares and considers itself to be post-feminist, post-racial, and generally post-discrimination, it is all too easy to be lulled into a sense of satisfaction — and even complacency — regarding social issues.
Comparisons to the past, along with our intuitive sense of what is and is not fair, often impede actual progress toward equality.
In terms of the law, explicit discrimination is no longer permitted in most, though not all, aspects of life, from housing access to service at privately-owned businesses. The list of protected classes whose members are empowered to pursue legal action against those employers that demonstrate overt bigotry continues to grow on both the state and national level. Both the approval rating and the actual rate of interracial marriage increases exponentially by the year while same-sex marriage becomes legal in more and more states. The percentage of black and Latino students at institutes of higher education goes up (albeit slowly) every year.
Making progress from and doing well compared to the past, however, is not quite the same as having achieved equality. The arguably most powerful people in the United States, CEOs and board members for large corporations, continue to be mostly white men. From a gender standpoint, there are more CEOs named John than there are women in those positions. In lower levels of employment, progress has been slow and painstaking, if not somewhat stalled. On the education front, economic and racial privilege continues to rule, with students from impoverished backgrounds remaining be rare at elite university campuses and disparities in high school graduation rates between white and black teenagers persisting. At the same time, moves to increase diversity through affirmative action are perceived as “reverse discrimination” and dubbed “prejudice.” In the face of statistics that clearly demonstrate that discrimination persists, why do so many fail to accept the validity of countermeasures?
The answer lies in the way that bias more subtly manifests itself in American society today. In a world where Klu Klux Klan members claim that they are not hateful and a man who states explicit beliefs in white superiority vehemently insists that he is neither racist nor hateful, explicit discrimination has mostly fallen out of favor. The message internalized by the cultural zeitgeist is that discrimination and hatred are not thoughts and feelings that good people have, so even overtly prejudiced people distance themselves from them. Despite the aversion to open discrimination and hatred, implicit bias persists in areas such as race and gender. In short, people’s prejudices have gone from being admitted to being buried on a level that mostly precludes conscious acknowledgement.
When we cannot realize, let alone openly express our biases, the idea of actively working to counter them seems not only pointless but also counterproductive. The idea that we ought to discriminate in order to achieve equality is offensive if the problem of existing discrimination goes unnamed and unacknowledged.
In short, discrimination still exists, progress has never been made by ignoring extant biases, and no matter how unfair it intuitively feels, active correction of those intrinsic biases is the only way to continue to improve society.