In this essay I examine the concept of equality as it currently applies to Latinos in the United States. I start by identifying some important events that have affected the equality of Latinos and other minorities and then distinguish between two conceptions of equality. The first event was the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The second event was the passage of the National Voting Rights Act of 1965, which outlawed obstacles to voting, such as literacy tests, and which provided for Department of Justice oversight of voter registration. The third event affecting equal treatment of Latinos and other minorities occurred in 1978 when the Supreme Court ruled in Bakke vs. the University of California that even though quota systems for college admissions were unconstitutional, universities could take race into account in affirmative action programs. And more recently, in 2003, the Supreme Court confirmed the view that race could be used in university admission decisions, but delimited the way race could be used as a factor in admissions policies.

In the Civil Rights Act and the National Voting Rights Act, Congress sought to protect minorities from discrimination, so these legislative acts are efforts to ensure formal equality, that is, equality before the law, for all members of society. The Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action, on the other hand, recognize the reality of past discrimination and the value of diversity in student bodies. Thus, the Supreme Court decisions recognized, if only implicitly, that formal equality or equality of treatment in the strict sense may not be enough to ensure that all members of society have an equal opportunity to flourish. They realized, in other words, that taking race and ethnicity into account might be necessary to promote socially desirable goals and create a more egalitarian and just society

Nevertheless, I believe that the extent to which inequality exists in our society has not been sufficiently recognized by our political institutions and legislative and judicial bodies. Though minorities have formal equality, that is, equality before the law, we are very far from attaining substantive equality, that is, equality in economic well-being, political influence, and positions of social authority. We live in a market economy that allows, and is actually structured, to give rise to great differences in levels of economic and social well-being as well as great inequalities in political power. As a society we believe that the market is the great fair and neutral distributor of economic and social goods, such as income, positions of authority and political influence. According to the prevailing views in America, as long as we are all equal before the law, we have what we need to compete fairly with others in the marketplace for economic and social goods. All we can legitimately demand of government, according to this view, is equal protection of our basic civil, political, and property rights. The rest is up to us. This perspective of limited government justifies great economic and social differences by appealing to a mythology that links effort and ability with profitable outcomes. According to this view, those who have more did it through their own ability and effort, while the have-nots have less because they have less ability or have put forth less effort. Thus, there is no legitimate basis for complaining about inequality.  The market giveth and the market taketh away.

Of course, sometimes there are steps taken to help the poor and the underprivileged, such as food stamps and subsidized housing. But these programs are best seen as political concessions that in principle deviate from the foundational views of the legitimate but limited functions of government.

One of the most important ways in which American conceptions of equality have been put into effect is through affirmative action programs. The ways in which these programs have been criticized reveal a great deal about the ambivalent ideas and feelings we have about equality. Affirmative action programs were originally implemented after the courts determined that conventional ways of getting companies, universities, and other institutions to increase minority hiring and enrollment were not likely to work. The courts also recognized that historical discrimination made it necessary for companies and institutions to take affirmative steps to promote the socioeconomic advancement of minorities. An example of how policies that seem neutral with regard to discriminatory effect could disadvantage minorities was the rule that workers who changed departments in a company had to give up their seniority. This meant that those minority workers in custodial jobs, for example, who wanted to progress in a company were discouraged to do so because they would lose their years of seniority. They would remain locked into lower positions within the company by rules that did not intend to discriminate against them and that applied to all workers.

Likewise, in university admission policies historical discrimination put minority students at a disadvantage if they were judged by supposedly neutral standards. Factors such as SAT scores placed minorities at a disadvantage in so far as the quality of their education might have been less than that of white students against whom they were competing.  Oftentimes the difference in the quality of education that minority students receive is due to the fact that their school districts have fewer resources than those of students in predominantly white school districts. As mentioned earlier, the fact that the courts approved of affirmative action programs shows that to some extent they recognize that socioeconomic inequality can sometimes undermine true equality, and that equality before the law is to not enough to ensure the well-being of all citizens. However, in recent years affirmative action programs have come under attack as opponents of these programs have appealed, ironically, to the principle of equal treatment to criticize them. That is, opponents of affirmative action have appealed to the idea that every person should be judged by their merits alone, and not by their race or ethnicity. Affirmative action and other preferential treatment programs, they argue, discriminate in favor of minorities based on their race or ethnic background. White student organizations with names like Students for Civil Rights and Students for Equal Treatment have emerged in recent years to oppose affirmative action. These organizations have argued that affirmative action is reverse discrimination and have posed the question: How can you eliminate discrimination by discriminating?                    

What these critics have overlooked, however, is that affirmative action programs and the racist discriminatory policies of the past are extremely different. The invidious discrimination of the past was motivated by hatred for people of color and it was intended to oppress and harm minorities. The consequences of racism are also different from those of programs of preferential treatment in that racist policies created a divided society with large group differences in wealth, levels of education, and political influence. Affirmative action, on the other hand, aims to create a more equal society by opening doors of opportunity for groups that previously found those doors closed. Among the consequences of affirmative action are more minorities in position of authority and a reduction in the socioeconomic gap between whites and minority groups. Thus, the motivations, intended goals, and consequences of racist policies and affirmative action programs are totally different, and it would be grossly unfair to characterize programs of preferential treatment as reverse racism, pure and simple.

But there is another point regarding the justification of preferential treatment programs that is commonly overlooked. This has to do with the idea that it makes little sense to judge people on their merits or qualifications if they have not had an equal opportunity to obtain them. In other words, if we are to reward people on the basis of their merits or qualifications, we need to make sure that they have had an equal opportunity to acquire them. We are a society that prides itself with being meritocratic. We like to believe that in America people are rewarded for their efforts and merit alone, unlike other societies that are rife with corruption and nepotism. But if we look at the most important means by which people obtain their qualifications, namely, the educational system, we find a system characterized by great inequalities. Most school systems in the country are funded by property taxes and this means that wealthier school districts will have more money to spend per pupil than poorer school districts. Poor children, through no fault of their own, will more likely have a less adequate education than wealthy children. The children of the poor will thus not have an equal opportunity to attain the merits and academic qualifications that will prepare then to compete on fair terms with their wealthy peers. Moreover, poor children may also be hindered by other factors such as the lower level of formal education of their parents, lack of access to information technologies such as high-speed internet service, and the inability to afford test preparation courses that will improve their performance in standardized exams. In short, when great socioeconomic differences exist in a society, it is unfair to judge students on the basis of their qualifications and merits alone, for they may not have had the same opportunities to acquire them as those they are competing against.

What does this point tell us about what strategies Latinos and other minorities should adopt? The lesson to be learned here, I believe, is that we should focus on transforming the existing market system and its ideology. Our economic system has given rise to such great concentrations of wealth and power that they make a mockery of the idea that merit is what determines the rewards one receives. In our country the richest 1% of the population own about 40% of the wealth. The advantages in quality of education, political influence, and social connections that wealth confers are so great that it does not make sense to describe America as a meritocracy. Unless we equalize the opportunities to obtain merits and qualifications, minorities will always be on the defensive, constantly arguing for the need for programs of preferential treatment that strike many Americans as unfair and discriminatory against whites. It is interesting to note that during the 60s and 70s many people in America saw racism as a social problem that we should all address in a cooperative manner. Nowadays, however, I have the sense that many White Americans are resentful of affirmative action and other programs of preferential treatment. Sometimes one even hears complaints about minorities getting “a free ride” and “having it made.” Despite the fact that minorities still suffer from disproportionate levels of poverty and marginalization, many Americans feel that enough has already been done to help them.

There are several steps that ethnic minorities, and Latinos in particular, can take to respond to the social crisis of wealth inequality that gives rise to the continued need for affirmative action. Certainly one thing that we should do is to use higher education as a means of getting ahead, and I am glad that many ethnic minorities are doing just that. Take your studies seriously, limit your partying, and realize that how you do in your undergraduate and graduate studies will affect your future in significant ways. Be intellectually curious and hungry for knowledge and understanding. It is also very important to be confident in your own intellectual abilities. We have been told for so long that we are less intellectually capable than other groups that sometimes we start to believe it. A large part of being successful in academic work is to believe that you can do it, but that has to come from within you, del corazón.

But if Latinos are to move forward as a group we should not only concentrate on getting for ourselves, but also helping our communities. We need to recognize that many of the rights and privileges that we take for granted were won as a result of the struggles of Latinos who fought for their communities. During the civil rights era it wasn’t only Blacks who marched on the streets and demanded the rights of equal citizenship, Latinos also have a proud history of activism and resistance. We need to get the younger generation of Latinos involved in this legacy of activism. What we would focus on is not merely formal equality, but also equality of socioeconomic resources and political influence. We need to expand our conception of what true equality means in our society. Moreover, in order to engage the younger generation in the struggle for greater equality, I would suggest that students learn their history and appreciate the debts that they owe to others who have come before them. Take that Mexican-American studies history course you might have been thinking about or that sociology course focusing on the civil rights movement. Second, stay informed about current political issues and events. It is only by becoming an educated citizen that you can contribute effectively to reasoned political debate on issues of concern to Latino communities, to American society, and to the global community. This is important because the level of apathy and the lack of information of students is disturbing. Third, become involved in student or community organizations concerned with social, political, or economic issues of contemporary importance. It is good to become informed about current issues but at some point one needs to get involved in bringing about social change. A commitment to social justice can act as a catalyst for social activism. Finally, vote! Votar es poder.  Voting is a right that we sometimes take for granted and do not use nearly as much as we should.

I believe Latinos are at a crucial point in their sociocultural and political development as an ethnocultural group. We need to reflect on who we are and what historical impact we want to have on American society. Latinos are now the largest ethnocultural minority group in the country, and we have the potential to transform it in basic ways. We can either buy into the individualism, isolationism, and consumerism of American society or we can challenge America to become more egalitarian and community-oriented. It seems that the U.S. is contend to have us as consumers but is not very comfortable to see us as agents of social change. We constantly hear about the purchasing power of Latinos (about 1.5 trillion in 2015, according to the Nielsen Group) and everywhere see signs of multicultural marketing in which cultural symbols are used to sell us things we don’t really need. But while Latinos are encouraged to embrace consumer culture, the potentially transformative aspects of our traditional cultures are either not emphasized or they are devalued. Many Latinos come from societies that have strong communal values, and our indigenous roots are certainly ecologically oriented. The indigenous cultures that form part of our ancestral heritage appreciated the profound connections that exist between human beings and the earth, which they treat with reverence and respect. We could introduce a worldview that is very different from the market-based ideology that predominates in America at the present time. Rather than emphasizing a morality of self-interest and materialism, Latinos could promote a worldview based on the values of community responsibility, promoting the common good, and caring for the most vulnerable in society.

For many years, commentators of different ideological persuasions have lamented the loss of a sense of community in the U.S. They have warned us about the danger faced by societies that lose a sense of community solidarity and adopt the values of acquisitive individualism. A commentator once noted that you can judge a society by the way it treats its most vulnerable members. By this standard, American society does not fare very well, for we are all familiar with the cutbacks in funding for needy students, care of the mentally ill, and programs for children. In response to these developments, Latinos could remind America that it has lost its communitarian soul, and has embraced a philosophy according to which self-validation is based on consumption, where the only thing that motivates people is self-interest, and where competitiveness has replaced human connection as a primary social value.

But before Latinos can effectively influence American society, we need to engage in a process of self-reflection in which we determine where our personal and collective priorities are. And here the programs of preferential treatment discussed earlier are relevant. Affirmative action programs are individually based, in that they help particular individuals, but not necessarily the community. Oftentimes Latinos who benefit from affirmative action programs do not feel the need to use the skills and qualifications obtained through these programs to help their communities. I believe that to the extent that the justification of affirmative action programs is to help Latinos as a group, Latinos should, whenever possible, use their skills to work for at least some time in underserved communities. More highly educated Latinos should feel a sense of responsibility to help those less fortunate than themselves. As mentioned earlier, all Latinos owe a debt to Latinos, African-Americans, Native-Americans, and others who came before them and fought for their rights and opened the doors through which they have walked. By the way, something that you can do to connect more easily with Latino communities is to learn Spanish. Being able to speak to all of the people in our communities is important and it creates a bond of solidarity that is hard to describe but that is undeniable in its importance. Perhaps more than any other single element of our culture, the language is medium that carries the collective wisdom, humor, irony, and feeling of our culture. Reflecting on my own experience, my formal education as a philosopher has been in English, but my first language was Spanish. So when I think abstractly or articulate ideas in my field I use English. You could therefore say that the language of my mind is English but the language of my heart is, and will forever remain, Spanish.

The final point I want to make is that in reflecting on what our priorities should be as Latinos who are trying to bring about social change, we should think not only about the positive aspects of our culture but also about the negative aspects that bear changing. It is always dangerous to romanticize a culture, and Hispanic culture is no exception. We need to retain what is best in our culture while transcending those elements that keep us from individual and collective development. We have the potential to transform American society in important ways, but in order to do so we first need to look within ourselves to find that inner strength and understanding that will enable us to move forward as individuals and as a people.

Formal and Substantive Equality by Jorge M. Valadez