1. Introduction: A Theoretical Model of Change
In this chapter I analyze the development of the social systems of equality and inequality in America in terms of Parsonian action theory. I start with the assumption that every system of equality or inequality in communal, political, economic, and cultural realms—inasmuch as it is stable and has a binding, normative quality on the members of society—is rooted in the traditional relationships of equality or inequality among individuals and groups in society. It is also rooted in the traditional right of membership in society (rights of citizenship), the traditional everyday associations of individuals and groups, and the traditional beliefs in the natural equality or inequality of people.
In my first section on the systems of equality and inequality in America I give a description of the system of equality of relationships, associations, right, and beliefs among the settlers in New England. But I also show that from the beginning the South established a different traditional and normatively binding model, a model of inequality in economic, political, cultural, and communal terms. Thus, the United States is based on two conflicting traditions, one favoring equality (conceived in terms of equal opportunity), the other favoring inequality. The conflict between these two traditions has been a major factor hindering the establishment of a societal community that embraces society as a whole. It also explains why American society has often broken apart into different societal groups.
My second assumption is that the traditional system of equality of the New England colonies (and later, states) was counteracted by factors
I am grateful to Neil Johnson for translating the original German version of this chapter.
arising from societal growth: Economic growth leads to economic differentiation and inequality, political growth leads to the differentiation of access to political decision making, cultural growth leads to cultural diversity and the unequal evaluation of cultural ways of life, and associational growth leads to the differentiation of society into different social groups and minorities. A decisive factor in changing the traditional New England system of equality to a system of inequality has been the continuous process of the immigration of new ethnic, radical, religious, and national groups to the United States. This process resulted in a society of unequals amid a cultural system in which belief in the equality of opportunity remained, even though that belief changed from the notion of absolute equality to an ideology that legitimized the oppression of the unsuccessful minorities by the successful majority. The Southern model of inequality was sustained by the growing inequality in society, which reached a point at which the Southern culture began to dominate the national culture. The victory of the Northern states in the Civil War laid the foundations for the Northern idea of the equality of opportunity to successfully assert itself as society developed, but this idea is in constant conflict with the Southern culture, which is increasingly important because of the present-day movement to the sunbelt.
My third assumption is that "unintended" factors in a society can moderate inequality. Among these factors are economic abundance, opportunities for political participation in local affairs, uniform formal education, and social inclusion. The way these factors work in America is demonstrated in the third section.
My fourth assumption is that there are intentional actions in society that are motivated by the tension between the cultural idea of the equality of opportunity and the social reality of inequality. The logic of cultural discourse leads some to take the idea of equality to its logical extreme and to claim that every existing inequality is illegitimate and evil. However, inasmuch as other ideas, such as the idea of individualism, are involved in this discourse, there are limits to how far the idea of equality can be carried. In the United States the idea of equality becomes limited to the idea of equal opportunity.
In this context I discuss the Supreme Court's role in interpreting basic cultural ideas and its role in the change from racial segregation to desegregation. I examine how the discourse on cultural ideas has shaped the social system of equal/unequal relationships. Insofar as cultural discourse becomes involved in political decision making, it will be controversial and needs the support of dynamic forces, that is, social movements. Here the role of the civil rights movements is of primary interest. But policies aiming at the equality of opportunity also require economic resources, such as programs of affirmative action. Nothing
will change in everyday life, however, if people do not accept that change and are not prepared to associate communally with formerly excluded groups. Therefore, inclusion is also needed. School busing can be interpreted as forced inclusion. The level of communal association is the level where change is the slowest. But when it changes toward more equality the new system achieves the character of a normatively binding system. The day-to-day association of the younger generations in the educational system is a factor that can bring about a new belief in equality amid the tremendous cultural diversity that characterizes the present-day United States. The New England model of the association of homogeneous equals may be replaced by the association of heterogeneous equals.