The more I think about it, the more I think it comes down to one idea: equality of opportunity.

A lot of our philosophical differences — once you get past the name-calling and the partisan silliness — are really about that. Everybody believes in it. But people disagree strongly about what it really is.

If you’ve been reading this column lately, you know that I’ve been trying to narrate a guided tour of “diversity, equity and inclusion.” Those are the terms that pretty much everyone can agree on, at least on the surface.

What divides us, it seems to me, is what we think support for those concepts requires. And in particular, I think it comes down to what we think is required to provide an equal opportunity for all.

That’s a core concept, right? America is the land of opportunity. We’re supposed to all have a fair shot. The playing field is supposed to be level. There aren’t supposed to be special privileges or unfair advantages, just as nobody’s supposed to be hampered by unfair burdens.

Some people think “equal opportunity” means the rules are fair, that there’s no overt discrimination in the law. The metaphor would be: Everybody gets up on the starting line, and everybody has an equal chance to win the race. The rules favor nobody, and the winner is determined by who runs the fastest. That’s a matter of God-given talent, hard work and maybe a little luck.

Others think “equal opportunity” requires more, that unbiased rules are not enough to make it fair. They say that some people come to the starting line bearing sandbags and blindfolds, while others have jet packs and dri-fit bodysuits.

We as a society celebrate the winners, particularly those who win despite the sandbags. “See?” we say. “Everybody can make it.”

And that’s true. A Black man has been elected President, twice. A kid who got cut from the sophomore basketball team became the greatest of all time. The Irish-Italian kid from Jersey with the mentally-ill dad made “Born to Run.” The girl born into a poor Black family in Tennessee, who gave birth to her own child at 14, is now worth $2.6 billion.

Those stories are worth celebrating. It’s also worth celebrating that we are not Medieval England, where your birth determined your station, or contemporary Afghanistan, where your gender can get you killed, or really anywhere else on Earth, ever.

But we also have to recognize that we don’t really have equality of opportunity. The kid born into poverty might be a great guitarist, but we’ll never know because he has no time to practice. The girl with the alcoholic mother might become President, but she faces longer odds than the girl whose parents talk about important issues every night at dinner.

Looked at that way, can we ever really achieve true equality of opportunity? No, we cannot.

But that doesn’t mean we should simply give up. It’s at the heart of what America is about. Everybody’s supposed to get a fair shot.

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