Watching an ESPN documentary about Mary Decker Slaney, and The Wire, and the Netflix original series “Orange is the New Black“, has me thinking about the American Presidency, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and how illusive equal opportunity still is.
Without a doubt, U.S. citizens have greater opportunity to improve their lives than the average world citizen. And U.S. citizens have more opportunity today than fifty years ago when King and others marched on Washington. Those two points are inarguable, but too many U.S. citizens extrapolate from them to argue that everyone in the United States—young, old, female, disabled, dark, poor, heterosexual, non-English speaking—has equal opportunity to succeed. Thinking that we’ve achieved equal opportunity for all may be the most pernicious myth we tell about ourselves.
I was shocked by a scene from the middle of the Slaney documentary. In one of her best performances ever, she won the 3k at the 1985 World Championship in Helsinki, Finland. Amazingly, there wasn’t a single East African in the race. Today, nine or ten of the fastest ten middle distance women runners in the world are Ethiopian or Kenyan. They have only had the opportunity to demonstrate their excellence on the international scene for a few decades. Now, the international track is a level playing field.
Watching the Wire and Orange is the New Black back-to-back is eye-opening. They remind the viewer just how white and middle class most television is. And the incredible amount of acting talent that resides in every ethnic group. The Wire, about Baltimore’s inner city, had a mostly African-American cast. Orange, set in a women’s prison, has a culturally diverse, predominantly female cast. The writing, acting, and producing on both shows is remarkable.
It makes one wonder how many other just as talented culturally diverse writers, actors, and producers are trying desperately to get their feet in Hollywood’s mostly monocultural door. For every actor we see on a small or large screen there are at least another hundred who are equally talented. The only difference is they lack connections and opportunity. Give black, hispanic, asian, and female actors equal opportunity and they will do memorable, award winning work.
And if that’s true in athletics and the arts, why wouldn’t it also be true in education, business, medicine, politics and every aspect of modern life? It’s laughable that we maintain the myth of equal opportunity in the U.S. when we’ve had 44 in a row male presidents.
We should celebrate the slow but steady extension of opportunity in the United States, but not kid ourselves with claims of equal opportunity writ large. Everyday, some in our communities are told by others that they’re too young, too old, too female, too disabled, too dark, too poor, too queer, too foreign. Refusing to see that doesn’t change reality.