"It's not enough to stop handicapping some runners and privileging others. Equality of opportunity seems to depend on some version of equality of starting points. If the son of J. Paul Getty starts life with millions and goes to a fabulous school, and you start life in Watts and go to a "school" that is mostly about social control, it's worse than facetious to say, "okay, the two of you now should run the race; ready, set, go!" Yes, it's possible that you'll beat out the wealthy kid. But those of us who are standing on the sidelines betting will require pretty long odds to take you. Head starts in the race aren't fair, either.
This argument, and variations of it, are the best I've heard in favor of Affirmative Action. Cheryl I. Harris, Assistant Professor of Law notes:
"Brown I's dialectical contradiction was that it dismantled an old form of whiteness as property while simultaneously permitting its reemergence in a more subtle form. White privilege accorded as a legal right was rejected, but de facto white privilege not mandated by law remained unaddressed. In failing to clearly expose the real inequities produced by segregation, the status quo of substantive disadvantage was ratified as an accepted and acceptable base line -- a neutral state operating to the disadvantage of Blacks long after de jure segregation had ceased to do so. [n202] In accepting substantial inequality as a neutral base line, a new form of whiteness as property was condoned. Material inequities between Blacks and whites -- the product of systematic past and current, formal and informal, mechanisms of racial subordination -- became the norm." ["Whiteness as Property" 106 Harvard L. Rev. 1707 (June 1993), 1753]
I don't know (and I am skeptical) that it is ever possible to create an "equality of starting points." However, in the face of that reality the need to mitigate and ameliorate the unjust effects of unequal starting points has to be a primary goal of a liberal society. If the system is biased against some at the start, it cannot compound its bias by holding the disadvantaged liable for their own failures. At the same time, the government cannot hold everyones hand and refuse to impose any accountability on those who may just not be up to making the grade. Toeing the narrow line between them is hard to do, but it is a task that must be done if we are to truly live in a just society.