It is very difficult for some people to wrap their head around the notion that America is still for many Americans unjust. They would like to believe that inequality is a thing of the past. When someone tries to say make things easier for a community that had been traditionally disenfranchised, they cry bloody murder and call such tactics as unearned advantage. The best example of this is affirmative action, but most of the "welfare" state falls under this assault. I think the problem is people haven't really given much thought to the concept of institutional inequality and what it really means for a country.
To give credit where credit is due "socially" America has come a long way in eliminating inequality. When President Obama came out in support for same sex marriage it was a remarkable achievement in "social" equality. His announcement however, had no impact on the institution of marriage. Only in a few states has the institution of marriage moved the miniscule step to "separate but equal" on the books (civil unions), and as was the case before in segregation this proves to be completely inadequate in terms of achieving real equality for same-sex couples. Don't get me wrong social equality is very important; it's the difference between the Archie Bunkers of the world being praised or ridiculed for their backward beliefs. The problem is institutional inequality is the legacy of the Archie Bunkers of the world writing the rules that govern how America works.
So what is institutional inequality? I read a great article that described it as the difficulty setting in a video game:
This means that the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you than they would be otherwise. The default barriers for completions of quests are lower. Your leveling-up thresholds come more quickly. You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.
The idea illustrated here is crucial. For the people who want to abolish programs like affirmative action for college would argue the merit of the school work of a perspective student should be the only criteria used to determine who gains access to the institution of college. But the pre-college education institution is wholly unequal, the chances of success in a top tier school varies greatly from a bottom tier school regardless of the students individual capacity for success. To expand on the analogy and reinforce my dork bona fides it is the difference between trying to role a plus 5 using three six sided dice(D6) versus using three ten sided dice(D10). The fact that you both get an equal "opportunity" to role doesn't make the rules fair. To stretch the analogy what affirmative action does is give you a fourth 6 sided die, it gives you an extra "opportunity" but your odds have not vastly improved.
Institutional inequality is inequality embedded into the structure of the system. It's the reason why women feel they have to sometimes choose between a career and family. It's the 150+ legal differences between civil unions and marriage. It's the fact that in New York more black youths were subjected to a stop and frisk by the NYPD then there are actually black youths in New York. It's the starved public school budgets for the sake of police budgets. It's the permanent second class citizenship of a felony conviction. It's the millions of things big and small that end up creating stark difference in the ability of this beautiful nation's citizens to achieve success.
But, that's just life right? The fact is we're not all equal, some people are not really good at dribbling a basketball does that mean we should make travelling calls looser for some players in the NBA? It depends, is the reason they can't dribble because they were forced to learn with balls that don't bounce very well, then maybe. They would still have to be able to shoot well to win the game. It would be best if they could learn with good basketballs that can dribble but until that happens they will need some extra considerations. The same is true for things like affirmative action, adequate maternity leave, head start, and the gambit of social programs that seek to build up the statistically disadvantaged. The people who gain from these programs still have to produce in order to achieve success. The benefit of this is more people with the skills necessary to create, and build a better more prosperous nation. For any government it is a no brainer, the more skilled citizens you have the better equipped you are to deal with the challenges you face.