Social equality is a concept seldom fully achieved, whereby all members of a society have completely equal treatment, opportunity and access to resources. There would be few separating strata, such as differentiations between genders, races, religious groups, or income that give some people more opportunities than others. This is different than socialism, where everyone has approximately the same amount of resources. Instead, true social equality means that no matter what society members have or who they are, they are treated equally and have equal opportunities.
The idea of social equality is often intimately tied to concepts of egalitarianism in both of its forms. This concept either represents the sense, from a political standpoint, that all people deserve equal rights and treatment, or it is a movement that proposes a society should specifically direct its resources toward promoting equality of wealth. The latter stance is more of a socialistic approach, and the former is something adopted by many countries. It’s argued that the two definitions are related, because in so many societies, wealth confers additional power, and without addressing income inequities, there can be no true social equality.
Many sociologists suggest that few societies achieve total social equality because there are so many ways that societies separate into different groups. Income level is a dividing factor, but other things that create some form of social inequality include discrimination against gender, race, religion, or ethnicity. Some governments actively promote social equality by guaranteeing basic rights to all citizens, such as rights to free speech, to vote, to jury trial, and to freedom from discrimination. Even with these guarantees, all members of a society may not be equal. Inequities such as quality of education, even if public and free, can create differences in how much citizens are able to avail themselves of basic rights.
As mentioned, economic standing represents a huge dividing factor in a variety of societies. Many countries work hard to correct this inequity to a degree by providing financial support to those citizens most in need. This isn’t always enough and may keep people in a cycle of poverty, instead of giving them ways to move up through society’s strata.
An example of social inequality, in countries like the US, occurs when people are charged with a serious crime. Impoverished defendants are given legal representation by public defenders, who are often struggling to provide support to many clients and may not have adequate time to prepare a case. The person with wealth can simply hire a criminal defense attorney. The latter defendant has a better chance of defeating a charge or getting a reduced sentence level, and also is more likely to successfully defend against a charge if they're Caucasian. The large numbers of African American prisoners as opposed to Caucasians in US jails points to a possible social inequality that has not yet been remedied, suggesting that both race and monetary standing lead to unequal treatment in a system that is supposed to be fully fair.
The most pessimistic reviewers of human society call social equality a myth, something that can never be truly achieved, no matter the intent of a society’s government, framers, or participants. Others take a more optimistic view, and suggest that while full equality isn’t always possible, societies can still chip away at the inequities. A committed society can continue to work at all times to create more equitable circumstances for all of its citizens.