What Dr. King Really Meant–The Check Has Not Yet Cleared the Bank

Luke Visconti’s Ask the White Guy column is a top draw on DiversityInc.com. Visconti, the founder and CEO of DiversityInc, is a nationally recognized leader in diversity management. In his popular column, readers who ask Visconti tough questions about race/culture, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability and age can expect smart, direct and disarmingly frank answers.


Question:

Mr. King: “… not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

The White Guy, in an answer to a previous question: “… you’ll see (DiversityInc) primarily focus on race and gender.”

Comments, please.

Answer:

I’m glad this question came up today. I celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday yesterday in Portland, Ore. Bernie Foster, publisher of The Skanner newspaper, invited me to be the keynote speaker at his Dr. Martin Luther King Day Celebration. There were more than 1,200 people in the audience, including one of Oregon’s senators, a congressman, the governor and Portland’s mayor. My speech focused on the work left undone by the civil-rights era and the potential our country has squandered by not making that investment. I leveraged the misuse of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to make my points.

Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech is often taken out of context to promote a “color-blind” world. If you read the entire speech, he begins by telling us that the Constitution and Declaration of Independence promised that “black men as well as white men would be guaranteed the ‘unalienable Rights’ of ‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'”

He explained that this obligation had not been fulfilled and “instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.'”

Dr. King makes it clear that he is telling us that we don’t get to the “color-blind” vision of “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character” until we have made good on our obligation.

The check has not yet cleared the bank. We do not have a “color-blind” society. If we did, we would have equitable representation in all aspects of our society. Fifty percent women senators, for example, or 10 percent gay and out Fortune 500 CEOs, etc. Certainly black households would not have one-tenth the wealth of white households.

The beauty of solving this problem is that making good on our obligation is not an expense, it is an investment. Our country has made many kinds of investments in people. Here’s one example:

Following World War II and Korea, millions of veterans were able to go college for free on the GI Bill. Due to the implementation of this program, white veterans disproportionately benefited, so let’s focus on white people. Before WWII, less than 7 percent of white people attended college. Today, 44 percent of white people attend college. Our country’s workers went from industrial and agrarian employment to knowledge-worker employment. The corresponding generation of wealth from white people working to the true extent of their potential was unprecedented in human history.

In business and in our society in general, history shows us that we can expect dramatic and disproportionately positive returns on investment by enabling the success of those people who have been prevented from achieving their human potential by discrimination, bigotry and racism.

As I’ve said, the most obvious disparities in our society involve race and gender; however, I also consider age, orientation and disability to be significant vectors of discrimination that still exist in our society.

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