MLK50: This Time, The Truth African Americans have not come as far as we would like to think we have.
So far, it has been a month of celebration. Reporters, civic leaders, and community activists alike have all dedicated a significant amount of time towards remembering the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who, 50 years ago this month, was slain during a visit to Memphis, Tennessee.
Most people are aware of Dr. King’s life and his extraordinary commitment to equality and justice. I just found it odd that in all of the news coverage, speeches, interviews or pieces of written work, there was little-to-nothing mentioned about how Dr. King’s work can be seen today. Where were the stats about the advancement of African Americans? How could anyone do justice to the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. without highlighting the accomplishments and progress we have made in our communities today because of his work? What can we say today about African American people’s voices being heard in a country that seems to be increasingly polarized?
The universal void seems to suggest something critical – 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, African Americans have not come as far as we would like to think we have.
In fact, as a community, we are losing ground, particularly here in Houston. Houston’s greatest challenge may be that we have misunderstood what Dr. King and others truly meant when they said that “diversity” should be our goal. Like you, I have seen the data produced every year by Dr. Stephen Kleinberg at Rice University’s Kinder Institute in which he states that Houston, unlike many cities, has an even racial distribution or “no ethnic majority.”
So, in essence, if you are standing in line at your local grocery store on Saturday morning and there are five people in the line in front of you, your check-out line will probably have different ethnic groups and races represented. But is that not the lowest possible bar for diversity?
Those of us who are knowledgeable of the Civil Rights movement know that Dr. King and other influential leaders believed diversity, as a goal, represented so much more than just equal percentages. To them, it meant that Black people should be treated equally. It also meant that Black people should not have to constantly fight to overcome the negative stereotypes about who we are and what we contribute to society. They believed we should no longer look at a Black man and see him as less of a contributor than his White counterparts. It also meant that Black people should pursue the same quality of life, and that we should be allowed to work as hard as we can and end up with the same results as any White person.
Lastly, they believed that diversity meant that Black people should have a voice, while having their thoughts be heard and considered as decisions that are being made which impact the African American communities across America.
As someone who has committed countless hours towards the betterment of this great community, and one who remains ever-conscious of the laws that were initially put in place to protect African Americans from the hateful bias that was affecting every aspect of an African American’s life, it pains me to ask this question: Has Houston achieved a meaningful diversity goal?
A recent Harvard Business Review article entitled, “How and where diversity drives financial performance” was very telling. It studied 1,700 companies across eight countries to measure the impact of six diversity variables, which included gender and age, but for some reason, the study did not include race. Given that African Americans have been trying to fight their way up the ladder in corporate America since the 1980s, it’s hard to fathom that African Americans were 100 percent excluded from this study.
The Houston Business Journal’s recent report on African American board participation should also make us pause. Again, we brag about our diversity in Houston every day, and the fact that we have the second highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in the city, yet, according to the April 2018 study, Blacks account for an anemic 1% of corporate board representatives.
If, for some reason, these studies are not persuasive enough, consider something else even closer to home.
AT&T, a Texas-based company currently headquartered in Dallas, recently chose to eliminate a position in its External Affairs Division held by the only senior African American in a large division. This was an African American who had respectfully served their company for over 20 years with a great deal of public respect and dignity. I know the organization that this African American gentleman was a part of extremely well, since this was the group responsible for developing the company’s public policy agenda. As a company, AT&T boasts about its commitment to diversity across all parts of their business – such as with talent, supplier diversity and market development. But, it seems as if its leadership has erred in thinking that a commitment to diversity is as simple as just saying you are committed to diversity.
As much as I would like to be excited as we continue to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during this month of commemoration – I can’t.
When you consider the national discourse surrounding the treatment of African Americans in various arenas, such as what we just saw go viral with two young Black men being arrested at Starbucks, as well as the local decisions we see every day, like the decision recently made by AT&T, it’s not time to celebrate. In fact, it’s time for all of our corporate, civic and spiritual leaders to consider what they can do to ensure that Dr. King’s view of diversity becomes a true reality in Houston and across the country.
In his “Stride Toward Freedom” speech in 1958, Dr. King said, “He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
Perhaps the best way to acknowledge the sacrifice made by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is to fight hard for equality, not just diversity as a statement, to ensure that he didn’t die in vain.
I certainly will – 50 years later.