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Martin Luther King Jr., Dreams Deferred, and Faith in the Future

Blog: Appian Insight

When you get right down to it, 2020 was a year of reckoning with race in America. Hardly a month went by that we didn’t want to holler and throw up both our hands at the horror show of killings of innocent black people like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and the rest.

Not to mention the devastation of lockdowns, job loss, coronavirus spread and the festering frustration of dreams deferred by the glacial pace of diversity in businesses everywhere.

But here’s the good news. From the abolitionists of the 19th century to the pluralists of the modern civil rights movement, there has always been resistance to racial injustice in America. And the same is true today.

A new generation of multiracial protesters took to the streets and demanded action. And Black Lives Matter (BLM) mainstreamed from a hashtag to a movement that touched every corner of the country and snapped the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. back into focus.

Dreams Deferred

To paraphrase King, the ultimate measure of any society is not where it stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where it stands at times of challenge and change. King’s sentiment is more relevant today than ever. It reminds us that it’s time to take the torch from those who came before us in the journey to racial justice. But here’s the big question: As we stand at the threshold of a new decade, how will organizations respond to the call for diversity and inclusion?

Sidebar, it’s worth noting King evoked the poetry of Langston Hughes and channeled the famed Harlem poet when he referred to himself as a “victim of deferred dreams,” a reference to Hughes’ iconic poem: What happens to a dream deferred?:

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode? 

The Hughes-King sentiment connects with the urgency of the multicultural BLM protests that put racism on trial and forced us to confront the pernicious problems of bigotry and implicit bias. But can we keep the culture moving forward?

The Revolution Continues

As the reckoning with racism caught on, many organizations responded by spending more on traditional diversity programs. But few fundamentally changed. In 2019, for example, 63% of the diversity professionals at S&P 500 companies had been appointed or promoted to their roles during the previous three years according to Time. Likewise, in 2018, the job site Indeed reported postings for diversity and inclusion professionals had risen 35% in the previous two years.

Perhaps 2021 will be different. The call for more diversity and inclusion on boards and in C-Suites is growing  louder. But we’ve been here before. In his 1957 “Look to the Future” speech, King talked about the movement for racial justice as a kind of third revolution in race relations in America and called for a movement of complete and constructive integration.

King’s remarks were inspired by the landmark 1954 Supreme Court’s decision which struck down the doctrine of racial segregation and denial of equal protection under the law.

“As a result of this decision,” said King:

“We find ourselves standing on the threshold of the third and most constructive period in the development of race relations in the history of our nation. …we have …moved through the wilderness of “separate but equal” and now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration.”

Investors Push for Racial Diversity

Over the next few years, we may also emerge from the wilderness of indifference, as organizations respond to pressure from investors, consumers and other stakeholders to operationalize diversity as a business strategy.

Notable cases in point:

A Future of Marvelous Possibilities

For hard core honchos, diversity and inclusion may sound like fluff. Like nice-to-haves. A box to check for compliance. But don’t be fooled. Companies that prioritize gender diversity at a board, C-suite and rank and file level consistently outperform companies that don’t according to research from Bank of America.

And, yet, for decades companies dithered over diversity. It was easier to talk about doing the right thing and being socially responsible. But that won’t cut it anymore. In the post-COVID economy, the companies that come out on top will be those that do a better job of prioritizing diversity as a strategy for winning the talent war and surviving and thriving amid crisis and change.

Yes, the numbers show that black people—along with women, immigrants and others—continue to bear the brunt of exclusion and economic discrimination.

But to paraphrase King:

The road ahead will not be smooth. There will be setbacks and moments when hope turns into despair. But the future is filled with marvelous possibilities.

And as our reckoning with racism continues, let us remember the arc of diversity and inclusion is long but it bends toward justice.


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