Help Make Martin Luther King’s Dream a Reality

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated April 4, 1968. Considering this leads me to address a question I have heard frequently: “How does diversity and diversity management relate to achieving Dr. King’s ‘beloved community?’” My response is we cannot achieve the beloved community ideal without a diversity management capability.

In King’s writings the beloved community is an implied idealistic scenario. If achieved, legal segregation would give way to desegregation. Desegregation in turn would generate racial pluralism whereby African-Americans would be proportionately represented at all levels throughout America’s mainstream society and organizations. Following this pluralism would be complete integration.

King viewed integration as the positive acceptance of desegregation and welcomed Negroes’ participation in the total range of human activities. Integration required a spiritual connectedness and a genuine intergroup, interpersonal doing. It required looking beyond racial mingling to racial reconciliation. King believed integration would lead to community and be a stepping stone to the ultimate beloved community ideal.

As our society looked to move toward this ideal, several surprises surfaced. One, desegregation did not result in widespread racial pluralism. As a consequence, affirmative action was created to jumpstart the flow of African-Americans into the mainstream.

Two, racial pluralism proved difficult to sustain. Affirmative action facilitated the entry of African-Americans into the mainstream, but complaints surfaced about glass ceilings, premature plateaus and revolving doors — all of which made it difficult for corporations to retain their new recruits.

Three, despite their best efforts, managers continue to find it challenging to establish and maintain productive relationships between racial groups and their organizations. Tensions seemingly always lurk just below the surface.

For example, recently, while conducting a focus group, a consultant I know encountered several very angry African-Americans, who previously had appeared to be pleased with their company. The group experience unearthed real concerns that had been simmering out of sight. Their managers were surprised to learn of this discontent.

Finally, racial pluralism generated behavioral diversity. Because African-Americans had been clamoring to be part of the mainstream, white males had not expected they would behave differently, but rather that they would comply with existing norms.

The Black Power and the Black Is Beautiful movements cautioned African-Americans to be careful about what they gave up to join the mainstream. This resulted in an enhanced comfort level with being different, and gave rise to behavioral diversity and related diversity tension.

CEOs and CDOs who wish to move their organizations toward integration and the ideal of the beloved community should identify and continue their efforts to support social justice and civil rights internally and externally. Any activity or program that was or could have been conducted under affirmative action, had it remained politically viable, should be considered a candidate for use to support the social justice/civil rights agenda.

Second, these CEOs and CDOs should identify and adopt a diversity management framework that can be applied to any diversity mixture or issue, including those associated with social justice and civil rights. This framework should have distinct concepts, principles and guidelines for making quality decisions about and in the midst of diversity. Applying such a framework to issues related to workforce representation and relationships, which are related to social justice and civil rights, can help differentiate social justice and civil rights from diversity and diversity management while demonstrating the power of a universal diversity and diversity management framework.

Using both tracks in a complementary fashion will allow CEOs and CDOs to address surprises and advance toward the ideal of the beloved community. Without this differentiation, integration and the beloved community will remain beyond our reach.

R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr. is CEO of Roosevelt Thomas Consulting & Training, founder of the American Institute for Managing Diversity and author of World Class Diversity Management: A Strategic Approach. He can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.