Timed to the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, this week’s Washington Post‘s On Leadership roundtable explored King’s leadership legacy and where we stand today in fulfilling his vision for the nation. They asked me to write an opinion piece.
In reflecting on celebrations of the new monument commemorating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I get queasy. I get the same uneasy feeling whenever the King holiday rolls around. The reason is that these become occasions when speakers and pundits routinely tarnish King’s dream.
Nearly 50 years ago, Dr. King spoke of his dream that racial inequality—as well as other forms of inequality—would dissipate with time and people would be judged only by “the content of their character.” “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he wrote in his famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail.
Many people think they are leading toward Dr. King’s dream in politics, education, business and other social domains when they argue against separating people into categories by race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. They worry that highlighting these different social identities is the antithesis of King’s vision. They say we can’t treat people based on the content of their character (or their qualification for a job or political office) if we remain focused on the color of their skin or the sound of their accent.
But few things pose a greater threat to King’s dream than this drive toward “oneness.” Pretending that differences don’t matter is not the same as having differences no longer matter. The push to make us all just human has two benefits for people who espouse it. First, it’s comfortable because it avoids the hard work of negotiating differences. People retreat to the familiar place of just assuming that “deep down other people are just like me.” But a lot happens on the way down to deep. Peoples’ background and experiences, many of which are shaped by their social identities, make them not at all “like me.” And that means that if we really want to get to the place in which our differences are unimportant, we must roll up our sleeves to do some work, starting with an honest exploration of how we are different.
Our society is made up of people with vastly divergent experiences, perspectives, backgrounds and talents. Often those differences are defined by the structural inequality that exists today, just as it was in King’s day. A Gallup Poll of more than 1,300 people nationwide found that 90 percent of whites and 85 percent of blacks think civil rights for African Americans have improved in their lifetimes. Yet wide gaps between blacks and whites remain in average income levels, and access to housing, education and employment. Similar statistics can be found to make the case for gender and class inequities. And a few sound bites from contemporary debates on gay marriage reveal how far we are from treating people of different sexual orientations equitably. On the positive side, differences that are well embraced can generate the breakthrough innovation, community cohesiveness, and the commitment to making society extraordinary rather than merely ordinary.
The drive toward oneness—toward “we’re all just human beings”—tends to discount both facets of difference. It rewrites the story of structural inequality as one in which the Promised Land has been reached. We hear things like, “We are post-racial.” “Discrimination is not as bad as it used to be, and it’s getting better.” “Young people don’t worry about this stuff the way the older generation does.”
This denial infuriates people who live a life in which their experience of being disenfranchised is glibly attributed to them being oversensitive. And it creates privileged but vulnerable people who think they live in a world where everything is really getting better, leaving them unequipped to deal with the discontent of the disenfranchised. The drive toward oneness also deprives us of the opportunity to come up with new ideas and perspectives because it makes it undesirable, or even dangerous, to express a novel and unusual way of seeing the world. It becomes bad to be unique.
Of course, it is possible to foster divisiveness by overemphasizing differences. Poorly executed diversity initiatives like hiring or admitting candidates based too heavily on skin color or gender is not good for a company or school, nor is it usually good for the person of color or the woman who enters the institution. Overemphasizing social identities can relegate people who are different to being seen (and feeling like) one-dimensional aspects of the people they truly are. King’s dream comes to fruition only when we neither ignore nor overinflate the importance of social identities in how we engage differences, whether in neighborhoods or schools, businesses or government agencies.
Getting to King’s “content of their character” place requires more than just leveling some metaphorical playing field. This place of clarity, in which people truly see one another for who they are, comes from being willing to engage—not avoid—our differences. It comes from letting go of the mindless habit of looking for similarity and commonality, and cultivating the ability to open oneself up to looking for and learning from difference. This is the leadership charge we should hold before us as we memorialize Dr. King’s legacy.