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Diversity: the American journey

A Jan. 17, 2003 presentation to the MLK Jr. holiday assemblies at Granite Falls high school and middle school

Publisher, The Seattle Times; chairman, Blethen Maine Newspapers

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday. What is it? What is it not? First, what it is not:

It is not a black holiday.
It is not a yellow holiday.
It is not a brown holiday. It is not a white holiday.

It is not a manís holiday.
It is not a womanís holiday.

It is not a baby boomer holiday.
It is not a generation X or Y holiday.

It is not a poor personís holiday.
It is not a rich personís holiday.

It is not a religious holiday.
It is not a commercial shopping holiday.
It is not a day off.

So, what is it?

It is Americaís celebration.
It is each of our individualís day of celebration.
It is a moment of rejoicing for all Americans.
It is a moment of reflection for all Americans.
It is a moment of renewal on our long diversity journey.
It is a moment of challenge for each of us.

Martin Luther King day is Americaís true holiday. It is Americaís most pure holiday. It is our only holiday based on the intrinsic values of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It is the only holiday based on our American Dream:

Our dream that all men and women are indeed created equal. Our dream that in America all men and women will have equal opportunity. Our dream that access to education and a job will be based on individual accomplishment. Our dream that fair access to education and a job will someday no longer be denied because of your skin color, gender, culture, sexual orientation, religion or appearance.

In Washington, D.C., on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King spoke for all of us, across generations, when he said: "I have a dream 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. I have a dream today!"

The America we live in today is a unique society in the history of man. It is a bold experiment in democracy. It is an experiment in inclusion, unlike anything the world has ever seen.Its strength, its greatness, has been its ability to continually spread its wings to include more of its own citizens in its promise and in its dream.

It is a democracy that has produced the highest levels of freedom the world has ever seen. It is a democracy that has produced the highest standard of living the world has ever seen. And it has extended that standard of living to more people, with fewer barriers than anywhere else in the world.

Itís a noble dream.
Itís a good dream.
But itís still an unfulfilled dream.

We are understandably schizophrenic about the dream. Think of this schizophrenia as the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good:

On the one hand, we are the worldís most inclusive, diverse, tolerant and open society.

We have achieved great progress where others have failed. Our laws, our standards, our institutions and our attitudes toward fairness and inclusion are better than they have ever been in our 200-year plus history.

We have much to be proud of. And we have much to build on. In barely 200 years, we have evolved from a very narrow definition of democracy where only the most privileged and elite could participate — generally white, male landowners — to a democracy that is far more inclusive.

The Bad:

We have so much work left to do. Work that is essential if we hope for our democracy to continue to evolve, grow and even survive. Work that is critical if we hope for our lives to be rich and meaningful.

We have problems and inequities that simply cannot be permitted in a free society with a democratic government.

Our "enlightenment" is too often situational. To survive, it must be grounded in principle and in doing the right thing, no matter what the situation.

Our "enlightenment" is too often uneven across the country, and here in Washington state and Snohomish county. Too many people are denied opportunity because of skin color, culture, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or some other perceived or real difference.

The Ugly:

For all the good that America is, there is an ugly side to our history that lingers and persists today. We are a nation that permitted one of mankindís great abominations — slavery.

And when formal slavery ended, we tolerated, for decades, systematic repression that was the equivalent of slavery. We tolerated lynchings, church bombings and the complete denial of many American citizens to the basic rights and opportunities guaranteed to them in a democracy and under our Constitution.

Our early citizens conquered this country by practicing genocide against Americaís indigenous native population. And today, every one of us in this room must share in the embarrassment of the poverty and hopelessness we still keep many of our native American citizens shackled in.

It was only 60 years ago that we interned thousands of American citizens because of their Japanese ancestry. And make no mistake, internment was simply a polite word for saying we arbitrarily and capriciously took away all of their rights as American citizens, and all of their property. Think about this for a moment — we treated our own citizens the same way the Nazis treated the Jews when they initially stole their property and put them in prison.

Internment is a particularly sad and embarrassing chapter of Pacific Northwest history.

And lest we think our ugly side is ancient history — only recently did we watch senseless deaths when a black man was dragged to death behind a car in Texas, and a Wyoming college student beat and crucified on a fence for his perceived sexual orientation.

But let me take it even closer to home.

Just this past week, basketball star Shaquille OíNeal racially and culturally mocked Houston Rockets rookie center Yao Ming. The very fact that OíNeal said this is shocking. The fact that heís not remorseful and doesnít get it is frightening. What OíNeal did was every bit as racist, as stupid and as ignorant as anything ever uttered by Senator Trent Lott or baseball player John Rocker.

Thereís a great irony here that this is a black man speaking about a Chinese man. Itís frightening to think that in America today a black man of OíNealís stature would be so ignorant rather than an enlightened leader. Another example of why our journey remains so challenging.

And finally, right here in our home, letís think about Ichiro for a moment.

We revere Ichiro here because of his baseball skills. But in Oakland, California, they have to put police in the outfield because of fears of physical attacks on him simply because heís Asian and not Caucasian.

And even with beefed up security, he has to endure racial and cultural taunts in most cities where the Mariners play.

Our journey has many miles left on it.

Diversity and inclusion is a journey. Itís a journey which parallels each of our own individual lifeís journeys.

How each of you in this room conduct yourselves toward others will determine the quality of the life you live and of your emotional well-being at the end of your journey.

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.ís most famous line may well be "I have a dream." He did and it was a beautiful dream. But it wasnít his dream. Itís our dream.

Itís the American Dream.

Itís your dream and my dream.

Dr. King is one of Americaís great citizens. He is purely a product of the American democracy and the American system. For all of what we are that is good, and for all of what we are that is bad, Dr. King is a product of our society. His dream had its foundation in our Constitution. In the words and deeds of our founding fathers. His dream is simply the eloquent verbalization of the dreams of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Mohammed Ali.

It is our dream.

We owe Dr. King great gratitude for helping accelerate our diversity journey and helping us move to a better place much quicker than we probably would have arrived otherwise.

Our challenge, yours and mine, today is to acknowledge that there is still not a fair playing field when it comes to education, jobs and opportunity.

Our challenge is to accept the responsibility as American citizens to embrace our democracy and our Constitution. And to accept the American dream that — all men and women are created equal.It is the only way our democracy and our way of life will survive.

To exclude people from the dream, as we have done and still do, is to undermine and eventually destroy our quality of life.

Why? Because people who don't have a stake in our dream, people who feel hopeless, helpless and discriminated against, will in the end not support the dream or the democracy.

This is not to suggest that everything will be equal. But it does mean the playing field must be fair. This is not to suggest that individuals donít have to work and achieve, or that entitlement replaces performance.

Things will never be equal. Thatís an impossible, and even undesirable, standard. But they can and should be fair. Fair access to education. Fair access to training. Fair access to jobs.

Even a cursory review of educational statistics and workplace statistics quickly shows that America is not a balanced and fair playing field for a vast number of our citizens. Racial, gender, class, cultural and other types of discrimination still exist.

Yes, as I have said earlier, we have made great progress, especially since the civil rights movement. But we have miles and miles left to go. We have much work left to do.

In many ways, the journey ahead is more difficult than the journey behind. Often the progress we have made hides the problem we must now solve.

When drinking fountains were marked "colored" or "white" — and yes, only 50 years ago, you could find those drinking fountains in Seattle and Portland — then it was easy to see the problem.

Or when women were visibly excluded from executive business positions, it was easy to see the problem.

Today we must pay close attention. Close attention to who does and who does not participate at every level of our education system and in every area of our employment and workforce.

By paying close attention, we can see the crisis, the problem, the challenges and the opportunities.

The most personal message I have to share with each of you is: "Embrace diversity." The personal rewards are immense. The richness it adds to your life, to your journey, is amazing. Embracing differences is rewarding, itís fun, itís interesting and it leads to much creativity and understanding.

My own lifelong diversity journey started out in ignorance. Early on I dealt with few people who didnít look like me and have a similar background. I was truly ignorant, accepting the inequities and discriminations of the day, both overt and subtle.

My journey from there to a 56-year-old has been rich and full. Especially my diversity journey, which I can best describe as lifelong growth, enlightenment and learning.

I wish I could tell you I was such a good person that I never accepted or practiced the racial ignorance of my early years. I wish I could tell you I never did anything discriminatory or anything that Iím ashamed of.

I canít.

But I can tell you, that by being open, by being willing to listen and learn, by developing a strong sense of fair play, and a strong sense of doing the right thing, I have moved in my lifetime from a dark and unimaginative place of accepting intolerance to a bright and creative place of embracing diversity and being intolerant of intolerance.

Each of you has a sphere of personal influence. An area where your actions and behavior affect others. Where others, even if they hide it, watch how you behave and model that behavior. This is where your diversity focus needs to be.

Everyone has a stake in diversity. Everyone makes a difference. Every day you have opportunities to make a statement within your own sphere of influence. Accept slurs, accept discrimination, accept intolerance, accept ignorance, and you condone and encourage it — you become part of the problem. Reject discrimination, slurs and intolerance and you become part of the solution. Your life becomes richer.

For most of us, this means the little things in daily life. Things as simple as quietly walking away when somebody makes a sexist, racial or cultural joke.

In the end, we are talking about the golden rule.

Doing the right thing is usually no more complicated than treating other people the way you wish to be treated.

Always ask yourself: If I was in her or his skin, and if I were in their circumstances, how would I want to be treated?

Do this and your life journey will be much richer and much fuller. And you become an effective soldier in Americaís battle to preserve and enhance our great and wonderful experiment — the American democracy — the American dream.

As our American hero, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: "The time is always right to do the right thing."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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