Martin Luther King Jr. brought the country closer than anyone to the vision contained in the United States Constitution — of equality for all — and the Black middle class has benefited from his legacy, noted Luke Visconti, publisher and co-founder of DiversityInc magazine and keynote speaker for The Skanner Foundation's 21st annual Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast on Monday.
Still, however, the country's economic potential is being short-cutted because it hasn't yet moved past what Visconti called the "White-centric" model.
It's time for Black consumers to take action to ensure their place in a society that will remain mostly White until at least 2040, said Visconti, whose magazine publishes an annual list of top 50 Companies for Diversity.
"You have an obligation to act: Vote your ethics," Visconti told the 1,100 people who attended the breakfast on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. "Reward companies that share your vision, go to work for those companies.
Visconti was joined by other speakers, including Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who awarded The Skanner Foundation a $147,250 grant to develop a neighborhood multi-media training center in North Portland. The grant, from the Economic and Community Development Department, will enable local residents to learn video, technology, media and other skills for jobs in the film, video and multimedia industry.
"One of the most important investments we can make in Oregon's economy is in the skills of our citizens," Kulongoski said.
He called the public-private partnership "a model for communities across Oregon" because Oregon employers will find skilled employees who can compete in a global workforce. In addition to the state grant, The Skanner Foundation has secured private funding to pay for the estimated $463,000 in costs over three years.
The number of people of color who are earning college degrees is increasing and the income among the Black middle class is growing at a faster rate than that of Whites, Visconti noted in his keynote speech. However, the median income of Black households is still only one-tenth of White households, he said, adding that it would take an injection of $4 trillion to bring Black household income up to par with Whites.
"Who's being hurt the most? White people," said Visconti, himself a White publisher. "We could all benefit. We just have to get over ourselves."
Every year, DiviserityInc asks 230 questions of companies participating in its "top 50" list. Last year, 256 companies were interviewed.
Of the top 50 companies, the top five are: Verizon Communications/Wireless, Consolidated Edison Co. of New York, The Coca-Cola Co., Health Care Service Corp. and HBO.
The commitment to hire minorities doesn't hurt the bottom line, either, Visconti said. These companies continually outperform the Dow, S&P and NASDAC indices.
"King's 'I Have a Dream' speech is about the obligation that has to be paid before this can become a color-blind society," Visconti said. "The check still hasn't been paid."
In fact, he added there is more segregation in the nation's public institutions – including schools and prisons – than ever before.
"If we were a color-blind society, we would have rebuilt New Orleans by now," Visconti said. "We would have universal health care. Fifty percent of the U.S. Senate would be women, and 28 percent would be people of color. We would have kept track of Iraq's civilian deaths as well as the deaths of our own troops. We wouldn't stand by as people are herded to their deaths in Darfur."
Visconti called the U.S. Senate the "worst company" for diversity, followed closely by the U.S. Supreme Court staff. He also lashed out at those who seek to change statewide affirmative action laws.
He recalled how, as a young military helicopter pilot, a fellow helicopter pilot, who was Black, constantly talked to Visconti to make him aware of the lack of access to schools and corporations that Blacks had at the time. Visconti warned those attending Monday's breakfast that they must stay vigilant or those in power might try to return to that era.
"There's no one to whisper in their ears," Visconti said.