Would Martin Luther King Jr. Want Employers in 2013 to Be Color-Blind?

This year we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered on August 28, 1963, in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. I watched and heard that speech on live TV that day. I was 10 years old. I turned 60 a few weeks ago.

In that speech, Dr. King said, “I have a dream that 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.” Has the “day” Dr. King dreamed about arrived? Would Dr. King want employers in 2013 to be color-blind? If he would, then would he want employers to continue to have affirmative action programs? How can employers achieve racial diversity if they pay no attention to race? Or, have they already achieved enough racial diversity? They and their fellow Americans elected and reelected an African-American President. Is race discrimination a thing of the past?

The answer, or at least my answer, to the question “Would Dr. King want employers in 2013 to be color-blind?” is not fully yes or fully no. Obviously, it is impossible for us to know what Dr. King would be thinking today. He died 45 years ago. So, in this blog about human resource management and ethics, let’s put the question this way: Should employers be thinking about race and skin color in 2013?

In my opinion, an employer’s primary obligation is to comply with the law. Diversity is a worthy, important goal, but legal compliance is the most important goal. In most (not all, but most) circumstances, the best and easiest way to comply with the law is to be color-blind. The law generally (there might be an occasional exception) says employers cannot discriminate against an employee or job applicant on the basis of race or color. For employees who work for the federal government, President Obama’s diversity initiative (Executive Order 13583, entitled “Government-Wide Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan 2011”) says the government should try to achieve diversity—that is, try to build a work force from all segments of society—“while avoiding discrimination for or against any employee or applicant on the basis of race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy or gender identity), national origin, age, disability, sexual orientation or any other prohibited basis.” I think the best way for private-sector employers to prevent employment discrimination lawsuits is to do the same: Try to achieve diversity while avoiding discrimination for or against an employee or applicant on a prohibited basis. Logic dictates that the best way to do that is to be color-blind; you should be color-blind unless there is a very good, legally valid reason not to be color-blind.

Some people argue that color-blindness is impossible. My response: If it is impossible for you (an employer) to be color-blind, then try to be as color-blind as possible. Try as best you can to be color-blind. Even if you don’t fully succeed, you will reduce the likelihood of a race discrimination lawsuit.

Whether color-blindness is a good way or bad way to address the problem of racial inequality in the U.S. is an important question but not a question that should be foremost in an employer’s mind. The foremost question in an employer’s mind should be, What does the law say? The law generally (again, there are occasional exceptions) says, in essence, exactly what Dr. King said: Don’t judge people by the color of their skin. If you don’t like the law, then you can, if you want, lobby to change the law. Until the law is changed, you should comply with existing law.

Keep in mind that America’s “complexion” has changed since 1963. In 1963, when Dr. King gave his speech, America was basically a “black and white” country. Almost everyone in America then was either “white” (European ancestry) or “black” (African ancestry). America had relatively few people of Chinese, Indian (from India), Middle Eastern, Mexican, or other ancestry.

Today, in 2013, the U.S. is not a “black and white” society. It is a society in which it is harder and harder to tell whose ancestors were from where. It is harder and harder to classify people as “black” or “white.” A person from India might have darker skin than an African American. In 1963, the person from India was in India. Today he is, or might be, in the United States. Does an employer hire “blacks” when the employer hires people from India? What if a person has an African parent and an Indian parent? Is the person “black?” What if a person has a Mexican parent and an Indian parent? What race is that person? What if that person is now married to an Irish-American and they conceive children? What race or color are their children?

In America in 2013, fifty years after Dr. King’s speech, the simplicity, if it ever was simple, of “black and white” is long gone. It is much more difficult to classify people today as “black” or “white.” The more you think about race and skin color today, the more confused you will be. Obey the law. Be color-blind unless there is a very good, legally valid reason not to be color-blind. An example of a very good, legally valid reason not to be race-blind and color-blind is if a government agency such as the EEOC requires you to provide the government with statistics about the racial composition of your workforce. The EEOC requires many employers to do so. To the extent that you need to notice, rather than be “blind” to, the race and skin color of your employees to comply with that requirement, do so. Do what the government requires. Another example, often related to the first example, is to comply with a government-mandated affirmative action plan. In general, though, you should, as much as legally possible, treat everyone as though they are members of the same race: the human race.

AP Photo/File.

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