Monday, January 15, 2007


A man visionary

Today we honour Martin Luther King, Jr. We've made it one of our “Monday holidays”, so it doesn't usually fall right on his birthday, but this year it does: Dr King was born on this day in 1929. He was a Baptist minister and the son of a Baptist minister. He was an activist for civil rights and equality for all, as also was his father.

When I think about today, I think not only of Dr King, but also of the many others who've fought for the same ideals. Today honours civil rights and diversity, broadly, and Dr King's efforts, specifically. As we mourn Dr King, we can celebrate where we've come in the last 40 years... and be mindful of how far we still have to go.

In today's Washington Post, columnist Shankar Vedantam tell us about studies of how diversity affects real environments. In one:

Cedric Herring recently decided to take things one step further. Given that discussions about morality are often divisive, the sociologist decided to take a more scientific approach. In other words, beyond the question of whether diversity is a good thing, is there evidence that it makes a difference?

Herring has just completed his study. He found that companies that are more diverse have more customers, a larger share of their markets and greater profitability. In fact, when Herring puts his numbers on a graph, he finds a linear relationship between diversity and business success, meaning that as diversity increases, those business indicators increase in step.

Dr Herring goes on to point out that the result doesn't establish where the cause/effect relationship is:
As a good scientist, he is cautious about the result and says it does not prove that companies do better because they are diverse. What the study shows is a correlation between diversity and business success. While diversity could be the cause of better business outcomes, it is also possible, for example, that companies that are successful to begin with do a better job of attracting and retaining minorities.
Nevertheless, the correlation is something to think about.

The Post article then considers a study by Tufts University professor Sam Sommers, who looked at how racially mixed groups think differently, collectively, than single-race groups:

Tufts University psychologist Sam Sommers recently created mock juries — either all white or diverse — with volunteers from the public. He then provided the groups with ambiguous information about a crime involving a sexual assault and a black defendant. Sommers asked his “jurors” to judge whether the defendant was guilty.

About a third of whites in juries that were diverse thought the defendant was guilty, while 50 percent of the jurors in all-white groups reached that conclusion. What was really interesting, however, is that Sommers had people draw their conclusions before the groups had any discussions. The mere presence of people of color in the diverse groups caused whites to think differently about the case.

Here's the full paper, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and here's a conversation with Professor Summers, from the Tufts University newspaper, with some discussion of the study along with other diversity-related things he's worked on.

Stuff like this needs more study, to hash out the correlations and to see if we can figure out what actually prompts us to think and behave differently, to see where the causes are for such things as greater success for more ethnically diverse companies.

But what needs no more study is that the diversity is good for our companies, for our societies, and for our daily lives. That's what Dr King fought — and died — for, and that's what we commemorate today.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

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.


And when this happens, when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!”


shinybluegrasshopper said...

In the Washington Post article, I like the slant about diverse workplaces. The argument has always been that people of diverse backgrounds bring a diversity of opinions to the workplace. But now this shows that other employees might think in new ways just by being surrounded by people with different backgrounds than them.

rinmaitlan said...

Thank you for the post, Barry. Those are two interesting studies.

I would think that a more diverse company is selecting their employees from a larger pool, and therefore getting better employees!

I also think that there is something very special about the presence of another human being. My dad and I were actually talking about this on Sunday. We are "programmed" (through evolution) to recognize human faces (even where they don't exist), as most of us know. There is no comparison in the way we react to a human face "in the flesh" and the abstract idea of a human face. I have no scientific evidence for this observation, just anecdotal. It's possible that the mere presence of black people on the jury triggered something below the surface, some genetically programmed gut feeling that black people are part of our family, that caused the jurors to feel protective toward the defendant. OTOH, it could be that the black people on the jury broke down the mental stereotype of a black defendant that has been built up over years by racist television programs, and caused the jurors to see him as a real person and not a stereotype.

I think it's also worth noting that Martin Luther King Jr., an American Baptist, and Mohandas Gandhi, an Indian Hindu, used the same peaceful methods to achieve equality. What inherent good qualities we have do not spring from our religious training, although certain religious ideas may resonate with those qualities, but from fundamental human biology.