Sunday, January 18, 2015

Of Pots and Kettles - MLK Day 2015

If you were in Goshen Indiana 55 years ago this past week and had two bucks rattling around in your pocket, you could have gone to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak on "The Future of Integration".  If you were on a tight budget, you could get the cheap seats for $1.25.  In the Union Auditorium you would have encountered a number of passionate northern college students deeply committed to address the scourge of racism that was wracking the country.  With any luck, you would've met my dad there.

This past week I was asked to address Rev. Jesse Jackson's RainbowPUSH Wall Street Project conference in New York City.  This event - part of Rev. Jackson's on-going effort to highlight the absence of minority participation in the economy with a special focus on the tech sector - was about as diverse as the Union Auditorium would have been in 1960.  And, regrettably, though the pages of the calendar have long faded in oblivion, the Sheraton Time Square was not filled with evidence of the giant strides we made as a society to eradicate ethnic bigotry.  Instead, it was an echo of aspiration to access that is still denied humans by virtue of capricious contempt and toxic xenophobia.

The phenotype expressed through pigment is still an agency of social division no matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise.  Access to capital, interest rates, access to business opportunities, access to education, access to housing, and access to many other opportunities are still mediated by the wavelength of reflected epithelial light.  This is as wrong now as it was 55 years ago in Indiana.  And our approach to addressing this human rights abuse (that's right, the U.S. is still a supporter of human rights abuses) is potentially more harmful today than it was 6 decades ago.  Why?  Well let me answer the question and then unpack my perspective.  By thinking that we're doing something - like the Congressional debates on 49 U.S.C. § 47113 regarding "minority and disadvantaged business participation" - we are confirming our unwillingness to have a zero tolerance policy for any form of bigotry and racism.  And worse, by the persistent use of "set-asides" and "accommodations", we allow racists to persist in their bigotry by imposing a participation tax where minority businesses are seen as a necessary social cause rather than a valued player on an equivalent field.  Sure, we'll grant minority and women owned businesses 5-10% of our government procurement or corporate supply chain but we'll do nothing to provide the capital infrastructure to let that glass floor ever be breached.

President Richard Nixon established the Office of Minority Business Enterprise with his Executive Order 11458 and with it formalized the access agenda.  This unleashed the formation of many acronym-laden committees, councils and boards all with an aim towards…, um, well, apparently, conversations about how access should be equivalent.  But with 20% of the U.S. population identified as Black or African/American and roughly half of the population women, it's clear that we are not serious about the access "aspirational goals" to say nothing about representational mandates.  As recently as the past two years, we still define economically disadvantaged individuals and businesses as, "those socially disadvantaged… whose ability to compete in the free enterprise system has been impaired due to diminished capital and credit opportunities as compared to others in the same business are who are not socially disadvantaged."  But the same Congress that defines disadvantage in the past tense also recommended limiting sole-source contracts to "disadvantaged businesses" at values capped at $4 million and construction contracts at $65 million.  In short, what we have done in 55 years is opened the door ajar to afford a modicum of access but we've insured that no one actually makes it into the ballroom.

In 1969 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that there were about 163,000 black-owned and 100,000 Spanish-speaking minority-owned firms.  You read this correctly.  One wave-length of light and one cultural acoustic discrimination.  The same survey taken in 2007 reported 5.8 million minority-owned firms.  And to be sure, the MBDA, NMSDC, RainbowPUSH, and others have done an amazing job of getting more businesses into the foyer of enterprise.  But, the idea that the next tech IPO, the next financial services innovation, the next social media tsunami will be led by someone categorized as "minority" is as remote at the RainbowPUSH conference as it was in Goshen.

I don't know what it is about the Sheraton Times Square in NYC that gives me that "minority feeling".  Several months ago, I attended the Emerging Women's Summit to absorb the wisdom of my dear friend Sera Beak.  Being one of the only guys in the room, I was acutely aware of being the one that stands out.  This week, I was one of the few appearance-minority wave-length reflectors of a particular hue.  In both instances, I had something to add to the conversation.  And in both instances, what I had to share was indecipherable against the backdrop of segregation.   We The People are not merely the wavelength of light our skin reflects.   We are not merely the genitals which grace our loins or the fat deposits which adorn our chests.  Or the hair that some of us have!  Our experiments fueled by reflexive revulsion to our pathetic impulse to separate and segregate have morphed the impulse towards access into an anemic accommodation.  We're willing to tolerate each other on the best of days.  But as we are not engaging conversations or experiments in integrated activation leading to emanating productivity we are destined to aspire to much and achieve very little. 

This is not a U.S. phenomenon.  Segregation and the violence it engenders shows up in religious, political, class and gender illusions the world over.  It comes in the form of ethnic and gender adjective-laced population generalizations, colonial "development" bribes to usurp landowner and citizens of the rights and resources, impulses to "development", "poverty eradication", "Aid", and other insidious social schemes to reinforce disintegrated illusions to reinforce power delusions.  And it's as likely to show up harming and diminishing communities of persistence from the Lakota and Navajo to Bougainville and Amazonia - all justified by the appearance of "the other" at the expense of their explicit engagement by those who wield the agencies of power and domination.

So rather than lament the hopeless state we're in, we're actively changing the game.  Working with my amazing friends and colleagues Theresa Arek, Lawrence Daveona, Rodney Woods, Tracy McGrady, Michael Redd, Josh Childress, Duane and Kim Starks, Pam Cole, Robert Smith, Progress Investments, Valerie Mosely, Michael Lythcott, Jennifer Carter-Scott, Dustin and Michael DiPerna, Leo Burke, Colleen Martin, Pieter Fourie, Jimmy Smith, Katie Martin, Karen Knowles and dozens of others, we're answering the questions that Martin Luther King Jr. posed 55 years ago this week.  We're not waiting for a future - not tenaciously holding onto a dream.  We're forging a path defined by integrity and character - not by any agency of division.  We are deploying a technology in the social media space which will include a diversity ownership structure.  We have launched and are launching sophisticated investment platforms and products not available from any "majority" owned firm.  Silently placing fulcrum under systems of oppression and segregation, we're beginning to introduce a wobble that sees the vision articulated from the mountaintop and raises it to a whole new level.  And who knows?  Maybe we will, in so doing, form a More Perfect Union!  And it might not take us another 55 years. 

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2015, let's wake from the Dream and start living!



  1. I was indeed present at that lecture in Goshen in 1960. One of the big issues in race relations at that time was interracial marriage, even for those who accepted the concept but saw that children of those marriages often had a rough time. During the question and answer period someone asked Dr. King about the issue. I shall always remember Dr. King's classy reply. To the question he replied "we want to be your brother, not brother-in-law".


    1. What a great response and thanks for adding the perspective from the actual attendee's view.


Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave