Corporate Blind-Eye to King Holiday

Corporate executives give a litany of excuses when asked why they don't give their workers a day off on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday or, at the very least, acknowledge the day with a ceremony, or commemoration.

They claim they need to stay open to be competitive. They say that people need to shop on that day. Or they insist that no one has ever complained to them about not celebrating the day. Whatever their excuse, seventeen years after a deeply reluctant President Reagan inked the law that made the day a national holiday, corporate America still turns a blind-eye to the King holiday.

A 2000 study by BNA Inc., a Washington-based business news publisher, found that fewer than 25 percent of businesses gave their workers the day off. Worse, this was a sharp drop off from the year before. By contrast, 90 percent of firms gave their employees paid holidays on Memorial Day. And 50 percent of companies gave their employees the day off on Presidents Day. This is the next least celebrated day next to King's birthday.

The rare exceptions to the King black-out are the New York based Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., the New York and American Stock Exchanges (since 1998) and a handful of other financial service companies. Some companies such as Hughes Electronics in California keep their doors open that day but sponsor and encourage their employees to participate in planned events on King's life and the civil rights movement.

While much of corporate America snubs King, the great irony is that it has benefited as much if not more than any other segment of American society from the civil rights movement. The movement smashed the barriers of legal segregation in employment and education. This opened the corporate door for talented, and educated minorities and women, made diversity a watchword at many firms, and vastly increased the income and earnings of blacks, minorities, and women. This fattened the profits of many companies. Consumer buying surveys show that blacks alone spend a greater proportion of their earnings on corporate goods and service than whites. Corporate officials sniff big dollars in minority communities and spend billions to advertise and promote their products there.

Yet, many corporate executives are oblivious to King day for two glaring reasons. The first is the misguided belief by many Americans that King was a black leader, that the civil rights movement was by and for blacks, and that his holiday is exclusively a black holiday. They ignore the gargantuan influence that civil rights battles had on the women's, gay, Latino, and independence movements in Asia, and Africa. They forget the sweeping changes it made in law, politics, religion, and education that made America a more open and democratic society for all.

The second reason for the corporate blind-eye toward King is deep-seated corporate racism. In the past two years black employees have filed colossal discrimination lawsuits against Coca-Cola, American Airlines, and Seven Up/RC Bottling Hyundai Semiconductor in Oregon, Microsoft and dozens of other companies. The charges are almost always the same. They say that they are given the worst assignments, lower pay, and fewer chances for promotions. Corporate executives vehemently deny that they practice any discrimination.

But the paltry number of blacks that have cracked the top-level corporate glass ceiling is an indication of pervasive corporate bias. There are still only a handful of black CEOs at the Fortune 1000 corporations. Nearly ten out of ten senior managers are white males. Black managers make up less than ten percent of the total managerial positions for all races and are paid on average less than their white counterparts.

As the discrimination lawsuits against Coke and other companies show, blacks are often regarded by their corporate peers as pariahs. Many corporate managers and employees believe that blacks are: Lazy, undisciplined, poorly organized, incompetent, less skilled at their jobs, affirmative action hires, possess bad attitudes, are outspoken, rebellious, and are chronically prone to blame management or white employees for their problems and failures. Many blacks also discover that departments or divisions within the same company are top heavy with black employees and managers while others are virtually lily-white. The result is that many blacks often find themselves stuck in dead-end positions, or pigeon-holed into traditional positions such as director, VP, or manager of community relations, equal employment opportunity or human resources departments.

If many corporations continue to downplay or flat-out deny racial discrimination in their operations, then it's no surprise that they snub the civil rights movement, and it's most prominent symbol, Dr. King. Their refusal to pay homage to the man and the movement that did so much to spiff up their image and enhance their profit margins shows that civil rights still remain hollow words in many corporate boardrooms.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the president of The National Alliance for Positive Action. Contact him at ehutchinson@natalliance.org.

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