08/28/2013 10:52 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2013

50th Anniversary of Dream Speech - From Biased Monologues to Needed Dialogue on Inequality

In 1963, Dr. King engaged the nation's conscience in the seminal speech commemorated this week: "It is obvious today that America defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check... But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt..."

Fast forward to Saturday's commemoration and comment from co-organizer Reverend Al Sharpton: "Dr. King said America gave Blacks a check that bounced at the bank of justice, and it was marked insufficient funds. We've re-deposited the check. Well, guess what? It bounced again. But this time it was marked stop payment."

Just 48 hours later, tune to a keenly contrasting voice. Perhaps you would not expect it, but Pat Buchanan attended the 1963 March on Washington. He compares the different times and ideas. He says that Saturday's speeches missed a lot of the problems plaguing the society. "Folks like the Rev. Sharpton and the others, this is their stock and trade -- the grievance industry -- that 'We have not been given enough,' they're still being abused."

Polar positions are all too common to our politics, race and community relations, and the debate between the "haves" and the "have-so-very-littles." Behavioral sciences help us understand the human inclination for biased judgments that filter our opinion of "our" group and "theirs."

Dr. John T. Jost, Co-Director of the NYU Center for Social and Political Behavior, arrives at meticulously researched conclusions. The outcome? We already intuitively know. But a few key points are worth remembering when greater attention and some intense debate centers on income, wealth, and opportunity/inequality.

Dr. Jost finds that

"economic positions distort perceptions of reality as much as political or other positions. People tend to justify their economic status and those of others in consistent ways. The wealthy rationalize their position as deserved, earned, or justified by their benevolent social acts, and assuage any cognitive dissonance regarding the poor by believing the poor are happier and more honest. The underprivileged rationalize their position as morally superior, non-elitist, and within bounds of social normalcy. The poor look down upon the rich as living an undeserved life of accidental or ill-gotten privilege." (As summarized in The Mind of the Market, Michael Shermer, page 68.)

Now is the time to rise above common biases. Clarity must prompt real conversation and real action. Here's one way to frame the challenge. The economic recovery is anemic. With 70 percent of GDP driven by consumer spending, a 30-year record of low/no income growth for the bottom third of the income distribution is a heavy anchor against a stronger lift off. A return to "normal" growth is likely to require improvements in household income and net assets. To date, the gains following the Great Recession were overwhelmingly concentrated to the top 20 percent. Whatever your status, rest assured that that won't be sufficient. To paraphrase President Kennedy, the boats won't float well unless the tide starts lifting us all.

The commentary reflects the opinion of the author and not the Foundation, Foundation Board, Hitachi Ltd, or the Hitachi Group.