Diversity by any other Name

Volume 33 Number 5

As President Obama campaigned, the issue of race came center stage and ultimately, the then-candidate gave a speech on race in Philadelphia. He urged the people of this nation to enter into a substantive discussion on the role of race in our society. From election night to the inauguration, the pundits tried to discuss the significance and mean-ing of electing a person of color to the highest office in this country. The term "postracial America" was born. While no one really believes that the election of one person of color means that we’ve solved all racial issues in this coun-try, it is fair to say that there is a new sense of the possibility that the racial issues can be productively discussed.

Bar associations are a microcosm of the nation, and we, too, face issues relating to race and diversity. Many asso-ciations have implemented diversity plans and established programs to increase the participation by people of color. At meetings of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, bar leaders of color have been meeting, and the Bar Ser-vices staff has been helping to track the associations that have had persons of color elected to leadership. However, these discussions are still generally focused on "firsts." There has been a good deal of work on the issue of diversity and there has certainly been progress, but often when you look around an association, it does not reflect the diversity in the community. Likewise, the bar staff may not reflect the diversity of the association’s membership.

To be sure, there is a lot of work already taking place. Some bar associations—a growing number, in fact—have created a new position within the association staff: a diversity director. Some associations have discussed and ex-panded the definition of diversity to include persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. Likewise, those with disabilities are increasingly included in the definition of diversity. Lawyers from smaller and perhaps less visi-ble ethnic or cultural minorities have been forming their own bars, and larger bars have been reaching out to support them.

The ABA has been working hard, too. To highlight the importance of continuing diversity efforts, the ABA will be hosting a diversity summit to call attention to some of the progress and success that associations have achieved in their efforts to diversify the profession. The work to diversify the profession and the associations is going strong, but sometimes it just does not seem like it is moving fast enough.

Let me suggest that President Obama was right in that an honest discussion on the issue of diversity is long past due. An honest discussion about the real goals (not just getting someone elected as president of the association) must be had. What are the real barriers to entering the profession? What are the real barriers to participating in the work of the association? What is the real goal of any diversity effort? Is the goal achieving a certain milestone, increasing the number of members, or drawing upon the entire spectrum of member experiences to develop programs and products that serve the profession, the public, and the legal system?

What are the issues that your association faces? Are you ready to tackle some of them? Let me suggest that at the heart of any effort, there should be an honest discussion about race and other differences that far too often separate us and keep us from fully utilizing the talents of our members. A race talk can seem scary. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, and ultimately we "just want to get along," but without discussing the real underlying issues (not as a blame game), real progress may continue to come at a painfully slow pace. But don’t let your efforts stop at talk. The talk must be carried to action, and the actions must be meaningful and sustained.

Dive into this issue. Dive into the discussion, and dive into the effort to include all of your members in the work of the association.

 

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