When Diversity Is At the Bottom of the List

Recently, Forbes published a news report entitled, “Chief Diversity Officers Are Set Up to Fail.” The article draws on a survey of a group of Fortune 500 Chief Diversity Officers that asked them what they need to succeed. The article points to CDOs stating that they do not having enough experience, data, or power to accomplish their role. In particular the article reported that, “All of the leaders surveyed reported that diversity and inclusion came in last on a list of eight potential business priorities for their companies.”

And interestingly, as to higher education in particular, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a study from September 2018 about University Chief Diversity Officers hired to increase faculty diversity. The claim there was that CDOs likely had no significant impact on the diversification of representation in higher education. The question remains for corporate and educational institutions that claim to want it: why is diversity still such a low priority?

This problem is nothing new. The disconnect between institutional priorities and achieving diversity (whatever that means, as it can mean many things to different people) seems to be indicative of our current broken attitudes towards diversity and inclusion. This brokenness can result in diversity-as-tolerance (as I’ve discussed before), which cravenly takes advantage of being seen as diverse merely to increase profits or enrollments (to the extent that, as Nancy Leong has pointed out, such institutions are willing to fake diversity) without there being an authentic commitment to inclusion and transformation of institutional culture.

The law appears particularly vulnerable to this problem. We can point to examples of the perception of a lack of commitment to diverse representation in law schoolslaw firms, and law practice generally. All of which are microcosms of the society’s shallow practices about diversity and inclusion. And this is ironic given the legal profession’s mission to protect vulnerable minorities.

Maybe “diversity” as idea is in the midst of an existential crisis. Despite good intentions diversity may appear meaningless and amorphous. Or maybe all of this reflects society’s comfort with the patterns of white supremacy, and thus the lip service to diversity is simply a cover for preserving the status quo. And maybe—a thought I would never have uttered four years ago—some people in power actually want the rising tide of renewed white heteronormative patriarchal supremacy to take us to a time when America was “great,” and authentic diversity based on equality is treated as poison.

The existential crisis that diversity faces doesn’t excuse ending the search for it. Authentic diversity is an essential predicate for American institutions, whether for-profit or nonprofit, private or public, that strive to represent all of the people. These recent thoughts about Chief Diversity Officers would suggest some basic starting places for authentic institutional diversity—finding a working definition of diversity, making that definition as part of the institutional vision, and most importantly achieving that vision by making diversity a real, measurable priority.

The priority at the bottom of the list rarely gets achieved.

Originally posted on Race and the Law Prof Blog