Diversity Insight

Why Race Is Still Important

A Q & A with Georgetown University’s Christopher Metzler

In a way, Christopher Metzler is responsible for diversity increasingly being taken seriously as an integral part of any organization’s business strategy. After all, while at Cornell University, he created the nation’Christopher Metzlers first certification program for diversity professionals. And as associate dean at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies — the position he currently holds — he created the country’s first master’s degree in diversity. On top of that, he’s authored many books on the subject, including The Competencies of the Chief Diversity Officers and The Construction and Rearticulation of Race in a Post-Racial America.

We asked Metzler, who is also director of the Diversity and Inclusion Practice at F&H Solutions Group, an affiliate of Ford & Harrison LLP, to respond to the notion that Barack Obama’s election will force a new definition of organizational diversity (and one less about race).

Q: How has your work changed over the years?

A: Diversity work has grown from being tactical to strategic. In addition, diversity professionals must understand the business and global aspects of diversity and inclusion. Diversity professionals are required to be integral to the business, to serve as consultant and advisor. [Diversity work has evolved] from compliance to business-relevant. The definition now includes more categories that are invisible. In addition, there is now an organizational definition to diversity.

Q: Does the election of Barack Obama indicate that, at least when it comes to race, diversity efforts are working?

A: The election of Obama says less about diversity and more about race. That is, a careful review of the coverage and discussion suggests that there was and still is a preoccupation with his race. That is, was he too black, not black enough? However, while there has been an attempt to sell his election as being “post-racial,” very little relative to the reality of racism has changed since his election. The media guests, hosts, and commentators are still majority white, hate crimes have been on the increase since his election, there was the recent fiasco with Roland Burris, etc. So, while America and so much of the world has praised his election as a victory for race relations, the facts indicate differently. Don’t forget that he did not get the majority of the white vote in the election. It is both a continuation and a departure.

Q: In Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, there’s the famous line about how he dreams of a day when his daughters will be judged on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Some people are saying we’ve made it to that day. You disagree?

A: Dr. King and his vision paved the way for an Obama presidency. The quote that you have included here is simply out of context in this election. The reality is that Dr. King’s work, Brown v. Board, and the civil rights movement were all critical to set the foundation for the Obama presidency. It is too much to say, however, that Obama was judged on the content of his character and not the color of his skin and this is why he was elected. There were other factors: anti-war feelings, a fresh face, his lack of a long record, a weak opponent, a terrible economy, and a frustrated electorate. The content of the character quote simply missed the point.

Q: So you don’t anticipate that his election will have an impact on diversity in the workplace?

A: Let’s not confuse diversity with race relations. On the diversity front, many organizations will look at his election as an impetus to talk about diversity. However, the question remains how it will change both representation and inclusion in organizations. This is the question. His election without more will not simply turn diversity efforts on their heads. To expect this is simply unrealistic.

Q: In coming years, do you think the focus of corporate diversity efforts will expand to include other types of diversity — such as in ideas and backgrounds?

A: There is no new diversity. Instead, I think that diversity efforts will be both [focused on things like race and gender and on things like ideas and background]. We will always be diverse. Since Governor [David] Paterson of New York, who is legally blind is the governor, does New York now move to a new definition of diversity that forgets race and considers disability? Of course not. The discussion will continue to include race as well as the global dimensions, sexual orientation, gender identity, generations, economic status, etc.