By Arin N. Reeves, J.D., Ph.D.
The Athens Group
Post-racial. The term is dominating conversations on diversity and inclusion and has become an obligatory aspect of nearly every conference, seminar and workshop on diversity.
If you Google "post-racial," you get 8.5 million hits, most of which were posted after 2007. The term, though around for years, gained traction during the 2008 presidential campaign, and we have now heard about Obama as a post-racial president, America entering a post-racial era, the new realities of post-racial politics and post-racial workplaces.
The term has become part of our daily dialogues on racial and ethnic diversity, but what does it really mean? The dictionary definition of "post-" as a prefix leads us to interpret post-racial as "after racial" or "subsequent to racial," which suggests that we should think of post-racial as what exists when we have done away with race.
But none of the articles or conversations suggest that we have gotten rid of or are preparing to get rid of race as a social category.
So what do we really mean when we refer to Obama or our nation or our workplaces as post-racial?
At a recent large conference of legal employers, I informally started asking lawyers of all races what the term "post-racial workplace" meant to them.
Many racial and ethnic minorities perceived the term as a negative one that connoted a premature end to their workplaces' efforts to achieve racial equity.
As one Hispanic man said, "Post-racial doesn't mean that we don't still have racial inequality. . It just means that we aren't going to talk about it anymore."
An African-American woman laughed and said that "post-racial means that since a black man is in the White House, all talk of racial disadvantage has officially come to an end."
Whites, on the other hand, generally perceived the term to be a positive indicator that racial issues did not dominate our perspectives of one another to the extent that they used to.
"Post-racial means that we don't look to race to form opinions about each other anymore," was one response. "It means that we can finally move on to discuss other things like socioeconomic status or religion," was another. Some whites, however, felt that the term was a "convenient excuse to stop doing what people did not want to be doing anyway."
Although my study was neither formal nor scientific, the answers anecdotally indicated that an individual's race did inform his or her definition of "post-racial." Though many whites viewed post-racialness as a desirable destination, most racial and ethnic minorities believed that the term denigrated what they considered to be positive aspects of their identities.
As many legal workplaces use the start of a new year to reevaluate and rearticulate their diversity missions and objectives, it is important to root our efforts in the reality that race or ethnicity is a critical aspect of individual and community identity, for whites and racial and ethnic minorities alike. Even as we strive to decrease the impact of race in how we view one another, we need to acknowledge race in order to transcend it.
Although whites are about 70 percent of the U.S. population (and only about 50 percent of the cities with the largest legal markets), they are 78 percent of all law students and 89 percent of all lawyers. Whites are also 85 percent of all federal judges and 94 percent of partners at large law firms. The election of a black president was progress, but it did not create any real changes in workplaces generally, or in the legal profession specifically.
Further, recent studies by the Law School Admissions Council and the National Association of Law Placement have found that instead of the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities increasing in law school and the legal profession, the percentage is actually declining because of the economic downturn. If our profession does not yet look like our general population, is it even possible for us to talk about our workplaces as post-racial?
In defining a workplace (or society or individual) as "post-racial," we set up race as an impediment that needs to be overcome or a nuisance that needs to be removed instead of as a cultural identity that needs to be recognized and respected.
If we deem our workplaces to already be post-racial, we view the current overrepresentation of whites at every level as natural, instead of as an artificial consequence of racial privilege.
Diversity efforts have to separate a presidential election from progress in the workplace and communicate that a post-racial world is not the ideal; a "post-racial bias" world is.
We have to work to ensure that, in each of our workplaces, one's race cannot statistically predict one's career trajectory, compensation or long-term success. We need to insist that we don't have to leave our racial identities behind in order reduce racial biases. The economic uncertainties make all this harder to do even as they make our efforts more necessary than ever.
My wish for this new year is that we advance to the "post-post-racial" conversation that allows us to get back to work on real diversity and inclusion.