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Why Diversity? One Answer

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Today’s guest post is by Day Al-Mohamed, Senior Policy Advisor at the U.S. Department of Labor and member of the CFM Council. Day shares some thoughts in response to my post about the lecture by Gregory Rodriguez, which will be webcast on Wednesday, January 27 at 2 p.m. EST.

Diverse Juries
Gregory brought up the “importance” of having a minority on a speaking panel, saying that he wasn’t sure it was “right” or “appropriate” to have an individual speak for the community as a whole. That it was critical that we see people as individuals. The minor scandal when MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer accidentally confused civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton being perhaps the best recent illustration. She made the slip-up while introducing Jackson during a segment on homelessness. Gregory’s comment intimated that the network may have been saying – “Get me a black person to speak…I don’t care who” perceiving them as interchangeable.

On a theoretical level, I can agree with Gregory. We should treat people as individuals. We shouldn’t expect one black or Hispanic presenter to espouse the views of all the community. We shouldn’t seek out minorities to fill our quota or to act as token plots of color. But what is the alternative? Not having minorities present? I would strongly disagree. It is critical that diverse individuals are present. I may dislike tokenism as much as the next person, but there is more to the issue than just “stick some minority in there.” The very fact that even one individual present is of a different race or ethnicity, impacts a wide array of interactions, perceptions and other social factors.

Dr. Samuel Sommers did a study a few years ago called “On Racial Diversity and Group Decisions Making” in which he asked 30 different mock juries, each composed of six adults, to watch a video summary, edited from Court TV coverage, of the trial proceedings of an actual sexual assault case in which a black male defendant allegedly assaulted, separately, two white females. Half of the juries were all white and the other half had two black jurors.

Sommers found that diverse juries deliberated longer, cited more case-relevant facts during deliberation, made fewer factual mistakes, and were more likely to correct inaccurate statements than the all-white juries were. Was that because of the presence of the black jurors? Yes, but not in the way you would think. We generally assume that it is the different experiences and unique perspectives of the minority status individual that gives them their value. But the objections did not come from the black jurors. Sommers found that white jurors were actually responsible for a large proportion of the group differences, as they behaved differently in a racially mixed jury than in an all white jury.

White jurors in diverse groups mentioned more facts, made fewer factual errors, corrected more mistakes and raised the possibility of racism more often than did white jurors in homogeneous groups. Serving on a diverse jury seemed lead to careful consideration not only of racism itself, but also to more systematic and thorough information processing of all relevant facts.

“When any large and identifiable segment of the community is
excluded from jury service, the effect is to remove from the jury room
qualities of human nature and varieties of human experience, the
range of which is unknown and perhaps unknowable. It is not necessary
to assume that the excluded group will consistently vote as a class
in order to conclude, as we do, that its exclusion deprives the jury of
a perspective on human events that may have unsuspected importance
in any case that may be presented.”

—Justice Thurgood Marshall, Peters v. Kiff

Although Justice Marshall was talking about juries, I believe the same holds true for the example of speaking panels, museum exhibits, art programs or any other presentation or demonstration. So, if adding a diverse participant to a jury increases the overall sensitivity and perception of its members leading to an empirically BETTER result, then isn’t that what we’re looking for in our communities?

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Even if it takes a little tokenism to get there.

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1 Comment

  1. Consider the role of a member of a group (minority, community group, whatever) as someone to add ‘dimension’ to people’s perceptions of that group – to serve as a conduit for the ‘stories’ that group rather than to ‘stand for’ that group. It changes their role from speaker for to speaker to.

    Karen B

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