I was supposed to moderate a track of panels at Inman called Provoke, and I was really looking forward to some of those conversations, until a family situation arose that makes attending Inman impossible. (We’re all fine; my ex has to be out of the country, so I need to make sure my two boys don’t die of starvation or are eaten by feral hogs….)
There was one panel in particular that I thought would be the most interesting and yet the most dangerous, and therefore the most subject to politically correct silence. This is the panel on diversity whose title and tagline are as follows:
The Word “Diversity” is PC hogwash, unless….
LGBT, ethnic diversity, glass ceilings, tran bathrooms. How much is feel good, how much is token blather, how much is smart business and how do you commit to truly changing your own workplace and habits.
I had the preparatory conference call with the panelists, and I think they will do a bang-up job presenting their case, and their point of view. Kim Colaprete, Jasmyn Jefferson, and Marquise Murphy all struck me as intelligent, caring, successful professionals with a really valid and interesting perspective. I was looking forward to the conversation on stage, and then the inevitable conversations in lobbycons and dinner meetings with friends old and new at Inman.
So, since I can’t be there, I figured I should have that conversation here on Notorious. Because we’re not afraid to have the tough conversations here, and yeah, we’re going there.
Let me frame the essential question this way:
Does diversity matter in real estate? Why or why not?
My answer, as I think you’ll see, is a bit of both.
What Does Diversity Actually Mean?
One of the threshold problems with this topic is that terms and phrases are not well-defined. I mean, what does that term “diversity” even mean?
Does it mean that the people in an institution, an industry, or in certain positions, should reflect the various percentages of various identities in the general population? So in the case of real estate, since 58% of the REALTORS are female, then 58% of the leaders of various real estate institutions ought to be female?
I doubt anyone would subscribe to that kind of rigid numbers-and-quota-based type of definition of diversity… thought some might.
Does “diversity” mean something a bit more… shall I say prescriptive and normative than descriptive and empirical? Meaning, does “diversity” really mean multi-cultural understanding and “inclusion” (another word that is ill-defined). For example, here’s one definition of diversity from the educational field:
Diversity can be defined as the sum of the ways that people are both alike and different. The dimensions of diversity include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, language, culture, religion, mental and physical ability, class, and immigration status. While diversity itself is not a value-laden term, the way that people react to diversity is driven by values, attitudes, beliefs, and so on. Full acceptance of diversity is a major principle of social justice.
— Definition from NEA (National Education Association)
That particular definition states that diversity itself is not a value-laden term. But “inclusion” is:
Inclusion is defined as, “The active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity—in people, in the curriculum, in the co-curriculum, and in communities (intellectual, social, cultural, geographical) with which individuals might connect—in ways that increase one’s awareness, content knowledge, cognitive sophistication, and empathic understanding of the complex ways individuals interact within systems and institutions” (AAC&U, 2009, ¶ 3). University of Arizona
Perhaps what one means by “diversity” incorporates this idea of inclusion as active engagement to increase people’s awareness, knowledge, and empathic understanding of other people and their differences as well as similarities.
Let’s go with that inclusive definition of diversity, as a normative, value-laden term, rather than a yawn-boring “the ways that people are alike and different” value-neutral term. Because it certainly seems that people talk about diversity in a moral, normative way, rather than a dry, scientific way.
Does Diversity Matter in Real Estate?
What I found so interesting in the prep call is how all three panelists described situations from their personal and professional lives that were offensive, or at the very least, insensitive. As an Asian-American, I understand 100% what they mean. People mistake me for Lawrence Yun (understandable) and Nobu Hata (you have got to be crazy or blind) all the time.
Now, I have fun with it, and I think the doppleganger thing is funny, but from a certain perspective on “diversity” and sensitivity, there is an element of that good old chestnut: “All Asians look alike.”
So yes, stories of gay REALTORS having to deal with offensive or insensitive or outright homophobic comments or actions resonate with me. And as one of the panelists put it, “the old white religious people who don’t even know they’re being offensive” is likely a problem.
Having said that, I do wonder if we’re losing sight of the forest for the trees.
I asked this of the panelists, and told them I would bring it up, to explore the concept, so I’ll ask it here.
Isn’t there a danger of going too far with the don’t-offend-you-don’t-understand angle of diversity to where the notion becomes that in order to properly serve a client, the REALTOR must fit every aspect of that client?
Meaning, isn’t there a whiff of the idea that only a black REALTOR could serve a black home buyer without giving offense or being insensitive? Or that gay homeowners should only be served by gay realtors, and so on?
In that context, I have to say, I don’t think diversity matters one bit.
If I am selling my house, I don’t much care if you’re white, black, lesbian, straight, kids, no kids, married, unmarried, Muslim, Mormon, snake-handling charismatic, or God-Is-Dead atheist. All I care about is your competence, your ability to market and sell my home for the most money in the shortest period of time with the least amount of pain. We don’t have to be best friends, we don’t have to go out to enjoy some tasty kkori-gomtang, and frankly, you don’t have to know jackshit about the Chinese Exclusion Act or be all that sensitive to my cultural, religious, political, racial, or whatever-else sensitivities. In fact, you could call me a chink all day long if you sell my house for 20% over asking. (Actually, no, you can’t do that, because that would be intentional disrespect.)
A buyer, a seller, a renter, a landlord — what they need and deserve from a real estate professional isn’t some deep-seated cognitive awareness and empathic understanding about what it’s like to be race/gender/ethnicity/blah blah blah. No, it is stone cold professionalism, knowledge of real estate, deep-seated cognitive awareness of the market conditions, and understanding of how to help me achieve my real estate goals.
This is one way I think being a real estate agent is different from being say a teacher, whose whole job is focused around education and awakening thinking in her students.
Now, a counter argument to the above could be that diversity-awareness makes one a better real estate agent. That would go something like, being cognitively aware of cultural, racial, sexual differences, and having that deep empathic understanding actually makes you a better REALTOR. Maybe. I’m not sure how though. If one of you — the best-informed audience in real estate — can explain that to me, I’m open to considering it.
As I see it, say someone is intimately aware of my “diversity”. How would that change her advice, or her negotiation ability, or her marketing strategy? Is she going to say, “Hey, look, Rob… since you’re a gun-totin’, conservative, Ivy League educated immigrant from New Jersey, you really ought to look at homes in this neighborhood and not that one?” Of course not! That would be steering. Is she going to negotiate the purchase offer and say to the other agent, “Look, you have to understand that my client is Asian, so getting a bargain is really important to him culturally….” Of course not; that would be straight up racist.
Again, maybe I’m missing something, but I honestly can’t see how diversity, inclusion, sensitivity, and so on makes you a better real estate professional. It might make you a better person, a better citizen of the increasingly multicultural society we live in, a more pleasant individual to go have a drink with, but a better REALTOR? I don’t see it. But as I said, if you can explain it better than I have, please, let us all know in the comments, or message me privately if you’re uncomfortable with this sensitive topic.
Where Diversity Does Make A Difference
So in the actual practice of real estate, I don’t believe diversity makes one damn bit of difference. Competence does. Real estate knowledge does. Ethics does. But diversity? No.
I do think, however, that there is a place for diversity-inclusiveness in real estate. And that is in our institutions.
There is a valid question to be asked as to why only 7% of REALTORS are Hispanic, and only 4% are African-American. And the reason to ask that question is because of the documented, unarguable, and clearly racist history of REALTOR Associations in the 20th century.
I won’t go into it in depth, since you can Google it yourself, but there is a reason why the NAREB exists: because black people were not allowed to be members of NAR in 1947 when NAREB was founded.
It is unarguable that REALTORS, who were members of NAR, engineered and participated in the racist practice of blockbusting in the 60’s. From the article “Confessions of a Blockbuster” first published in 1962 in Saturday Evening Post:
The Chicago Real Estate Board, an organization of the city’s most prominent realtors, all but ordained the “cave-in” method in a policy laid down in 1917: “It is desired in the interest of all that each block shall be filled solidly (with Negroes) and that further expansion shall be confined to contiguous blocks. . . .”
The board, which is all white, no longer makes a copy of this statement available in its office, but the policy never has been rescinded or repudiated. None of the board’s 1700 members violates it. No member, if he deals with Negroes at all, is likely to arrange for a sale to them in a white neighborhood that is not next to a “Negro block.” Once a neighborhood begins changing, none will show homes there to whites. [Emphasis added]
We can’t deny these things happened, anymore than we can deny that slavery existed or that Jim Crow laws existed or that we once put people in prison for the crime of homosexual sodomy. American history does have huge chunks in it that we look back now with great regret.
It goes without saying that NAR today in 2016 is nothing like NAR in 1962. If anything, organized real estate is even more inclusive, even more open, than general society is today.
Nonetheless, as one of the most important institutions that set policy for real estate by regulating its membership, there is a strong argument to be made for diversity and inclusion within organized real estate. Perhaps having the perspective of a young black lesbian REALTOR on the Board of the local MLS might change how the leadership views some policy regarding rentals in the MLS; perhaps it does not. But having diversity there, on the Board, in leadership, could be a real positive.
There is also a strong argument to be made for more diversity and inclusion within some of our largest brokerages and technology companies, not for social-justice purposes, but for practical, business purposes. Marketing to Hispanics might be more effective if there were executives in your company who are Hispanic, or really understand that culture in a deeply cognitive and empathic way.
Final Observation: Diversity Cuts Both Ways, No?
Let me make a final observation, because… well… maybe I’m uniquely positioned to make it.
As most of my regular readers know, I’m an immigrant and racial minority. I am also a member of the 1% in terms of education and income. And I am a gun-totin’, Ted Cruz votin’, Milton Friedman-lovin’ Constitutional conservative. I enjoy the hell out of Waylon Jennings and Tupac and Disturbed and Puccini operas. What can I say? I’m weird and unique that way.
So I think that diversity and inclusion cannot cut just one way. Diversity can’t demand deep empathic understanding to avoid offending gay people without also demanding deep empathic understanding to avoid offending conservative Christians. Inclusion cannot simply be a one-way road demanding that old white guys be sensitive to the needs and wants of young Latinos; true diversity and inclusion must also demand that the young black lesbian from San Francisco be sensitive to the needs and wants of the old white guy who goes hunting every month and thinks Obama is a terrible president. If it’s not cool to look down on young black men in poor urban neighborhoods as thugs, then it’s also not cool to disparage white people who shop at Walmart as trailer trash.
As is always the case when there are so many differences between us, it’s helpful to find that vast background of agreement against which we disagree in a small number of things. For real estate, to me, that vast background of agreement is this:
All of us, whether REALTORS on the street, the brokers who manage them, the Association Executive who organizes them, the MLS that governs their business practices, or consultants who advise them, or tech companies that try to sell them this and that tool — all of us ultimately are trying to do the same thing: to help buyers and sellers and renters and landlords achieve their real estate goals and dreams in the best way possible. That’s it. That’s the core.
We can all differ on how best to do that, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that what we’re trying to do as best we can as imperfect humans is that: help people achieve their American dream.