From 'Separate is Inherently Unequal' to 'Diversity is Good for Business': The Rise of Market-Based Diversity Arguments and the Fate of the Black Corporate Bar

65 Pages Posted: 21 Jul 2004

See all articles by David B. Wilkins

David B. Wilkins

Harvard University - Center on the Legal Profession


Fifty years after John W. Davis, one of America's premier corporate lawyers, took on the defense of segregation in Brown v. Board of Education as a pro bono case, corporate America appears to have firmly embraced the mantra that diversity is good for business. In this Article, I examine this surprising turn of events by investigating the rise of market-based diversity arguments in the legal profession itself. Specifically, I examine how black lawyers seeking to integrate corporate law firms have increasingly staked their claim on the contention that diversity is good for the business of law firms and clients. Although it is not surprising that diversity advocates have been drawn to such arguments, I argue that whether these claims will actually produce greater opportunities for black lawyers - and whether the resulting diversity will in turn further Brown's other goal of promoting social justice through law for all Americans - depends upon a closer examination of the connection between diversity and business than most proponents of the business case for diversity in the legal profession have been willing to undertake or even to acknowledge. As a preliminary matter, advocates must confront the profession's deep commitment to the idea that it is actually homogeneity that best serves firms and clients - a commitment that may be even harder to shake in law firms than it apparently has been in corporate America. At the same time, advocates must also be aware of the danger that market-based diversity arguments will encourage various forms of race-matching, pigeonholing, and moral evasion that can end up harming the cause of diversity by marginalizing and alienating minority lawyers. Ironically, taking note of these complexities may also hold the key to making progress on Brown's social justice goals as well. Integrating the corporate bar is a social justice issue of considerable importance. Nevertheless, if bringing diversity to the elite ranks of the American legal profession is going to do more than accentuate the yawning gap between the legal haves and have-nots, then those who come to occupy these positions of power must have normative commitments that both shape and constrain the business interests of their powerful clients. Contrary to the gloomy predictions of diversity advocates who urge abandoning social justice arguments for diversity altogether, however, there are good reasons to believe that black lawyers who maintain a normative understanding of diversity that goes beyond corporate self-interest may, paradoxically, have important advantages in building a credible business case for diversity in their own careers.

This paper is part of a symposium on the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v Board of Education held at Harvard Law School on April 15, 2004 in which Richard Ford, Molly McUsic, Frank Michelman, Juan Perea, and Reva Siegel also contributed articles. The Symposium papers were published in Volume 117, Number 5 (March 2004) of the Harvard Law Review and can be obtained from the law review's web site.

Suggested Citation

Wilkins, David B., From 'Separate is Inherently Unequal' to 'Diversity is Good for Business': The Rise of Market-Based Diversity Arguments and the Fate of the Black Corporate Bar. Harvard Law Review, Vol. 117, No. 5, March 2004. Available at SSRN:

David B. Wilkins (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Center on the Legal Profession ( email )

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