By Kate Berry

It was a plea, a tirade, a call to arms.

Maurice Jourdain-Earl walked up to a microphone at a banking convention last month and unleashed a diatribe against banks and mortgage lenders for failing to hire more minority loan officers.

“Until companies diversify their work forces, they will not penetrate communities of color,” said Jourdain-Earl, a managing director at ComplianceTech, a firm that analyzes fair lending data. “People like to do business with people who look like them.”

To drive home his point, Jourdain-Earl, a fixture in the mortgage industry, waved his hand over the crowd of 300 mortgage bankers gathered in a Las Vegas ballroom. The bankers looked “like a sea of salt with a few specks of pepper,” he said.

His comments fell like a thud on the crowd. But the argument that more diversity in the ranks could boost home sales has caught the attention of some lenders.

Bankers acknowledge that potential homebuyers, particularly minorities, may be choosing not to apply for home loans on the belief they will be denied.

Gary Acosta, the chief executive of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, said he thinks many potential homebuyers are “self-selecting,” and just choosing to opt out of the home-buying process.

Last year, blacks and Hispanics were turned down for home loans at nearly three times the rate of white borrowers, according to a September Federal Reserve paper. Yet the data also shows that denial rates to minorities actually improved slightly in 2013 compared with 2012.

“Turndowns are low because what you’re seeing is some consumers aren’t applying” for loans, said Acosta, whose trade group has 20,000 members, including 5,000 loan officers.

Denial rates are a huge point of contention among banks and mortgage lenders. Lenders are pushing back against regulatory efforts by the Consumers Financial Protection Bureau to expand mortgage data requirements. Lenders fear the expanded data, which would include more details on why a loan was accepted or denied, will be used against them in fair lending exams and enforcement actions.

Of course, there are many reasons why fewer home loans are being made to minority borrowers including higher credit score requirements, high real estate prices and fewer loan products.

“The horror stories that get circulated would make most people afraid to apply,” said Tammy Butler, director of fair lending and compliance at Optimal Blue, a Plano, Texas, loan pricing technology vendor.

Still, the lack of diversity among loan officers is at least another plausible reason for the slow pace of home sales, given recent demographic shifts.

Lenders have spent lots of time fretting about the absence of first-time homebuyers and the millennial crowd, with its outsized student debt, eschewing the American Dream, at least for now.

Acosta thinks it is not a stretch to suggest that fewer home loans are being made because too few loan officers “connect with” minority consumers, or speak another language such as Spanish.

“We’ve got an age gap and a cultural gap,” Acosta said.

Hispanics and millennials make up the fastest-growing segments of potential homebuyers. Yet the professionals who originate loans and sell homes – mortgage bankers, loan officers and real estate agents – are mostly white and over the age of 50.

There were roughly 123,000 state licensed mortgage loan originators and another 392,000 loan originators at banks, registered with the Nationwide Multistate Licensing System at the end of June. The registry, which is overseen by the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, does not provide a breakdown of loan officers by race.

Of the roughly 1 million Realtors in the U.S., just 6% are Hispanic, 4% black and 4% Asian, according to the National Association of Realtors. Eighty-five percent are white and 72% are over the age of 50, according to the Realtor trade group.

“There’s a growing disconnect between the demographic makeup of the folks in the industry and the consumers,” Acosta said.