Ending Affirmative Action: A Canary in the Coal Mine for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion?

As a Muslim immigrant woman advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), I am appalled by the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down race-conscious admissions. My family raised me to believe that education was a way to advance and write my own future. I ended up attending Princeton University where my friendships with diverse classmates opened up my world. Despite our varied racial and ethnic backgrounds, we shared the lived experiences of being “outsiders,” who overcame biases and stereotyping. The lessons I learned at Princeton about diverse people and cultures led me to hold educational access and diversity near and dear to my heart.

The recent Supreme Court decision, rather ironically entitled Students for Fair Admissions, not only dashes our collective societal hopes of education as a pathway out of inequality but also buttresses recent efforts to limit DEI. This regressive ruling is expected to set back overall efforts to promote diversity broadly, including at the corporate board level. In fact, it is possible that corporate DEI efforts may be increasingly vulnerable to legal challenges.

The question arises: why is limiting DEI problematic in a nation with an expanding Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) population?

In recent decades, DEI programs have been developed in response to societal demands to address structural inequalities and to promote respect for historically underrepresented groups. DEI has been developed into an impactful strategy and organizational journey that has largely focused on employer efforts to support employees to become part of a more inclusive and equitable workspace. Attempts to weaken DEI efforts will have devastating consequences for people and our society.

DEI programs have been instrumental in increasing the number of marginalized racial and ethnic groups in the workplace, which, in turn, have enhanced the effectiveness of organizations. According to a 2020 Report issued by McKinsey, ethnically and culturally diverse companies were 36 percent more likely to have financial returns above the median and deliver on their business imperative. By increasing demographic diversity, organizations are able to innovate and increase their return on investment by promoting new products and services and securing the best talent.

DEI offers additional profound benefits to individuals. According to Pew Research Center, about three-in-ten workers say it is extremely or very important to them to work somewhere with a mix of employees of different races and ethnicities. By promoting the value of diversity and inclusion, companies are able to boost overall employee morale, innovation and engagement by prioritizing an inclusive culture that embraces and uses differences as opportunities to add value and create advantages in teamwork, product quality and work output.

The most immediate impact of eliminating race-conscious admissions will likely be to buttress anti-DEI efforts in higher education. According to several watchdog groups, there are currently more than 30 bills across the country targeting DEI funding in schools. The ruling already reinforces the philosophical underpinnings of current state-level laws to ban DEI in public higher education. In Florida, which has the third largest Latino population in the nation with one-third of its public colleges/universities being designated as Hispanic-serving institutions, Governor Ron DeSantis has enacted SB 266 banning public colleges and universities from using state or federal funds for DEI programs. In Texas, where about 58 percent of the population is BIPOC – and 40.2 percent is Latino – Governor Greg Abbott has issued a similar DEI ban in higher education.

A second significant impact of the recent Supreme Court ruling eliminating affirmative action will be to limit the pool of highly credentialed BIPOC candidates. The National Association of Colleges and Universities notes that the Supreme Court decision will have far-reaching consequences for ensuring an inclusive, career-ready workforce as experts project that future college populations will become increasingly less diverse. This reality will be particularly true in DEI higher education battleground states, such as Florida and Texas, despite the fact that such states have rising BIPOC populations. Anti-DEI efforts, particularly those focused on race, will have profoundly negative implications for our workforce and society because such moves will limit the advancement of BIPOC communities and make it harder for employers to consider race in hiring.

The overall lack of racial and ethnic diversity in the workplace will have far-reaching negative consequences in the workplace. It will impact the ability of employers to develop strategies, products, programs and services that are inclusive of varying communities and populations. Employers will also face challenges in retaining and recruiting underrepresented talent. Studies indicate that diversity enhances innovation and return on investment with few employees wanting to work in an environment where they feel “othered.”

The declining racial diversity of workplaces will have a ripple effect on the lives of millions of BIPOC people. With a decrease in diversity in higher education and in the workforce, BIPOC communities will have to contend with limited economic opportunities and a continuing cycle of systemic racism that will have far-reaching implications for their quality of life, healthcare access and average earned wages.

A concrete example of the economic challenges BIPOC communities face is the racial wage gap. In 2020, the typical full-time Black worker earned about 20 percent less than a typical full-time White worker. Latinas are typically paid only 54 cents for every dollar paid to White, non-Hispanic men. Asian American and Native Hawaiian/ Pacific Islander (AANHPI) women generally earn only 80 cents for every dollar that a White, non-Hispanic man makes. With limited educational and employment opportunities, these wage gaps are likely to remain stagnant or worsen.

Dismantling the legal underpinnings of race-conscious college admissions and DEI will impact the heart of our democracy. As Justice Sotomayor powerfully states in her scathing dissent: “The court subverts the constitutional guarantee of equal protection by further entrenching racial inequality in education, the very foundation of our democratic government and pluralistic society.”

It is the time to act on our belief that education must be accessible to all, particularly to historically marginalized communities, and to advocate for DEI as an essential means to creating a more just and equal society. In the words of Justice Sotomayor, let our cries for equality resound – the foundation of our democracy is at stake.

Anika Rahman

About the Author 
Anika Rahman is the CEO of the National Diversity Council.