Will the end of affirmative action mean the end of DEI?

Last month the Supreme Court ruled to end affirmative action, prohibiting universities from considering race in their admissions process — but does this signal the end of DEI initiatives for colleges and employers alike? 

Alfred Edmond Jr., senior vice president and executive editor of Black Enterprise, a black-owned multimedia company with a focus on African American businesses, is confident that DEI won’t vanish into thin air. Instead, institutions will find other ways to promote diversity, if they haven’t already. 

“It’s important for people to understand that affirmative action is one tool to achieve diversity, but it’s not synonymous with diversity, equity and inclusion programs in of themselves,” says Edmond. “Affirmative action is decades old, and corporate America has been adopting various policy programs intended to achieve diversity beyond specific race-based policies.”

Read more: How the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action will impact employers

Employers in particular may look to expand their talent pools so they have the best chances of interviewing diverse candidates; colleges may take income levels more heavily into account when reviewing applicants, with people of color often making less than their white peers due to systemic racism getting in the way of class mobility. In other words, there are more tools in the DEI toolbox, underlines Edmond.

And with nearly half of Gen Z made up of people of color, diversity is unavoidable. EBN spoke with Edmond about the true impact the Supreme Court decision will have on DEI, and why many institutions will continue to strive for diversity across race, gender, sexuality and class.

Does the end of affirmative action translate to the end of DEI?
The broader impact will be felt to the degree that some companies, especially those who only just got serious about [DEI] since George Floyd’s murder, will pull back on their commitment to diversity. But the companies that are really committed to it are not going to pull back. Because ultimately, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging goals don’t need to target a specific race and every company can make adjustments to achieve their diversity goals. 

Read more: Do your DEI policies support intersectionality?

It’s easy to believe that this particular Supreme Court ruling meant ‘the end to all DEI programs,’ but it’s just not the case. In many ways, the genie is out of the bottle, meaning that companies and universities are already more diverse. Those cultures do exist and cultures tend to self-replicate. And so if diversity is already part of the culture of a university or a company, then it’s likely considered an important value that will grow and develop within these institutions.

Why does this decision have a lesser impact than we might think?
The idea of affirmative action was birthed in the immediate aftermath of the traditional Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. That was 60 years ago. Universities now believe it’s a competitive advantage to attract students from diverse backgrounds. Corporate America has proven over and over again that the best-performing companies, whether it comes to stock market value, ROI, you name it, are diverse companies. There’s plenty of incentive to say, ‘We can’t use affirmative action to achieve our goals, but we can do other things to achieve our goals.’

Read more: HR teams will feel the weight of SCOTUS religious accommodations ruling

A great example for corporate America is making sure recruiting efforts include historically Black colleges and universities, because that’s another way to make sure we are reaching a potential talent pool we would not otherwise reach. Universities can create admissions processes that take into account different economic levels so they can reduce income as a barrier. There are just so many ways of getting to a diverse population like African American students and employees.

What advice would you give employers who are determined to continue pushing for diversity?
If a company is serious about this, they will find the personnel and the training. You have to put together programs and initiatives that consider legal restrictions, such as this latest Supreme Court decision. But that’s just part of the daily blocking and tackling of doing business —  recognizing judicial restraints and legislative restraints are part of doing business, both nationally and internationally. Companies that are new to it will have to invent and reinvent their initiatives because you don’t always get it right the first time. 

My advice to companies that are serious about DEI is to approach it as a business imperative: figure out ways to build it into your operations in such a way that you can still achieve your objectives, regardless of the different judicial and political impacts that are inevitable when you do business on a global scale.

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