A tech industry trade group is asking the Biden administration to issue guidance for corporations wrestling with the implications of a landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down affirmative action in higher education and precipitated a new wave of challenges to diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the private sector.
Though it does not apply to employers, conservative activists seized on the high court ruling, arguing it raises fundamental issues about how corporate America addresses workplace inequality. Since then, the nation has seen an uptick in legal challenges to DEI programs, and Republican state attorneys general have warned large employers like Microsoft and Walmart against race-conscious practices in hiring and contracting.
Now the Chamber of Progress is asking the Justice Department’s civil rights division to weigh in.
“In the face of a political attack on diversity efforts in the private sector, we urge the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice to issue guidance to the private sector expressly affirming that corporate diversity, equity, and inclusion policies in hiring remain protected,” the Chamber of Progress wrote in a letter to the Justice Department shared exclusively with USA TODAY.
The Justice and Education departments produced a memo in August detailing the lawful ways colleges and universities could recruit, admit and enroll students after the high court decision in June to crack down on race-conscious admissions policies.
“Now, as Republican attorneys general take their legal fight against diversity and inclusion to the private sector, American companies face a similar need for affirmation of their legal right to build an inclusive and diverse workforce,” the Chamber of Progress wrote to the DOJ.
Corporate diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives – DEI for short – were already under fire from GOP leaders like Florida Gov. and presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis. Republican criticism only intensified in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.
The ruling has prompted some companies to retreat from public targets for racial diversity in their executive ranks and from leadership training programs geared toward underrepresented groups. Others are removing “diversity” from job titles.
That’s by design, according to Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader and Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
“Lawsuits are designed not for victory, but for a chilling effect,” Abrams told Fortune CEO Alan Murray at the Fortune Impact Initiative conference in Atlanta.
The scary part, she said, “it’s working.”
Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress, says, while most major companies have not changed course, the ruling has been unsettling.
“I think that companies remain as committed as they’ve ever been to having diverse workforces, and particularly to ensuring diverse candidate pools. But the reality is that the Supreme Court case has thrown a lot of companies into uncertainty about what’s allowed and what’s not allowed,” Kovacevich told USA TODAY. “Republican state attorneys general are cynically using this moment to really push companies not to embrace diversity and to put pressure on companies to walk away from their diversity goals. So I think it’s a moment where it would be valuable to have some fresh clarity from the administration.”
USA TODAY research shows that the top ranks of America’s largest corporations are still predominantly white and male, while women and people of color are concentrated at the lowest levels with less pay, fewer perks and rare opportunities for advancement. Despite pledges to improve racial equity following George Floyd’s murder in 2020, little progress has been made.
White men today are more likely than their grandfathers to be managers even as the workforce diversifies and research studies show that diverse companies outperform peers.
At current rates, it could take decades – if not centuries – for corporate leadership to reflect the demographics of the workforce, researchers have found.
“Diverse workforces help these companies better serve an incredibly diverse population, and help them fix what might be cultural blind spots in their products and services. I view this as just good business. It would be unfortunate if companies walked away from it,” Kovacevich said. “All companies should want to have a workforce that reflects their customer base because that just helps them make better business decisions.”