What Big Companies Say About the Harvard Affirmative Action Case

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This May some of America’s most successful companies offered their opinions on the federal lawsuit against Harvard’s affirmative action admissions policies. A half century or so ago, a group of this kind might have come out hotly against affirmative action. Racial discrimination in hiring and the workplace was rampant before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972. “There was an unwritten law that Black people couldn't work high-skilled jobs, couldn't have no top jobs operating no machine," a Black manufacturing worker in Memphis, Tenn., named Lonnie Roland recalled years later.

Now big companies—the vast majority, anyway—are among the strongest supporters of affirmative action. So it was a victory for them when on Nov. 12 the U.S. Court of Appeals in Boston upheld a lower court ruling that Harvard is within its rights to consider race among other factors in selecting a student body.

It’s interesting to read the friend-of-the-court brief that the 14 companies, mostly in tech and pharmaceuticals, filed in support of Harvard. The companies say they need workers who are diverse and who thrive in an “inclusive environment,” and they need Harvard and other colleges and universities to supply them with recruits who have those qualities.

The companies are Amgen, Apple, Applied Materials, Cisco Systems,  Cummins, General Electric, Gilead Sciences, GlaxoSmithKline, Intel, Micron Technology, Microsoft, Twitter, Verizon Services, which is a subsidiary of Verizon Communications, and ViiV Healthcare, which is a joint venture of GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Shinogi of Japan that makes drugs to treat HIV. They take no position on Harvard’s policy specifically but do support “race-conscious, holistic university admissions practices.”

“Talent is everywhere,” the brief argues. “It is not located exclusively in any one particular corner of humanity.” What’s more, it says, “Homogeneous groups tend to resort to ‘groupthink,’” whereas “differences in opinion push individuals to think critically.”

Big companies make many of their sales outside the U.S., and even within the U.S. both the workforce and the customers are becoming more racially diverse, they say.  They cite a 2018 study by McKinsey & Co. that found that companies in the top quarter for “ethnic/cultural” diversity were 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.

The brief cites various legal precedents, but legalities aside, its argument for siding with Harvard is straightforward and businesslike:  “To find the next superb employee, amici depend on universities admitting talented students from all backgrounds, and helping each student learn how to thrive in a diverse and inclusive setting.” Higher education plays an important role, the brief says, because “K-12 schools in the United States tend to be racially homogeneous.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, speaking for the American people, stood on the other side of the case, opposing Harvard. That’s an interesting contrast. It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court, now with a 6-3 conservative majority, will hear an appeal.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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