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With affirmative action gutted for college, race-conscious work programs may be next

Protesters for and against affirmative action demonstrate on Capitol Hill on Thursday. The Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional.
Anna Moneymaker
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Protesters for and against affirmative action demonstrate on Capitol Hill on Thursday. The Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday that effectively ends affirmative action in higher education raises questions about the future of employer-run initiatives and programs that consider race — which exist extensively across the United States.

Though the opinion focuses on higher education, some legal experts say it could lead to changes in commonplace workplace initiatives like diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) programs and environmental, social and governance commitments.

"I already think that there are going to be some real repercussions," said Alvin Tillery, a political science professor at Northwestern University, who runs a consulting firm that works with organizations and companies, including Google and Abbott, on DEI-related programs.

Tillery says he expects the mainly conservative groups that backed Students for Fair Admissions' lawsuit — which was the subject of the Supreme Court's ruling — to shift their focus in part onto race-conscious programs in the workplace.

"I think that that is likely already happening, and so businesses will have to be prepared for that," he said.

Doing away with DEI-style programs has been a consistent part of conservative political messaging in recent years. Several right-leaning groups have already begun calling for further action, including America First Legal, a nonprofit run by former Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller that's focused on doing away with race-focused policies.

"This ruling means we can strike hard legally in our courts now and win major victories. Now is the time to wage lawfare against the DEI colossus," Miller wrote in a statement following the court's decision.

But Tillery doesn't expect any changes to DEI initiatives overnight. He argues that those programs fall under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and that companies can maintain their programs by reframing their language.

"The current structure of the workforces in corporate America suggests that there are tons of gaps between the races," Tillery said, adding, "Diversity, equity and inclusion work can be reframed as trying to figure out what's behind the processes creating these gaps and then filling the void by creating structures and processes to make sure that you're not discriminating under Title VII."

Plus, race-conscious programs already widely exist throughout the country — including within many large and influential companies nationwide. And ahead of the court's decision, many companies had already weighed in and advocated to keep affirmative action policies within higher education in place.

Last summer, more than 80 major corporations and businesses filed three briefs with the Supreme Court in support, arguing these policies help increase workforce diversity and improve company performance.

"Experience in a diverse university environment prepares students to interact with and serve racially diverse client and customer bases and to work with people of all backgrounds," according to one briefwritten by over 60 prominent businesses, including Apple, General Electric, Google and Johnson & Johnson.

"The result is a business community more aligned with the public, increased profits, and business success," it added.

Plus, to Tillery, many of the larger companies he consults for understand the importance of maintaining race-conscious programs, especially as members of Generation Z and future generations enter the workforce.

"And so while the Supreme Court, they live in a rarefied space where most of us don't live because we live in the real world, business leaders are going to need to figure out a way to make this work if they're going to source future talent and sell to future consumers," he says. "And that's just the reality of it."

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Elena Moore is a production assistant for the NPR Politics Podcast. She also fills in as a reporter for the NewsDesk. Moore previously worked as a production assistant for Morning Edition. During the 2020 presidential campaign, she worked for the Washington Desk as an editorial assistant, doing both research and reporting. Before coming to NPR, Moore worked at NBC News. She is a graduate of The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and is originally and proudly from Brooklyn, N.Y.