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  • August 10, 2023

The Demise of Affirmative Action Is Not the Existential Threat – It’s the Intent Behind It

figure being erased illustrating the end of affirmative action

The recent US Supreme Court ruling that struck down Affirmative Action is clearly cause for alarm for the direct impact it could have on the diversity of student bodies in higher education and by likely cascading legal challenges on diversity and inclusion commitments by corporations. Three different strategic response streams must be addressed simultaneously – Appropriate, Defend, and Change the Context:

  • Appropriate the colorblindness rationale by SCOTUS by repositioning all that is about diversity being about everyone in their uniqueness. Kenji Yoshino and David Glasgow in their HBR article make a comprehensive and compelling case for how to do this.
  • Defend against the true existential threat by addressing the deeper reasons behind the attacks on DE&I.
  • Go on offense by changing the context of what DE&I is truly about in organizations.

In this post, I address the last two.


Defend Against the True Existential Threat

The demise of Affirmative Action is a serious blow to diversity on its own merits given it increases the chances of reducing the admission of underrepresented talent into higher education. But this is not a certainty given there are many other ways to keep our universities as diverse as our population is. (Also see, here.) So while I worry, this is not an existential threat.

The existential threat — and cause for deep alarm — is the deeper intent behind it.

Saying people of color don’t face discrimination in college admissions – and therefore the protections afforded by something like Affirmative Action – is to deny the stories of innumerable numbers of people who actually have been discriminated against.

It’s the same intent behind forces that seek to ban books related to, say, the celebration of identities based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and any intersectional combinations or having to do with the documentation of injustices endured by people of color.  Conversely, these forces seek to rewrite history saying that slavery was good for many Black people because through it they learned a trade and, mostly, they were treated with kindness. These are the same forces that seek to disenfranchise the votes of people of color, young people, and the formerly incarcerated – all of whom have the right to vote and to vote as easily as the rest of the population can.

There’s a throughline that begins with the banning of books, the rewriting of history that hides atrocities and the subjugation of people, the elimination of ballot access, and limiting access to quality education, healthcare, and fair and affordable legal representation – and which ends in erasure.

To deny someone is in pain; to deny that someone is being forbidden access to their rights; to deny that people have suffered pain including as a result of prejudice against their skin color, religion, or sexual orientation – declared in their own voices informed by their own lived experiences – is to say they don’t exist.

To deny someone is in pain declared in their own voices informed by their own lived experiences  is to say they don’t exist.

This denialism has two purposes. One is an attempt at the erasure of their feelings, their experiences, their lived reality. The other is to redefine the exploitative oppressors as ordinary and benevolent individuals. It’s especially insidious in its attempt to erase the perpetrators’ existence and culpability.

This erasure leads to dehumanization, which can lead to humanity’s darkest side: attempts to fully remove whole groups of people from our shared society.

This is why the “Never Forget” of the Jewish community is a most powerful rallying cry. Holocaust denialism sets the stage for the next Holocaust. Allow the atrocity, then deny it ever happened. If we deny – forget –  then we can’t put safeguards against it happening again. So when the real danger manifests, the deniers can say that it has never happened before. What are you talking about? You are making things up. Your family members were never pinned with a Jewish badge, they were never packed into death trains, never sent to the gas chambers. Since it never happened, you therefore cannot warn against a repeat.

Slavery didn’t happen. Or if it did, it wasn’t that bad. No, better yet, it was actually good for those forcibly brought from Africa. Those massacres didn’t happen. You being pulled over by the police, being followed in a store, being denied an apartment, a bank loan, a promotion, the bullying of you or your child – is fiction. Or if this did occur, it’s because there are simply bad people in the world – it had nothing to do with race. Because racism doesn’t exist.

Rendering others invisible is the ultimate exclusion. There is no acknowledgment of experience, credit for contributions, no recourse for addressing inequities. Those treated as invisible raise their hands and are not called on. Others take credit for what they suggest. The pain, marginalization, overlooking vaporize into invisibility. 

If that pain is not real, the cause of it is not either.

So, while it’s a setback that the Affirmative Action tool was taken away from academia to level the playing field, restoring Affirmative Action is not the battle to fight. We can deal with that in other ways. It’s the quest against erasure that is. We must fight with everything we have. And that starts with having our voices heard, our presence seen, our contributions valued. Our dreams and aspirations, as well as our injuries and the impact of injustices, are real. They are manifestations of our humanity – and we are going to make sure we’re not going to be made invisible.

Go on Offense by Changing the Context of What DE&I is Truly About

As we play defense in that existential battle at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs which is about survival, let us simultaneously play offense and shift the field of play away from only battling to hold on to the blunt instrument of compliance such as what Affirmative Action has been, to also move toward the creative, sustainable value diversity, equity, and inclusion brings to enterprises, communities, society. Diversity, when managed inclusively is proven to consistently lead to greater innovation, better customer service, greater safety, greater engagement, better talent optimization.

Let the reactionary forces argue against this!

Because without diversity and inclusion, without leveraging the power of the differences in perspectives and backgrounds and experiences, we will not come up with the breakthrough ideas and solutions required to meet this moment of unprecedented existential threats to all of humanity.

Because without leveraging the power of the differences in perspectives and backgrounds and experiences, we will not come up with the breakthrough ideas and solutions required to meet this moment of unprecedented existential threats to all of humanity.

While the attempt to erase people of color and those who are gay and those who are transgender leads to a survival threat to people in those groups, that very attempt creates a vulnerability for everyone else as well.

No one escapes climate change. No one escapes the disruption of AI to how work gets done. No one escapes the mind games of disinformation. To cast as irrelevant and invisible those who are different is to turn off the very sources that hold the keys to figuring out the way forward.

Those who are against diversity, equity, and inclusion are, in effect, against their own interests. In the erasure of others, there is the erasure of the very thing that we all need to survive and thrive.



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