- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 13, 2003

The recent Supreme Court victory for affirmative action/diversity proponents was achieved by a little-noticed social policy movement formed 15 years ago to revive flagging business interest in affirmative action while updating its rationale for the 21st century. The University of Michigan’s “diversity defense” — that student ethnic variety enhances institutional excellence — was originally crafted to appeal to business marketing and legal interests.

Now, corporate America’s endorsement of the new “valuing diversity” rationale — registered via 100 supportive court briefs — rings decisively throughout Sandra Day O’Connor’s majority opinion. Justice O’Connor “defers to the Law School’s educational judgment that diversity is essential to its educational mission … by [its] reference to the substantial, important, laudable educational benefits that diversity is designed to produce, including cross-racial understanding and the breaking down of stereotypes … further bolstered by numerous expert studies and reports showing that such diversity promotes learning outcomes and better prepares students for an increasingly diverse workforce, for society and for the legal profession. Major American businesses have made clear that the skills needed in today’s increasingly global marketplace can only be developed through exposure to widely diverse people, cultures, ideas, and viewpoints.”

The exact words in Justice O’Connor’s opinion legally linking ethnic diversity with globalization and cultural change were launched into the American mainstream at several national conferences in the early 1990s. These gatherings of consultants, CEOs, human resource officers and policy-makers were organized by or featured the “founding fathers” of modern diversity — notably, Price Cobbs, author of Black Rage; Harvard Business Professor R. Roosevelt Thomas Jr., author of a seminal article on “managing diversity”; and Lewis Griggs, who converted international business expertise into the phrase and videotaped the training series “Valuing Diversity.”

These diversity proponents recommended replacing moralistic “righting past wrongs” affirmative action policy with a bottom-line, future-oriented “dollars and demographics” rationale premised upon two widely circulated government reports.

First, the 1987 Hudson Institute “Workforce 2000” predicted a “majority minority” workforce, an image that gradually was reinforced by surging numbers of Third World immigrants into the United States, and rising numbers of overseas workers and customers in globalizing markets.

Second, the Department of Labor’s “Report on the Glass Ceiling” appeared in 1991, along with “glass ceiling audits.” Government contractors were put on notice that merely hiring women and minorities was not enough; retention and promotion records of females and minorities might also be examined.

Business-driven diversity arguments held that the new workforce majority of women and people of color would no longer assimilate to organizational cultures created by and for white men. Savvy employers would compete successfully for minority and female talent by instituting “cultural audits” pinpointing corporate practices that prevented minorities and women from “being themselves.” White male managers would be trained in more sensitively supervising people “who are not like them.” They’d discover that “differences are assets” and that “equal treatment is not fair treatment” under “old boy” standards. Cultural and organizational change would facilitate productivity, creativity, and group interaction and permit a more proportional distribution of women and minorities throughout the ranks. Such changes also would reduce the risk of costly regulatory hassles and discrimination lawsuits.

Long on theory, but short on systematic evidence, demographic-driven diversity theory nonetheless percolated through major foundations, corporations, government agencies, educational institutions and think-tank elites. Diversity training became routine, and diversity management worked its way into business school textbooks and curricula. Major institutions often are rated today on how diverse or diversity-friendly they are. Especially after rapid growth of immigrants registered in the 2000 census, business publications now regularly highlight high-growth immigrant markets. And corporate “Vice President for Diversity” officers’ bonuses often are tied to their minority hiring and promotion records.

By the time the University of Michigan case even entered the federal court system, the little social policy movement had grown into a mighty diversity machine respected and feared even in the Bush White House — which advertises its Cabinet that “looks like America.”

Indeed, White House counsel Alberto Gonzales may have effectively co-authored O’Connor’s opinion when he rewrote the final White House brief filed against the Michigan programs. Solicitor General Ted Olson had wanted to argue for a complete ban on preferences, but Gonzales compromised this tough stand by stressing the value of diversity in education. Whatever disappointment George W. Bush might have felt about the final decision, he nonetheless saluted the court’s decision with the now-mandatory mantra, “diversity is our strength.”

Frederick R. Lynch is a government professor at Claremont McKenna College.

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