Why We Still Need Affirmative Action

A panel of civil-rights experts and lawyers, led by DiversityInc CEO Luke Visconti, told an audience of CEOs and senior executives at our panel at our diversity event in Washington, D.C., that anti-affirmative-action activist Ward Connerly fails to recognize the damaging extent of past racism or that contemporary institutionalized racism is pervasive and powerful. They spoke after Connerly addressed the audience.


Visconti took Connerly to task for billing the initiative to end affirmative action as “a civil-rights cause,” noting that thousands of voters have been duped into signing petitions and voting in favor of measures over the years because they’re typically described as bans on discrimination instead of attacks on programs that help women and people from traditionally underrepresented groups.

Luke Visconti, Chief Executive Officer, DiversityInc

“If I asked you to vote for a civil-rights initiative, would you vote for it Yes. That was the title of the law that was passed in Michigan that was against affirmative action. I respect you for being here and I respect the civil dialogue we’ve had here but I disagree with you on that point. The language on all these bills is misleading. The ramp up was misleading. Black people were hired to hand out petitions for the civil-rights initiative in Michigan. It was disingenuous. It was not the proper way of doing things. When Americans are confronted with the choice of being fair or unfair, they overwhelmingly want to be fair because we know we have a legacy and we have to move forward. That is where we have to focus on the solution and that solution is affirmative action. In utopia, we may not need it anymore. But none of us will live that long. None of us.”

Weldon H. Latham, Senior Partner, Jackson Lewis

“We’d love to have a level playing field. We’d love to take away preferences. But you jump way ahead. You want to fight hard to eliminate the solution before you eliminate the problem. The government has become less important because presidents, like Reagan and Bush, devalued the Office of Civil Rights and held back on enforcing the law. But companies stepped up and said we have to do it, not because we’re nice guys but because we like to win. I tend to agree with [Connerly] that affirmative action is going away, but it’s going away for a different reason. It’s going to self-correct. The solution will go away because we will have a new solution.”

Gilbert Casellas, Former Head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

[Addressing Connerly] “You are a soft-spoken guy and speak in a reasonable voice, but unfortunately those views are also espoused by folks at the fringe of our society and they espouse them in very hateful ways and it is divorced from historical reality and a social context. Research demonstrates that at the retail individual level, there is still unconscious bias and so we have to do things to overcome that. We have to take affirmative steps to make sure that those unconscious biases are not driving us to certain places. At the wholesale level, at the structural level, there are still disparities. They happen today and continue to exist, so we can’t divorce ourselves from the reality. Those disparities can’t be allowed in a democratic society to persist. And that is the role of government: to equalize it.”

Dr. Ella Bell, Professor, Tuck School of Business, Dartmouth College, and Founder of ASCENT

“The historical moment when affirmative action was created is not here anymore. It is a very different historical moment. We need to design an intervention that will fit this particular historical moment. When we think about affirmative action, the term just seems to get everyone crazy. You can’t use that term anymore. It’s not effective. When we think about affirmative action, we don’t think about Hispanics. We don’t think about Asians or people with disabilities. Why Because affirmative action in most people’s minds is Black and white. This is no longer a Black and white world. You want to be competitive as a company. You cannot be competitive if you just think Black and white.”

Lora Fong, now General Counsel, Senior Vice President, Transformation Services, DiversityInc; then Corporate Counsel, Salesforce.com

There are real human costs with opportunities that are lost We can bandy about statistics but it really only takes one lost genius who missed an opportunity to create a deficit for this country. I appreciate the goal of having a color-blind society. It is not where we are now, so what are we going to do about it In the interim and as far as corporate America goes who are we going to hire if the government doesn’t perpetuate and move toward this compelling state interest of making sure our public education system and our government workers are populated with diversity This is supposed to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people. I didn’t make those words up, but they resonate with me and I’m sure they resonate with many of you.”

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