What Happened When States Banned Affirmative Action?

Matt Gonzales By Matt Gonzales July 12, 2023

​After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education last month, some workplace experts warned that the decision could spell doom for corporate diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs.

History shows those fears may be warranted: Racial diversity in the workplace significantly declined in several states in the years after they outlawed affirmative action in college admissions, according to a 2013 study by Harvard University.

"These findings contradict those who argue that affirmative action policies should be eliminated because affirmative action has run its course and no longer benefits minorities and women," researchers wrote.

The study, which examined the years 1990 to 2009, assessed employment data from nearly 6,000 state and local government agencies in California, Michigan, Nebraska and Washington state in the years following their prohibition of affirmative action. In that time, workforce participation among:

  • Hispanic men fell by 7 percent.
  • Black women fell by 4 percent.
  • Asian women fell by 37 percent.
  • White men rose by 4.7 percent.

The percent decline among Black women continued until five years after the law went into effect, the study found. For Hispanic men, the reduction continued steadily through the third year. For Asian women, the decline was limited to the first year following the ban.

Breanna Jackson, an HR professional and DE&I expert based in Stockton, Calif., explained that the decline in workforce participation among workers from underrepresented groups can be attributed to multiple factors—including businesses' economic woes and mass layoffs.

However, she said the Harvard findings still illustrate a troubling reality for people of color.

"It demonstrates that without [affirmative action] in place, there is and will continue to be a decline in the participation of a diverse workforce," Jackson said. "The decision to promote inclusivity rests solely on the state's whims and the terms set by its organizations."

Although the high court's decision last month doesn't directly affect employer programs, the Harvard results also show that the ruling could impact employers' overall diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. In response to the ruling, SHRM reaffirmed its commitment to advocating for inclusive workplaces and diverse workforces.

"Whether or not one agrees with the ruling, we must all turn to the critical task of supporting higher education human resource professionals as they both comply with the ruling and develop innovative approaches to build better workplaces for an increasingly diverse workforce," SHRM said in a statement. "SHRM will always be a part of finding solutions that deliver for organizations and the people they serve." 

A Decline in Enrollment Among Black, Hispanic Students

Before California outlawed affirmative action in 1996, Black and Hispanic students made up 7 percent of the student body at UCLA, according to The New York Times. By 1998, that figure dropped below 4 percent. The university's freshman class in 2006 had just 96 Black students out of nearly 5,000.

A study released in August 2020 indicated that the end of affirmative action in California not only reduced the number of Black and Hispanic students in the University of California system, but it also weakened their odds of finishing college, going to graduate school and earning a higher salary.

Michigan colleges experienced a similar decline in admissions after the state struck down affirmative action in 2006: Black undergraduate enrollment dropped from 7 percent in 2006 to 4 percent in 2021, the Times report found.

Matt Strauss is the co-founder and CEO of RiseKit, a Chicago-based company dedicated to connecting job seekers from underserved communities to employers. He said the elimination of affirmative action nationwide will create more barriers for people of color and cause a drop in talent for jobs that require a four-year degree.

"Besides getting a great education, colleges also offer networking and access to alumni groups," Strauss explained, referencing research that shows 70 percent to 85 percent of people find jobs based on their network or connections.

"Unfortunately, many first-generation, immigrant and diverse families have limited networks due to socioeconomic factors," he said. "Efforts to weaken or eliminate affirmative action will only worsen the challenges faced by those who are already marginalized, resulting in a decline in college and employment access."

How HR Professionals Can Maintain DE&I

While affirmative action has its share of supporters, most people in the U.S. are not fans of such policies. A recent poll from The Economist/YouGov found that 64 percent of U.S. adults think colleges should not be allowed to consider race, among other factors, in college admissions.

Further, 54 percent of Black Americans think colleges should not be allowed to consider race, and just 19 percent of Black respondents said affirmative action had an impact on them.

Despite the differing opinions on affirmative action, Strauss implored organizations to continue committing to DE&I. He offered six ways for HR professionals to increase diversity or maintain diversity initiatives:

  • Collaborate with community partners, job training programs and associations.
  • Consider recruiting from historically Black colleges and universities.
  • Optimize collaboration with existing community partners to receive more referrals from each organization.
  • Create or expand a referral program for employees and tap into existing employee resource groups.
  • Eliminate college degree requirements and focus on skills- and behavior-based hiring.
  • Partner with DE&I community engagement technologies that can help you do all the above.

Strauss also noted that major companies including Tesla, Google and Apple have shifted toward a skills-based hiring model rather than solely relying on formal education credentials. He encouraged others to do the same.

"This change in mindset opens doors for under-resourced job seekers to acquire skills through apprenticeship programs," Strauss explained, "allowing them to create avenues to participate in the workforce."



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