PAUL HOLMES: Corporations should take notes as Michigan University defends its racial diversity stance

As the debate over affirmative action heats up again, it's good to see several corporate heavyweights taking a position in favor of diversity for pragmatic - rather than idealistic - reasons.

As the debate over affirmative action heats up again, it's good to see several corporate heavyweights taking a position in favor of diversity for pragmatic - rather than idealistic - reasons.

More than 30 major corporations, including Microsoft, GM, Bank One, Steelcase, and Exelon, have joined together to support the University of Michigan as it faces a legal challenge to its racial diversity program. The Bush administration has indicated it will oppose the school's right to consider ethnicity during the admissions process, but some of the President's close friends in corporate America will line up on the other side of the debate. The companies argue that when diversity thrives on college campuses, everyone benefits. Students develop an understanding of different cultures, and, upon entering the workplace, that will help them "appeal to a variety of consumers," work with colleagues and clients from a range of different backgrounds, and "facilitate unique and creative approaches to problem-solving," according to an amicus brief filed by the companies. There are other, more long-term reasons why corporate America - and the rest of us - should support the university. Yes, there's an intellectually respectable argument to be made that affirmative action is unfair, at least on the micro level, where equally deserving white applicants are sometimes passed over in favor of minority candidates with less impressive resumes. But critics of affirmative action fail to address the even greater unfairness that would result at a macro level if we abandon affirmative action without creating something in its place. In fact, opponents act as if the alternative to affirmative action is a pure meritocracy, an idealized world in which every individual is judged on the content of his or her character and the extent of his or her abilities. That's naive in the extreme. The alternative to affirmative action is a world in which subtle discrimination makes it difficult for an entire class of people to have the opportunity to advance and realize their potential. How else to explain census numbers showing that in 1998, the average African-American male high-school graduate earned only 75% as much as a white counterpart, while an African-American male college graduate was paid only 72 cents for every dollar earned by a white man with equivalent education? Even with affirmative action opening doors that would otherwise be closed, most black people in this country don't get equal treatment. That's why corporate America has a huge stake in this issue. We live in a competitive world, and the only way to stay ahead of the competition is by ensuring that every one of our people has the chance to develop his or her talents to the fullest.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 15 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

  • Have you registered with us yet?

    Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

    Register
    Already registered?
    Sign in

    Would you like to post a comment?

    Please Sign in or register.