The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations

This week's Supreme Court hearing on the critical Affirmative Action case before it captured in 95 minutes of oral arguments one of our most important ongoing national debates and American business leaders should take note. At the heart of the case is an essential question we perpetually struggle with: Is the value of diversity sufficient to warrant active interventions to ensure it in every sphere? The answer is unequivocally yes.

Allowing universities to consider race as a factor in student admissions is essential to the long-term economic competitiveness of the nation and to the success of US businesses. American companies have long recognized the importance of diversity to their bottom lines. Faced with enormous competitive threats from every corner of the globe, businesses rely on the inherently unique perspectives of minority and female employees to ensure the best thinking, freshest innovation and broadest insights. For this reason, nearly every company in the Fortune 500 spends time and effort to attract, retain and develop diverse employees who add incalculable value to a company's ability to understand diverse markets and ensure the best thinking. Study upon study show that diverse organizations outperform because diversity, especially at leadership levels prevents groupthink and ensure everyone makes better decisions. As the US markets have become more diverse and global markets more competitive, diversity in our companies has become indispensable.

But already recruiters face an up hill battle trying to fill the pipeline with sufficient numbers of minority employees to ensure the long-term viability of their efforts. Even with current affirmative action programs, only 14% of students at bachelor degree granting colleges and Universities are black and while Hispanics college enrollment has grown to an all time high it's still only 16%. Nearly everyone agrees, without consideration of race in college admissions, the numbers would be dramatically lower. Without Affirmative Action ensuring minority students have access to meaningful academic experiences, we will hopelessly constrict the pipeline of diverse talent for our nation's businesses, putting those companies at a serious competitive disadvantage.

But it's not just the limited pipeline of educated minority students that should worry US businesses watching this case. Increasingly companies will need legions of white future leaders who understand the value of diversity and have benefited academically and intellectually from living and working with people different from them. White students entering the corporate world who lack that experience will be poorly prepared to lead in an increasingly diverse and globalized world and their own critical thinking may even be impaired. A recent study cited in an op-ed by the authors in this week's New York Times, found that student achievement was significantly improved just by having even one minority working side by side with them. Diversity in the academic setting ensures better critical thinking and more rigorous learning because diverse individuals, even through their very presence, trigger more critical thinking from those in the majority.

Sadly two conservative Justices appear to see little to value in ensuring diversity at our nation's institutions of higher learning. Justice Antonin Scalia questioned (to audible gasps from the gallery) if admitting African American students to public universities through the help of Affirmative Action might not do a disservice to those minority students who would do better in "less demanding" academic environments. Scalia implied that Universities must have been lowering their standards to admit black students when race is considered as part of the admissions criteria. His comments were shocking in both their overt racism and total ignorance. Affirmative Action serves to root out biases in college admissions and level the playing field between economically and socially advantaged white students and those minority students who would thrive if given an equal shot at a quality education. And the theory that minority students are unable to rise to the occasion when offered a shot at a good education has been widely discredited as the soft bigotry it is.

Chief Justice Roberts asked during oral arguments "what unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?" and made clear he saw no value in that example. Unfortunately, attorney Greg Garre representing the University of Texas missed the opportunity to answer the question. There is indeed proven value to diverse students learning together in any class because the inherent differences between them trigger better thinking by everyone. But most importantly for businesses, with millions of STEM jobs going unfilled each year, the nation can hardly afford to leave out a critical future talent pool of diverse individuals who should be in those physics classes! More minority physics grads from schools like the University of Texas would be a boon to companies across sectors desperate to hire more of them.

This week's arguments revealed heartbreaking ignorance about the importance of diversity at the Supreme Court but US business leaders know better. They understand that we cannot afford to roll back any efforts to ensure diversity on college campuses. For the US to win in the global marketplace, we need as many of our citizen as possible to collaborate and learn from each other in the relative safety of the academic environment. In this case, the soft bigotry of low expectations could destroy much of our progress as a nation and disadvantage our businesses for generations to come. We can scarcely afford for that to happen.

Lauren Leader-Chivée is the Founder and CEO of the All In Together Campaign and an expert on diversity, working as an advisor to Deloitte Consulting. Her forthcoming book The Thinnest Line looks and how and why diversity is so essential to America's economic and social fabric. All views are her own.