Opinion: In a post-affirmative action world, employers should learn from California’s experience

Two people hold hands as they walk past a building with two towers flanking its entryway.
Royce Hall at UCLA, where the numbers of Black and Latino students declined sharply after the state banned affirmative action in 1996. Since then, a variety of race-neutral programs and outreach efforts have significantly improved campus diversity.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

The Supreme Court’s decision in June in Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard, striking down the use of race as a factor in college admissions, will significantly change campus diversity. While that ruling was limited to the educational setting, America’s largest employers are already worried that their consideration of race in employment decisions might result in legal challenges.

Many companies are reexamining how to translate their commitment to diversity into programs that are consistent with a new legal reality. They should look to California’s experiences with race-neutral policies for insight in navigating the post-affirmative-action world.

Thirteen GOP state attorneys general are cautioning CEOs of the 100 biggest U.S. companies on the legal consequences for using race as a factor in hiring and jobs.

July 15, 2023

In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, which prohibited the use of race, ethnicity, national origin or gender in public employment, contracting and education in the nation’s most populous — and one of its most diverse — states. Some 76% of Latinos voted to eliminate racial preferences, stunning pundits who incorrectly assumed that race would be the overriding consideration for California’s fastest-growing minority group. Getting the opportunities afforded by having a college degree was a priority, but not at the risk of establishing racial preferences.


In the years after Proposition 209, enrollment of Latinos and Black students in the California State University and the University of California systems plummeted. In response, the university systems experimented with a variety of race-neutral programs and outreach efforts designed to recruit diverse students.

After 25 years, the Cal State system enrollment nearly fully reflects the state’s diversity; and while the more selective UC system has not yet achieved that goal, substantial progress has been made. Black and Latino students represented 43% of Californians in the UC system’s fall 2022 incoming class, on par with their 44% of the state’s population.

As the Supreme Court weighs affirmative action, the University of California’s struggle with diversity since a 1996 ban offers lessons.

Oct. 31, 2022

As the Times reported late last year, one of the most successful efforts has been at UCLA, which uses an “intrusive recruiting” approach to pursue applicants as aggressively as college coaches pursue star athletes. This includes efforts such as collaborative partnerships with local schools and churches, presence at community events and outreach programs for teenagers that help them prepare for college.

Similar to the investment some corporations make in developing and recruiting the next generation of STEM graduates well before they enter college, these intensive efforts are intended to raise the profile of the university in the community and connect with prospective students well before they graduate from high school.

How is the experience of the UC and CSU systems relevant to the challenge of recruiting a diverse workforce for employers?

Even without the burden of ‘colorblind’ admissions policies, equalizing opportunities for South L.A. students required their perseverance and intensive support.

July 15, 2023

Traditional corporate strategies to increase the pool of qualified minority candidates, such as exclusive mentoring or professional development programs, may attract heightened legal scrutiny. Compounded by an expectation that the pool of non-white college graduates will decline in the post-affirmative-action world, achieving workforce diversity will require companies to find new solutions.


One promising approach is to leverage the potential of employee resource groups (ERGs), where employees come together based on a common interest or background. These groups often play a role in providing business insights as well as supporting the personal and professional growth of their members.

A company’s ERGs can provide insights into how to promote a company to a particular community and to make the connections that were critical to the success of the “intrusive recruiting” approach. ERGs know where, when and how to best communicate with their communities — and who are the most credible messengers. This is the first step to creating a sustainable pool of qualified talent.

The Supreme Court’s ban on affirmative action has triggered angst on campuses about how to promote diversity without considering race in admissions decisions.

June 29, 2023

Achieving diversity at all levels — including in top management — to better reflect a changing America will require companies to aggressively recruit and retain the Latino worker.

The good news is that there is a strong alignment between the values of the Latino workforce and the opportunities provided by America’s employers.

In a new study, the Latino Worker Project, we found that Latinos bring a strong work ethic and a desire for creating collaborative relationships in the workplace. They are looking for opportunity, and large corporations have what Latino workers want: good jobs with opportunities for growth, competitive pay and benefits, and the stability that will allow them to provide for themselves and their families. Flexibility in scheduling, meaningful part-time roles, and educational assistance programs that allow employees to learn while working are a few of the practical changes employers can use to win with this growing workforce.

Recruiting and retaining Latino workers starts with creating a presence in the Latino community through mentorship, corporate social responsibility and employment activities. Keeping a commitment to diversity and inclusion in the workplace will require more corporate focus. But it’s a mission companies can’t afford to neglect.


Mike Madrid, a partner at Grassroots Lab, and Michele Aguilar Carlin, executive vice president of the HR Policy Association, are authors of the Latino Worker Project.