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Affirmative Action, Deciphered

On June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on two related cases that, together, posed possibly the most important legal test of affirmative-action strategies since the Alan Bakke decision in 1978.

What did it mean for corporate diversity strategies? We asked J.T. (Ted) Childs Jr., IBM's vice president for global workforce diversity, to assess the rulings' significance.

First, the Court upheld the right of the University of Michigan Law school to consider race and ethnicity in admissions. Childs' verdict: Nothing changes. "The court's reaffirmation is a constructive thing. The social needs are what got companies involved in diversity. Now we're driven by the need to protect our business interests."

The justices also nixed a scoring system, based partly on race, used in undergraduate admissions. Again, Childs says, no impact. "I don't think quotas are a good idea. But we need to track employment to make sure we're bringing women and minorities into our workforce."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor predicted that affirmative action should "no longer be necessary" in another 25 years. Childs: "I worry that we don't have the national political will to solve this in 25 years."

A version of this article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Fast Company magazine.