Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer is offering a prestigious fellowship that explicitly bars white and Asian people from applying. It’s being heralded by the company as a “bold move” that will promote equity and diversity in the workplace, but civil rights lawyers are calling it a blatant violation of the law.
“This Pfizer program is so flagrantly illegal I seriously wonder how it passed internal review by its general counsel,” said Adam Mortara, one of the country’s top civil rights attorneys.
The “Breakthrough Fellowship” is for college students of only black, Latino, or Native American descent. Recipients will receive internships, a fully-funded master’s degree, and a few years of guaranteed employment at Pfizer.
The company tries to circumvent the obvious discrimination by claiming it is an equal opportunity employer; and that white or Asian college students can apply for other types of programs. But attorneys aren’t fooled.
Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, described the fellowship as a “clear case of liability” under federal law: a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which bans racial discrimination in contracting, and Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bans racial discrimination in employment.
“Major corporations seem to have forgotten that there’s such a thing as law,” said Heriot, who is a law professor at the University of San Diego. “They seem to think that as long as they are ‘woke,’ they’re bulletproof.”
The Pfizer fellowship is the latest in a long line of corporate bigotry disguised as progress
From Pfizer to Coco-Cola, a kind of “casual lawlessness” is now normalized in corporate America, with C-suite execs using—and publicizing—illegal racial quotas to achieve their diversity goals. But many corporations like Coca-Cola have had to quietly back down from racist policies meant to hire based on skin color at the behest of civil rights lawyers. Last year, the American Civil Rights Project sent Coke a letter demanding that it drop a requirement that law firms working with the company staff at least 30 percent of their teams with “diverse lawyers.”
Coca-Cola complied, but corporations continue trying to score points with social justice advocates by hiring based on race rather than merit. The Pfizer fellowship is so blatantly racist and unconstitutional that lawyers are calling it “open and shut.”
David Bernstein, an expert on civil rights law at George Mason University School of Law, said the Breakthrough Fellowship was “obviously illegal.” Dan Morenoff, the executive director of the American Civil Rights Project, called it a “very facial violation” of Title VII. Jonathan Berry, a partner at Boyden Gray & Associates, said it was “hard to see any way” the program was legal.
Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in 2020 made “equity” one of the company’s four “core values” alongside excellence, courage, and joy. “We don’t just talk about the importance of equity,” Bourla said at the time. “We put our words into action.”
Hilariously, what Pfizer has put into action is healthcare management underwritten by quotas rather than accomplishments. It’s a policy that’s indicative of the larger problematic headwinds now seemingly ingrained in American bureaucracy: nothing matters but appearance and narrative. That’s why it’s up to you, the consumer, to cut through the red tape and see these institutions for what they are — businesses that have profit in mind over common sense, always.
“If you close off certain employment opportunities to the ‘wrong race,’ you’re not an equal opportunity anything,” attorney Berry said. “You’re a bigot.”