Facing Discrimination Lawsuit, Pfizer Abandons Minorities-Only Fellowship

'Flagrantly illegal' program drew fire from top civil rights lawyers

Pfizer's headquarters in New York City / Getty Images
February 21, 2023

Nearly six months after top civil rights lawyers said the program violated federal law, Pfizer has opened a minorities-only fellowship to applicants of all races in the wake of a discrimination lawsuit.

Between Feb. 14 and Feb. 18, according to web archives, Pfizer quietly dropped the requirement that applicants to its Breakthrough Fellowship be black, Hispanic, or Native American. The program, which offers recipients guaranteed employment with the pharmaceutical giant, is now open to all college juniors with a "demonstrated commitment" to "diversity, equity, and inclusion." New application guidelines state that "you are eligible to apply for the Breakthrough Fellowship Program regardless of whether you are of Black/African American, Latino/Hispanic, or Native American descent."

The changes come amid a legal battle between Pfizer and Do No Harm, a medical advocacy group that in September sued the company over the fellowship. Though a federal judge tossed out the lawsuit in December, saying the plaintiffs lacked standing, Do No Harm filed an appeal on January 4. The group's chairman, Stanley Goldfarb, is now taking credit for the changes, arguing that they reflect the power of lawfare to challenge reverse discrimination.

"This significant change was made only after Do No Harm's lawsuit, and only because Pfizer knows its fellowship is in jeopardy on appeal," Goldfarb, who is also the father of Washington Free Beacon chairman Michael Goldfarb, said in a statement. "Do No Harm is pleased that Pfizer recognizes its blatant racial discrimination is unlawful and immoral."

A spokesman for Pfizer told the Free Beacon that the goals of the program hadn't changed and that "a broad coalition" strengthens "our ability to meet these goals."

The reversal, which was first reported by National Review, signals a modest retrenchment of the race-based practices that are now commonplace in corporate America. Pfizer is hardly alone in flouting anti-discrimination law: From Starbucks and JPMorgan to Google and Amazon, Fortune 500 companies have embraced race-conscious initiatives with aplomb, advertising policies and programs that many lawyers say are illegal.

The Breakthrough Fellowship was among the starkest examples of this tendency. It brazenly violated laws against race-based hiring and contracting, five civil rights experts told the Free Beacon, and, according to Do No Harm's lawsuit, Title VI of the Civil Right Act, which bans race discrimination by the recipients of federal funds. Like many health care companies, Pfizer receives reimbursements from both Medicare and Medicaid, as well as grants from the National Institutes of Health.

"This Pfizer program is so flagrantly illegal I seriously wonder how it passed internal review by its general counsel," Adam Mortara, one of the country's top conservative attorneys, said of the old requirements.

With other companies, including Starbucks and Amazon, now facing lawsuits over their own race-based programs, there are signs that a course correction is underway. Businesses are laying off diversity officers at a higher rate than other workers, according to data from Revelio Labs, and a few companies seem to have shuttered their diversity offices entirely.

Beyond cutting employee costs, the layoffs could slow the spread of programs that have exposed companies to costly litigation. Race-based initiatives like Pfizer's often originate in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) offices, where the legitimacy of racial preferences is typically taken for granted. As market forces whittle down those bureaucracies, the push for illegal hiring practices may diminish.

"All the virtue signaling in the world cannot forestall the economic realities of a slowing economy," Andrew Crapuchettes, the founder of the job site RedBalloon, said this month. "In a time when bloated Big Tech companies must make budget decisions, it's no surprise that divisive and polarizing DEI programs are under scrutiny."