No Whites Allowed: Pfizer Fellowship Flagrantly Violates the Law, Lawyers Say

The 'Breakthrough Fellowship' prohibits whites and Asians from applying, a restriction that is 'flagrantly illegal'

Pfizer's headquarters in New York City / Getty Images
August 30, 2022

The pharmaceutical giant Pfizer offers a prestigious fellowship that bars whites and Asians from applying. Trumpeted on the company’s website as a "Bold Move" to "create a workplace for all," civil rights lawyers are characterizing it in a different way: as 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.

Pfizer’s "Breakthrough Fellowship" offers college students multiple internships, a fully funded master's degree, and several years of employment at the pharmaceutical giant. It also restricts applications to "Black/African American, Latino/Hispanic and Native American" students, the fellowship requirements state.

In a Frequently Asked Questions brochure about the nine-year program, Pfizer asserts that it is an "equal opportunity employer."

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 also a law professor at the University of San Diego. "They seem to think that as long as they’re woke, they’re bulletproof."

As a legal matter, that view is questionable. Some companies have scrapped race-conscious programs in the wake of discrimination lawsuits, which—when they involve overt racial quotas—typically succeed. Even the threat of a lawsuit can pay dividends: Last year, for example, the American Civil Rights Project sent Coca-Cola 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." In a memo to shareholders in February, Coca-Cola announced it was backing away from the policy.

Every lawyer contacted by the Washington Free Beacon said the case against Pfizer was 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 did not respond to a request for comment.

The pharmaceutical giant is not alone in flouting anti-discrimination law. From Uber to NASDAQ to JPMorgan Chase, a kind of casual lawlessness has descended across corporate America, with C-suites using—and publicizing—illegal racial quotas to achieve their diversity goals. That trend is especially acute in Silicon Valley: Google, for example, restricts the number of white and Asian men that universities can nominate for a prestigious Ph.D. fellowship, a policy that effectively encourages schools to violate civil rights statutes.

The Breakthrough Fellowship is part of a larger push within Pfizer to "embed DEI into our DNA," per the company’s 2021 Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) report. 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."

Central to those actions has been the use of diversity targets—concrete, legible benchmarks the company can measure. "By having a clear overarching DEI vision," Pfizer’s 2021 annual review reads, "we’re able to outline distinct DEI roles and accountabilities, align our therapeutic areas and divisions with our vision, and assess our progress against measurable outcomes."

While not a formal quota system, this metrics-based approach has nonetheless produced dramatic—and disproportionate—results. In 2021, the ESG report states, "72% of summer interns surveyed identified as representing an underrepresented group or disadvantaged background, far exceeding our goal of 50%." For comparison, non-whites make up less than 40 percent of the U.S. population.

The Breakthrough Fellowship appears to be contributing to that skew. The program’s first cohort was "55 percent female and 45 percent male," according to the annual review, "with a diversity breakdown of 40 percent Black/African American, 40 percent Latinx/Hispanic and 20 percent two or more races." Pfizer plans to have 100 Breakthrough fellows by 2025.

Asked about the company’s claim to be an equal-opportunity employer, Berry, the Boyden Gray attorney, used the term "doublespeak."

"If you close off certain employment opportunities to the ‘wrong race,’ you’re not an equal opportunity anything," Berry said. "You’re a bigot."