Thomas Sowell recently concluded a study of affirmative action programs around the world, from India and Malaysia to Nigeria and the United States. His findings? Such programs have at best a negligible impact on the groups they are intended to assist.
Many—if not most—people who are for or against affirmative action are for or against the theory of affirmative action. The factual question of what actually happens as a result of affirmative action policies receives remarkably little attention.
Empirical Evidence on Affirmative Action
For example, after many years of affirmative action policies in favor of New Zealand’s Maori minority, a Wellington newspaper reported in November 2000: “Extraordinarily, there appears to be little or no research into whether teaching kids the standard curriculum, but in Maori, has improved their educational outcomes.” The paper adds: “Nobody knows, because nobody seems to be asking.” Unfortunately, such disinterest in empirical consequences is not confined to New Zealand.
In the United States, where many group preferences have sought to justify themselves as counterweights to discrimination that would otherwise prevail, such “discrimination” often turns out to be statistical “under-representation” in desirable occupations or institutions. The implicit assumption, tenaciously held, is that great statistical disparities in demographic “representation” could not occur without discrimination. This key assumption is seldom tested against data on group disparities in qualifications. For example, as of the year 2001, there were more than 16,000 Asian American students who scored above 700 on the mathematics SAT, while fewer than 700 black students scored that high—even though blacks outnumbered Asian Americans several times over. Data such as these are simply passed over in utter silence—or are drowned out by strident assertions of “covert” discrimination as explanations of a dearth of blacks in institutions and occupations requiring a strong background in mathematics.
False beliefs are not small things, because they lead to false solutions. In the field of medicine, it has long been recognized that even a false cure that is wholly harmless in itself can be catastrophic in its consequences if it substitutes for a real cure for a deadly disease. Proponents of affirmative action cannot console themselves for their false assumptions on grounds that their intentions were good, because social quackery likewise substitutes for real efforts to deal with real problems that can tear a society apart. Despite an orientation of asking what “we” can do for “them,” those who want to see blacks advance in fields requiring a mathematics background need to confront black students with a need to master this subject, even if that means giving up other diversions and giving up attitudes that doing academic work is “acting white.” This will win few friends and fewer votes. But the question is whether one is serious about results for others or simply wants to feel good about oneself.
Such data as can be gleaned from a variety of private sources in the United States suggest that the more fortunate American blacks receive a disproportionate share of the benefits going to blacks as a whole in the United States, just as the more fortunate Malays tend to benefit most from affirmative action in Malaysia or the more fortunate untouchables benefit from affirmative action in India.
Affirmative action programs also generate major social costs that fall on the population as a whole. Losses of efficiency are among these costs, whether because less-qualified persons are chosen over more-qualified persons or because many highly qualified members of non-preferred groups emigrate from a society where their chances have been reduced. However, the cost of inefficiency is overshadowed by the cost of intergroup polarization, violence, and loss of lives. Bloody and lethal riots over affirmative action in India are the most obvious examples, but there have also been young brahmins who have died by setting themselves on fire in protest against policies which have destroyed their prospects.
As the country which has had preferences and quotas for the less fortunate longer than any other, India presents the clearest historical picture of their consequences, as well as the clearest statistical picture. Its history is not one to encourage other countries to follow in India’s footsteps, much less the footsteps of Sri Lanka.
The history of Sri Lanka is even more chilling to those who are concerned about what actually happens in the wake of affirmative action policies, as distinguished from what was expected or hoped would happen. Sri Lanka’s well-deserved reputation as a country with exemplary relations between its majority and minority populations in the middle of the twentieth century has become a bitter mockery in the course of a decades-long civil war, marked by hideous atrocities. Despite Sri Lanka’s being a much smaller country than the United States, the number of Sri Lankans who have died in its internal strife exceeds the number of Americans killed during the long years of the Vietnam War.
The history of blacks in the United States has been virtually stood on its head by those advocating affirmative action. The empirical evidence is clear that most blacks got themselves out of poverty in the decades preceding the civil rights revolution of the 1960s and the beginning of affirmative action in the 1970s. Yet the political misrepresentation of what happened—by leaders and friends of blacks—has been so pervasive that this achievement has been completely submerged in the public consciousness. Instead of gaining the respect that other groups have gained by lifting themselves out of poverty, blacks are widely seen, by friends and critics alike, as owing their advancement to government beneficence.
Within the black community itself, the possible ending of affirmative action has been portrayed as a threat to end their economic and social progress. Thus whites are resentful and blacks are fearful because of policies which have in fact done relatively little, on net balance, to help blacks in general or poor blacks in particular. Among black students in colleges and universities, those admitted under lower standards face a higher failure rate and those admitted under the same standards as other students graduate with their credentials under a cloud of suspicion because of double standards for minority students in general.
One of the most widely used defenses of group preferences and quotas is that there are precedents for them. In college admissions, for example, there have been preferences for athletes and for alumni children. Merit criteria have not been universal in other institutions either. Why then the objections to racial or ethnic preferences or preferences for women? As a strategic argument, this arbitrarily puts the burden of proof on critics of affirmative action, as if the demonstrable social costs of this program needed no justification. But of all justifications, precedent is one of the weakest. Everything that has ever been done wrong—from jaywalking to genocide—has had precedents. Any justification or criticism of affirmative action must be based on its actual consequences. If we took the argument from precedents as conclusive, then nothing could ever be corrected until there was perfection in everything else.
Verbal parallels are not enough. Hard evidence on the magnitude or empirical consequences of such things as alumni preferences is needed, but is seldom asked for or given. No one, for example, asks how far below the usual admissions standards are the alumni children who are admitted preferentially, compared to how much the standards are lowered to get the racial profile required for “diversity.”
There is, however, some empirical evidence on the consequences of preferential admissions of individuals from privileged groups. When the president of the University of the Philippines had discretionary powers to admit particular students without regard to the usual academic criteria, the results were that (1) the great majority admitted this way were offspring of “the rich and powerful” and (2) “those admitted by presidential discretion performed worse than the rest of the audience.” At Harvard, back during the era when more than half of all alumni sons were admitted, those special admittees were disproportionately represented among students who flunked out.
Despite verbal parallels between affirmative action and preferences for the privileged, when some rich student of modest ability does not make it through an elite college, that is neither a personal nor a social tragedy, given the range of options still available to that student. But with students from lower income backgrounds, for whom education may be their one shot at a better life, the story is entirely different.
As for the important question of how much of a preference exists—that is, how far below the usual admissions standards are alumni children versus minority children admitted through racial preferences—a child of modest ability from a wealthy family is likely to have had the best education that money can buy, so his academic preparation and test scores are likely to be solid, even if not outstanding. But a minority youngster admitted to a college where the other students have composite SAT scores hundreds of points higher faces a much tougher prospect.
If the only issue in affirmative action were whether there are any other unmerited benefits, then arguments about the preferential admissions of the children of affluent alumni might make some sense. But when the consequences of racial or ethnic quotas include creating artificial failures among the ostensible beneficiaries and polarization in the society at large, then mere verbal parallels are not enough.
One of the unquantifiable, but by no means unimportant, consequences of affirmative action has been a widespread dishonesty, taking many forms. The redesignation of individuals and groups, in order to receive the benefits of preferences and quotas intended for others, has been common in various countries. In the United States, a special dishonesty has been necessary to square group preferences and quotas with the requirement of the American Constitution for equal rights among individuals. This has involved both concealment of the existence of preferential treatment and claims that such treatment is only a remedial response to existing discrimination. This adds insults to people’s intelligence to the injuries they may have received, or perceived themselves as receiving, and can only add to the backlash. There is all the difference in the world between saying that you have not had an even chance in life and saying that a particular individual or institution with whom you dealt has discriminated against you.
Another widespread kind of dishonesty, in both India and the United States, is the use of hazy, unverifiable criteria to conceal group preferences in college and university admissions by automatically offsetting the better academic records of members of one group with higher “leadership” and other subjective rankings of members of other groups who would be inadmissible, in competition with others, on academic grounds. In both countries, court decisions restricting the scope or terms of group preferences in admissions to colleges and universities have been followed by efforts to put a greater emphasis on non-academic criteria in admissions. The rankings of students on these non-academic criteria in India have almost invariably turned out to be higher for those with lower academic records and lower for those with higher academic records.
In the United States, nebulous factors like “leadership” or “overcoming adversity” have likewise served as automatic offsets whose validity or lack of validity is not subject to proof or disproof. State bans on affirmative action in California and Texas public universities set off a wave of creative proposals for non-objective criteria for admissions, echoing what had happened in India decades before, where the state government of Mysore “suddenly exhibited an enhanced concern for the extra-curricular accomplishments of applicants to professional colleges.” Nothing is easier than to come up with rationales for non-objective criteria. In India’s state of Madras, for example, one supporter of such criteria argued that such criteria would “eliminate puny creatures with no personality from becoming engineers and doctors.”
One of the common dishonesties in the academic world is faculty rejection of affirmative action in anonymous polls and support of it when voting publicly in faculty meetings or commenting in the media. A 1996 Roper poll, for example, found that a majority of professors, nationwide, were opposed to affirmative action in faculty hiring and to affirmative action in student admissions. Yet it is virtually impossible to find a faculty vote against these policies in American colleges and universities. Bitter fights have erupted over the issue of using secret ballots for votes on this issue, since both sides have recognized that whether the voting was secret or public could lead to opposite results.
History itself has been misrepresented as a way of strengthening the case for particular policies. The history of the aboriginal population in Australia has also been misrepresented in the quest for more current government benefits. In country after country, deception has been an integral part of the case for affirmative action. One of the most common forms of deception is the use of rationales which bear little or no relationship to what has actually been done. No sufferings by black Americans, past or present, can justify admitting white students to an elite San Francisco public high school over better-qualified Chinese American students who applied. Yet, once a policy of racial quotas has been authorized, the floodgates have been opened to such things, wholly at odds with the rationales for these quotas.
Emotionally powerful and politically explosive issues often produce desperate searches for a “third way” to resolve dilemmas without confronting realities. Some even flatter themselves that this represents a more subtle and nuanced approach. But however subtle and nuanced one’s thinking may be, ultimately thinking must confront a reality where options can be few, crude, and discrete. Given the tenacity with which group preferences and quotas have persisted, and the zeal with which they have been expanded, in countries around the world, subtleties in trying to reform or reduce affirmative action can amount to little more than a verbal fig leaf over the naked continuance of the same policies as before.
Alternatives to Affirmative Action
Concern for the less fortunate is entirely different from imagining that we can do what we cannot do. Nor is the humbling admission of our inherent limitations as human beings a reason for failing to do the considerable number of things which can still be done within those limitations. In America, at least, history has demonstrated dramatically that it can be done because it has already been done.
Americans need only look back to the beginning of the twentieth century to see what enormous social and economic progress has been made by some of the poorest and apparently least promising segments of the population. At the beginning of the twentieth century, only about half of the black population of the United States could read and write. Jews lived packed into slums on the lower east side of New York, with more overcrowding than in any slums in America today. As late as the First World War, the results of mass mental testing of American soldiers led a leading authority on mental tests to conclude that it was a myth that Jews were highly intelligent. The situation of Chinese Americans looked so hopeless that a popular expression of the time described someone facing impossible odds as having “not a Chinaman’s chance.”
Not even most optimists would have predicted at that time how much all these groups would rise over the next half century—before there were preferences or quotas. Even for blacks, at the center of current controversies about affirmative action, the decline in their poverty and their rise in the professions were both more dramatic before the federal government created affirmative action in the 1970s. With all these American ethnic groups—and others—what happened was not a transfer of benefits from the rest of the population, but a rising contribution from these minorities to the growing prosperity of American society as a whole, from which both they and the larger society benefited, as the less educated became more educated, as farm laborers and domestic servants acquired the skills and experience to take on more challenging work. This was not a zero-sum process, while redistribution is at best a zero-sum process, if it somehow manages to avoid disincentive effects and intergroup turmoil.
Why is this social process, with a proven track record, so little appreciated, or even noticed—and sometimes dismissed as a policy of “doing nothing”? Perhaps that is because, whatever its economic and social benefits, it offers few rewards to politicians, activists, and intellectuals or to those who wish to seem morally superior by denouncing society. The heroes of these groups’ rise are anonymous individuals, not public figures. Here is some history worth repeating—but only if the goal is the advancement of the less fortunate, rather than the aggrandizement of those who would be their guardians or spokesmen or elected officials.
Summary and Implications
The skewed pattern of beneficiaries of affirmative action programs should not only give pause as to the actual consequences of such programs, it should also call into question the very assumption on which affirmative action is based. That assumption is that an uneven distribution of income and of desirable jobs indicates discriminatory intentions toward the less fortunate, which must be counteracted by preferential policies on their behalf. But when those well-intentioned policies show the very same skewed pattern as the presumed ill intentions they are supposed to counteract, then it is hard to avoid the conclusion that something other than intentions must be involved. Nor can behavioral and other differences among the various populations themselves be arbitrarily banished from discussion by such pat phrases as “stereotypes” or “blaming the victim.” Causation is not blame and whether they are victims or not is precisely the question.
Are the Malay majority “victims” of the Chinese minority in Malaysia, the northern Nigerian majority victims of the Ibo minority, the Sinhalese majority victims of the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka, and numerous local majorities victims of the Chettiar or Marwari minorities in various parts of India? Are the white majorities in Canada and the United States victims of Japanese minorities? Or do these minorities simply perform more successfully in the competition of the marketplace and educational institutions? The dogma that statistical disparities demonstrate discrimination assumes an equality of performance that is virtually impossible to find in the real world.
Indeed, some of the same groups that are said to be discriminated against, on the basis of statistical disparities, show the same patterns of statistical dominance over the majority population in such fields as sports and entertainment—fields in which individual talents and efforts can produce success without the kind of cultural prerequisites, such as higher education, required in many other fields. Yet no one seriously believes that Maoris can keep white New Zealanders off that country’s sports teams, except by outperforming them on the field. Nor can black baseball players in the United States keep white players from hitting home runs, even though four of the top five totals of career home runs were hit by black players. Statistical disparities prove nothing about discrimination because they are common even in situations where those who are statistically dominant have no way to discriminate.
The very modest benefits of affirmative action, concentrated on those already more fortunate, with little or no benefits to those who are truly disadvantaged, have often been blamed on insufficient zeal, or even bad faith, on the part of those administering affirmative action programs. Thus the failures or inadequacies of such programs can be taken as reasons for reforms, rather than as symptoms of more fundamental misconceptions that could be reasons for ending the programs. While this argument might seem plausible to some when discussing whites administering programs for blacks in the United States, it loses even the appearance of plausibility when Malays are administering preferential programs for Malays in Malaysia or when Sinhalese have administered such programs for Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Even in the United States, the particular officials heading civil rights agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission have almost all been black, as have many or most administrators of affirmative action programs in private industry and in the academic world.
Despite a tendency to think of group preferences and quotas as transfers of benefits—a zero-sum process—there are in fact many ways in which these transfers can be negative-sum processes, in which what is lost by one group exceeds what is gained by another, making the society as a whole worse off. For example, when a group in which 80 percent of the students admitted to college succeed in graduating loses admissions to a group in which only 40 percent of the students graduate, then the first group must lose 800 graduates in order for the second group to gain 400 graduates. Moreover, it has been common in various countries around the world for groups whose students have lower qualifications to specialize in easier and less remunerative fields, as well as performing less well academically. Therefore the first group may lose 800 graduates, largely concentrated in mathematics, science, and engineering, while the second group gains 400 graduates largely concentrated in sociology, education, and ethnic studies.
This does not even take into account the intergroup polarization which group preferences and quotas provoke, and which can take many forms, including lethal riots, as in India, or outright civil war, as in Sri Lanka. By contrast, the gains made by less fortunate groups as a result of becoming better educated and better equipped with skills can be not only a net benefit to society as a whole, but also a source of greater respect for the group by others who see them as becoming more productive contributing members of society. In the case of blacks in the United States, much of their advancement has been of this sort, but the existence of affirmative action, and of particular horror stories growing out of it, has meant that blacks’ actual achievements have often been underestimated or disregarded. Affirmative action has meant almost a moratorium on recognition of the achievements of those designated as its beneficiaries, however few tangible benefits these groups may in fact have received.
Another way in which affirmative action can be a negative-sum process is by a withdrawal of members of non-preferred groups and the loss of their contributions to the society at large. A study of preferential policies in Malaysia reports the “emigration of non-Bumiputera professionals and the outflow of Chinese capital.” In post-apartheid South Africa, with affirmative action for blacks, many white government workers have taken early retirement and thousands of whites have emigrated annually. Those on the wrong side of preferential policies have likewise emigrated from Fiji, from Soviet Central Asia, from East Africa, and from other places where the skills and experience of these emigrants were sorely needed.
The empirical consequences of affirmative action preferences and quotas have been paid remarkably little attention—with hard data being sparse to nonexistent in some countries—while controversies surrounding these policies have been discussed in terms of the vision and the rationale behind them and the counter-vision and counter-rationales of critics. Vague, emotional, confused, and dishonest words, which are incidental aspects of many controversial issues, are central to discussions of affirmative action in countries around the world. Few such programs could stand on the basis of their actual empirical consequences. Nor are their moral bases any more solid.
Some groups in some countries imagine themselves entitled to preferences and quotas just because they are indigenous “sons of the soil”—even when they are in fact not indigenous, as the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and the Malays in Malaysia are not. Yet indigenousness has acquired a moral aura, not only among those claiming such status, but among observers and scholars as well. Why an accident of history and geography should have moral implications that last for centuries is a question seldom raised, much less answered.
Even when serious moral questions surround the past or present mistreatment of groups such as the untouchables in India or blacks in the United States, the remedies proposed rapidly spread far beyond redress of the misfortunes used to justify those remedies. Not only has the internal distribution of compensatory benefits borne little relationship—or even an inverse relationship—to the degree of misfortune within the affected groups, such benefits have spread to other groups far beyond the scope of the moral rationale and far exceeding in size the intended beneficiary groups.
Innumerable principles, theories, assumptions, and assertions have been used to justify affirmative action programs—some common around the world and some peculiar to particular countries or communities. What is remarkable is how seldom these notions have been tested empirically, or have even been defined clearly or examined logically, much less weighed against the large and often painful costs they entail. Despite sweeping claims made for affirmative action programs, an examination of their actual consequences makes it hard to support those claims, or even to say that these programs have been beneficial on net balance—unless one is prepared to say that any amount of social redress, however small, is worth any amount of costs and dangers, however large.
Thomas Sowell is the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy at the Hoover Institution.
This essay is adapted from Affirmative Action around the World, by Thomas Sowell, published by Yale University Press. Copyright 2004 by Thomas Sowell. Available from the Hoover Press is Controversial Essays, by Thomas Sowell. To order, call 800.935.2882.