AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 WAYS: Affirmative Action around the World

Monday, May 3, 2004

In the United States, affirmative action policies, first implemented to address the historical grievances of black Americans, have long been controversial. But the debate over affirmative action has generally ignored such action as practiced by other countries around the world. Has affirmative action proven to be more or less effective in other countries? What common patterns do these programs share? How can the study of these programs help our understanding of affirmative action in America?

Recorded on Monday, May 3, 2004

Peter Robinson: Welcome to Uncommon Knowledge, I'm Peter Robinson. Our show today: affirmative action around the world--a conversation with economist Thomas Sowell. Affirmative action programs here in the United States, first instituted to address the historical disadvantages suffered by black Americans have long been controversial, but what about affirmative action programs in other countries? Has affirmative action proven more or less effective abroad? What common patterns do affirmative action programs share? And what can the study of affirmative action in other countries teach us about affirmative action here at home?

Thomas Sowell is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study.

Title: Around the World in 80 Ways

Peter Robinson: Thomas Sowell, page one of your latest book, Affirmative Action Around the World, I quote you to yourself, "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." Why?

Thomas Sowell: Well, you'd have to ask those people why. I mean, to me, you know, the first question is, what actually happens when you do this stuff? But most people seem to be locked into whatever position they're locked into. They think it's wonderful or they think it's terrible on the basis of what they imagine.

Peter Robinson: Let's look at some of the data. India, once again from Affirmative Action Around the World. Quote, "India has had affirmative action programs longer than any other nation, beginning in the British Colonial times and then provided for in its constitution when it became an independent country in 1947." Take us through this. In India, affirmative action is for whom?

Thomas Sowell: Initially, it was for the untouchables, who probably are among the most persecuted people on Earth. At a time when blacks in the South had to sit in the back of a bus, untouchables weren't supposed to sit anywhere. They were to stand in the back of the bus. And it just goes on from there.

Peter Robinson: This is what percentage of the population?

Thomas Sowell: About, if I remember correctly, about 16%.

Peter Robinson: Sixteen percent and these are people who are so low they don't even count in the caste system.

Thomas Sowell: No, that's right. That's right. Treated abominably. And so, it's understandable, people would want to do something to make things better for them. What actually happened, however, is that extremely few untouchables actually are able to make use of any of these preferences and quotas.

Peter Robinson: The preferences and quotas are for hiring or education or what form do they take?

Thomas Sowell: Well, they're actually for hiring, for education, for seats in Parliament. But, of course, for all those things you have to have various complementary resources. So, it doesn't do you any good if you're somebody out in a little village where you're struggling to make ends meet, that there's a place reserved for you in the medical school, and you'll be lucky if you can make it to high school.

Peter Robinson: Is that a case of affirmative action badly aimed? Meaning, should there be more economic resources? Should that be the kind of affirmative action? Should they be targeting Milton Friedman's old idea of negative income tax? Should they just be putting cash in the hands of untouchables?

Thomas Sowell: That wouldn't be affirmative action, I guess. Affirmative action really is preferences and quotas. But the things for which they create preferences and quotas, not only in India, but in other countries around the world, are typically things that the elite would be interested in. College admissions, government jobs, seats in Parliament and for that you have to have other resources. So, what we call untouchables, as if they're one sort of uniform group, is really a collection of many different groups. Many of whom are separate from each other and do not intermarry or whatnot. And the ones--of the untouchables, there are some who have prospered for one historical reason or another. And they grab off the lion's share of all these benefits. And the vast majority of untouchables are completely cut off from these things.

Peter Robinson: Let me quote you again, this is in your conclusion about India, "It is hard to escape the conclusion that affirmative action in India has produced minimal benefits to those most in need and maximum resentments and hostility toward them on the part of others."

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Now that's the second piece of this. Why should it be that affirmative action should increase the resentment toward untouchables?

Thomas Sowell: Because if there are 100 jobs there and three of them have been set aside for--and three untouchables are actually able to make use of the set-asides for them, then everybody who lost a job will say he would have been hired if it only had been the untouchables hadn't grabbed these. So there may be 50 people seething with anger at not having gotten these three jobs, but had there been no untouchables, 47 of them wouldn't have gotten the jobs anyway.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Thomas Sowell: And so you create a resentment out of all proportion to the actual benefits that have been transferred.

Peter Robinson: You write that although India has had this policy of affirmative action for many decades, "violent incidents toward untouchables never fell below 13,000 a year during the 1980s and actually rose to more than 20,000 a year during the 1990s."

Thomas Sowell: Mmm-huh.

Peter Robinson: Question. Would you go so far as to argue that the untouchables themselves would have been better off had India never instituted affirmative action programs?

Thomas Sowell: That's a tough one, but I would lean towards saying yes.

Peter Robinson: On what basis?

Thomas Sowell: On the basis that so few of them have gotten anything at all. And all of them have suffered from the backlash.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Peter Robinson: Our next case study takes us from India to Southeast Asia.

Title: Malays Malaise

Peter Robinson: Malaysia. One of the more prosperous countries of Southeast Asia, population 23 million. Of those 23 million about half are Malays, a quarter are Chinese, and about 7% are Indians. Care to give us a brief history of the affirmative action programs in Malaysia?

Thomas Sowell: The Chinese, first of all, were making at least twice the income of the Malays.

Peter Robinson: So, what you have there is a minority, a quarter of the population is doing far better than any...

Thomas Sowell: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: ...than the larger number of indigenous people?

Thomas Sowell: And what makes it even worse politically, I guess, is that the Chinese started out much poorer than the Malays and passed them over the years simply because they saved more, they worked harder, et cetera. So, the Chinese were very much resented and in 1969 for a number of reasons there was this riot of Malays against the Chinese. And in order to calm this down, the government then put in a massive program of preferences for the Malays in the universities, in government employment, and so on.

Peter Robinson: Who was in the government? Was the government dominated by Malays?

Thomas Sowell: The government has always been dominated by Malays.

Peter Robinson: All right.

Thomas Sowell: But before you see, in the university for example, the admission was just by qualifications and so an absolute majority of the people in the universities were Chinese.

Peter Robinson: I see.

Thomas Sowell: As you went into the more difficult subjects like science and math, they were overwhelmingly Chinese. So, for example, in the decade of the 1960s the Chinese received 400 degrees in engineering. The Malays received four. So...

Peter Robinson: It's a little hard for the Malays to take.

Thomas Sowell: Yes. Yes.

Peter Robinson: And so the government does what in 1969?

Thomas Sowell: They start putting in preferences for the Malays in all these different programs. And they set a goal that by 1990, the Malays will be represented equally across the board in business and universities, et cetera.

Peter Robinson: And the result of these programs is?

Thomas Sowell: One of the results has been that many of the Chinese have left Malaysia.

Peter Robinson: Oh, I see.

Thomas Sowell: Thousands of them because they have a tough time getting into the universities, even though they have better qualifications. The Malays all--the government also changed the language of the schools from English to Malay and the Chinese, of course, had learned to speak English, but they had not learned to speak Malay, so all of these things made life very difficult. They've also moved some of their capital out, so they've lost all that. Now, Malaysia was more fortunate than most countries in that they had a great deal of economic growth during this period. They have oil, which was very good for them during the '70s especially, and so they became a modernized country. They went from being a predominantly agricultural country to being a predominantly commercial and industrial country. All of that softened the blow, as it were, because there were now more engineers, more doctors, and so on. So that now you could have more Malay engineers and more Malay doctors without there being an absolute decline in the number of Chinese doctors or Chinese engineers.

Peter Robinson: Right.

Thomas Sowell: Even though the proportions changed.

Peter Robinson: Right. Right.

Thomas Sowell: So, they escaped much of this. The other thing, which is crucial, is that there is no free speech on ethnic matters in Malaysia. That is, there are no Jesse Jacksons or Al Sharptons in Malaysia to keep things boiling. In fact, when I was there some years ago, you know, I would get very candid discussions behind closed doors and in people's offices, but the American Embassy arranged a dinner that evening for me and most of those invited did not show because they dared not say anything in public which would be a federal law.

Peter Robinson: Oh, I see.

Thomas Sowell: In criticism of the program.

Peter Robinson: You write, let me quote you to yourself again. No more than 5% of Malays "have been estimated to have actually benefited from these affirmative action programs and those people who were initially more fortunate were the most benefited." In other words, the pattern that we saw in India repeats itself in Malaysia.

Thomas Sowell: Absolutely.

Peter Robinson: The ones who were already near the top...

Thomas Sowell: Mmm-huh. This puts them over the top.

Peter Robinson: Right, they're capable of grabbing these jobs or the university positions.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: All right. But it's still a tiny percentage of the overall population.

Thomas Sowell: Right.

Peter Robinson: All right. And you also write, "If there's any lesson from the history of affirmative action in Malaysia, it is that extraordinary economic prosperity and growth--" this tremendous boom time they underwent--"combined with extraordinary repression of free speech--", no Al Sharptons around to cause trouble--"can make preferential programs viable, but to say that the country as a whole is better off would be to ignore many counterproductive consequences." The counterproductive consequences are?

Thomas Sowell: The flight of the Chinese. Loss of them. The loss, to some extent, of Indians as well. Loss of Chinese capital. Malaysia itself--the government decided, just within the past few years, that they simply were not getting as many engineers and high-tech people that they need for the kind of economy they want. And so last year they announced that they are going to go back to simply having admission by academic qualifications at the university. So, this is one of few cases where a program has apparently come to an end.

Peter Robinson: Next case study: Affirmative action and the civil war in Sri Lanka.

Title: Goodbye, Colombo

Peter Robinson: Sri Lanka. Population: about 19 million. Roughly three quarters of the population Sinhalese, if I'm pronouncing that correctly. Largest minority, the Tamils represent about one sixth of the population. I quote from Affirmative Action Around the World once again, "Since the middle of the 20th century, Sri Lanka has undergone a remarkable and catastrophic change in the relationship between its majority and minority populations." Explain.

Thomas Sowell: Well, at the time that Sri Lanka became an independent nation, near the late '40s...

Peter Robinson: Yes.

Thomas Sowell: People inside and outside of Sri Lanka were holding it up to the world as an example of harmony between the majorities and minorities and saying we can learn from Sri Lanka because it's so peaceful that people get along together. In the first half of the 20th century, there was not a single race riot between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. And there were many evidences of the amity between the two groups.

Peter Robinson: Is this a case where one group is substantially more prosperous than the other?

Thomas Sowell: Oh, yes. Once again, the Tamils who are the minority, are much more prosperous and again they're particularly good in things like science and math. And there are historical reasons for this. In colonial times, the British and the Americans sent missionaries to Sri Lanka--Ceylon is what it was called then. The British colonial officials gave the British missionaries the more posh assignments and they sent the American missionaries up into the Jaffna Peninsula, which was a poorer area. But the Americans taught math and science more so than the British and so ever since then, the Tamils have been much better at math and science than the Sinhalese. And again you found a wholly disproportionate number of the engineers, scientists, and people like that in Sri Lanka were Tamils, while the majority was lagging way behind and again this went along--this didn't...

Peter Robinson: No problem.

Thomas Sowell: No problem until they became an independent nation and until they began having elections and one man, Solomon Bandaranaike, wanted to be prime minister and so he pushed identity politics. The irony is that like so many people who push identity politics, he was not really part of this group that he was being so strident about. Bandaranaike was not a Buddhist, he was a Christian. He didn't speak a word of Sinhalese. His godfather was the British Colonial Governor. He studied at either Oxford or Cambridge, but when he comes back, he now suddenly takes off Western clothes, puts on Buddhist robes, learns some words of Sinhalese and now he becomes more Sinhalese than thou. And he pushes the idea that the Sinhalese ought to have all these preferences and quotas. And it's clear that it was only to get himself elected.

Peter Robinson: They were the majority after all.

Thomas Sowell: That's right. And once he got elected he lost interest in this stuff and he's ready to work out some deal with the Tamils, but he had worked people up so much with this identity stuff, that now they turned on him and assassinated him. And since then, the subsequent leaders got the message clearly and they began pushing extremism toward the Tamils and eventually things got so bad because, you see, the Tamils really had a poor area. So, education was their only real way up and when they were shut out, not totally, but shut out to a great extent from the universities, they were desperate. And nothing would move the government and eventually there was civil war. And in that civil war this little country lost more people dead than the United States lost during the entire Vietnam War.

Peter Robinson: Sri Lanka, quoting you, "Represents the tragic mockery of the underlying assumption of being able to control the course of events, an assumption implicit in affirmative action policies around the world."

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: That is to say, social engineers actually think they can engineer society.

Thomas Sowell: They think it and they say it. They just can't do it.

Peter Robinson: Now, but Tom, isn't that an assumption implicit in virtually all government policy? You educate the population because you think the nation, whatever nation is in question, will become more prosperous as a result. You build strong defenses because you think that's a way of preventing war. I mean, what is distinctive about the assumption in affirmative action?

Thomas Sowell: Right. I guess it's the belief that you can sort of micromanage the result and you can't. When you educate the people you don't say, now you go off there and become a chemist, and you go become, you know, a draftsman, and so forth. You educate them and then you turn them loose and let them sort themselves out. With affirmative action, you're prescribing actual end results and that's where you've gone beyond what you're capable of doing.

Peter Robinson: I see. All right.

Peter Robinson: Now we return home to affirmative action in America.

Title: Coming to America

Peter Robinson: I'm going to quote you yet again, "The historical evolution of affirmative action in the Unites States would be difficult to understand without first realizing the first fact, the legal obstacles which such policies must overcome in order to be acceptable in American courts of law as well as in the political arena." Legal obstacles such as?

Thomas Sowell: The Fourteenth Amendment.

Peter Robinson: Fairly substantial legal obstacles.

Thomas Sowell: That's right. And politically you have to represent preferences and quotas as not being preferences and quotas. And you have to represent them as being temporary.

Peter Robinson: The Fourteenth Amendment says or guarantees?

Thomas Sowell: Equal treatment of all citizens.

Peter Robinson: But individual basis...

Thomas Sowell: That's right.

Peter Robinson: It is implicitly opposed to group...

Thomas Sowell: That's right. Every citizen, not every group of citizens or whatnot. And so you got to overcome that. And so you've got to pretend that this is really just an anti-discrimination policy. And that pretense gets pretty tense sometimes.

Peter Robinson: "The transparent dishonesty with which quotas and preferences have been instituted and maintained here in the United States," you write, "is a dishonesty reaching into the highest court in the land as the Weber case demonstrates." Take us through what took place in the Weber case.

Thomas Sowell: In the Weber case, Weber was a worker in a plant in Louisiana and he wanted to get into a training program which would qualify him for higher jobs, and he was turned down. And blacks who had lesser qualifications than him were admitted. And so he took this to the Supreme Court. And the Civil Rights Act of 1964 said, "individuals," and Justice Brennan, someone with a great verbal sleight of hand, turned this around. Said, well, but the real intent of Congress, you see, was this or that and so he then ruled against Weber and then when the dissenting opinion of Rehnquist said that this reminded him of the great escapes of Houdini. That, you know, the language was so plain and clear, in the law itself. And it was also plain and clear if you got into legislative history where they talk about the possibility of quotas and Hubert Humphrey who was pushing the Civil Rights Act said, you know, I'll eat my hat if this thing turns out into quotas. Well, he wasn't there to eat his hat.

Peter Robinson: It wasn't just Brennan who would have done it? The whole Court since? And the Court has upheld this kind of doctrine since because without it, affirmative action programs simply cannot stand.

Thomas Sowell: That's right.

Peter Robinson: All right. Affirmative action targeted in the United States originally at African-Americans who suffered the obvious historical disadvantage of centuries of slavery. You write however, that affirmative action programs and policies have mutated such that they now cover minority groups and women, quote, "So that such policies now apply to a substantial majority of the American population." How did that happen?

Thomas Sowell: As in India and other countries, once there are goodies out there, politicians at every election have a tendency to want to hand those goodies out to more and more people to get more and more votes. And similarly, in India, the vast majority of people who are entitled to preferences now greatly outnumber the untouchables. And the ones who are able to use them greatly outnumber them even more so. So that you completely get away from the rationale. I think one of the more striking cases to me was in San Francisco where this elite high school--white students were admitted with lower scores than Chinese-American students. Now it's hard to see how the treatment of blacks really justifies any of that.

Peter Robinson: Affirmative action for whites.

Thomas Sowell: Yeah. That's right, but once you've set it in motion--this is where again you see you can't control the course of events the way you imagined. And so you end up with this kind of anomaly which has nothing to do with the original rationale.

Peter Robinson: Quote again, "Benefits to black millionaires are far more demonstrable than benefits to blacks in poverty."

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Explain that one.

Thomas Sowell: Oh, black millionaires have an advantage over white millionaires when it comes to buying radio station licenses. Now the kid living in poverty in Harlem or Watts is not likely to be up for a radio station license, you know, and similarly with medical school benefits and so forth. All of that is for people who already have a certain amount and this puts them over the top. It enables the sons of black doctors to go to Harvard, you know, more easily than the sons of white doctors.

Peter Robinson: Right. Now, Tom the argument would be black Americans do suffer from the historical facts of slavery. So affirmative action is a reasonable thing, it's simply gotten out of hand or been permitted to be corrupted. Right? What's wrong with that argument?

Thomas Sowell: Well, if you confine yourself to the United States, that may sound plausible, which is the very reason I did a worldwide study because exactly the same thing has happened in every country in which it's been tried. The classic case was Pakistan, where the affirmative action was put in for people in East Pakistan who were way behind the people in West Pakistan. Fine. But again as time goes on, these goodies get handed out to more and more people. And the irony in that case is that East Pakistan seceded and became the independent nation of Bangladesh and the program keeps going right on because there are enough other constituencies. So when this happens again and again and again you can't say this is just an aberration that--something that went wrong. It always goes wrong.

Peter Robinson: Let's look at the common patterns that affirmative action programs around the world seem to share.

Title: What Comes Around, Stays Around

Peter Robinson: Pattern one. Virtually everywhere you argue affirmative action programs are intended as temporary measures, but become permanent.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: Why is that?

Thomas Sowell: Again, politically it's hard to say no and it's easy to say yes when you're in politics because you're spending somebody else's money. You'll be blamed for saying no. You will not be blamed for saying yes. And it won't cost you a dime. And so you keep expanding these things onward and outward. In the United States, for example, some have argued that white women have benefited more than blacks from affirmative action and partly the reason is that there are more white women with the complementary resources like college education and so forth. And what that means is in some cases blacks may be worse off in the sense that a given job that a black man may be better qualified to do, let's say, may not go to him because you've now made college a requirement for the job. And it goes to someone else who is more likely to have gone to college.

Peter Robinson: Pattern two. Affirmative action programs tend to exacerbate rather then ameliorate tensions among different groups.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: That's not just the case in India, but you argue that that tends to be the case wherever affirmative action in instituted.

Thomas Sowell: Yes. Yes. The classic example is Bakke. Neither Bakke nor...

Peter Robinson: The Bakke Supreme Court case.

Thomas Sowell: Yes. Neither Allen Bakke nor the people on the other side were able to show that he would or would not have been admitted to the University had there been no affirmative action. And so we don't know that Bakke lost anything. But Bakke himself was sufficiently aggrieved that he took the case all the way to the Supreme Court. And then he was then admitted, which he might not have been admitted had there been no affirmative action for blacks.

Peter Robinson: And there are lots and lots of Alan Bakkes.

Thomas Sowell: Yes.

Peter Robinson: And in a situation where political correctness would suggest that you don't complain in public, this forces the grievance out of the political discourse underground.

Thomas Sowell: That's right.

Peter Robinson: This is the pattern that you identified--you return to this again and again. Even where affirmative action programs have been in place for decades, almost nobody ever examines the actual results.

Thomas Sowell: That's right.

Peter Robinson: How come?

Thomas Sowell: There's no political payoff to looking at the facts. You're a politician. What do you gain by looking at the facts? You don't know what the facts are going to turn out to be. Are you going to bet your career on how the facts are going to turn out? Right now for example, since they've eliminated affirmative action at the University of California system, I have been trying to get data about the graduation rate of black students now. At least one regent of the University is trying to get that data.

Peter Robinson: The U.C. system eliminated affirmative action, what was that, about four years ago, Tom?

Thomas Sowell: Yeah. Something like that.

Peter Robinson: Okay. Fine. Go ahead.

Thomas Sowell: And so...

Peter Robinson: So, in other words, there's time for results to have come in.

Thomas Sowell: That's right. And people like myself have been saying for years that if you allow blacks to redistribute themselves within the system, each one going to the university for which he's normally qualified, you're going to have a higher graduation rate. And graduation is what it's about. It's not about being on campus, so the administration can gush about diversity. It's so these guys can get an education and go out in the world and get the advantage of that. That data is not available. Nobody can pry it loose. The same thing is true in the University of Texas system. I mean, imagine...

Peter Robinson: These are public institutions.

Thomas Sowell: That's right. But imagine you're head of the University of Texas. You don't need data coming out saying, my god, now that you got rid of affirmative action, black graduation rates have shot up. Because you've been saying all along that this is a wonderful thing for blacks. You've got too much invested to take that kind of risk.

Peter Robinson: What do you do about it, Tom?

Thomas Sowell: You stop it.

Peter Robinson: You stop it?

Thomas Sowell: And only stopping it will work. This notion that a few years ago that, you know, you could mend it, not end it and so forth. You can't.

Peter Robinson: You reject that out of hand?

Thomas Sowell: Absolutely because there's been so many undercover ways of doing these things that have already been used. It's clear that people--and it's not just here and India, everywhere. That as long as you allow people wiggle room, they're going to wiggle.

Peter Robinson: All right. Final question. The recent Supreme Court case on affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor writes, "We expect that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary."

Thomas Sowell: They expected that 25 years ago. And they will probably be expecting that 25 years from now.

Peter Robinson: Thomas Sowell, thank you very much.

Thomas Sowell: Thank you.

Peter Robinson: I'm Peter Robinson for Uncommon Knowledge, thanks for joining us.