- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 3, 2004


By Thomas Sowell

Yale University Press, $28, 239 pages


Leave it to ideological ambulance-chasers, race hustlers, timid corporate executives, university humbugs, and conniving politicians — both Democrat and Republican — to snow us with the rationale for affirmative action.

Leave it to Thomas Sowell — a public policy fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, a prolific writer on social issues, and an American treasure — to explain to us how this truly bad public policy really works, and what it has given us.

“The purpose of this book is to consider the actual consequences of affirmative action,” Mr. Sowell (who is a columnist for this newspaper) says in the preface to “Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study.” He does a thorough, objective, and well-documented job — but it’s not a pretty picture.

The rationale for what has gone under the label of affirmative action in the United States since the 1970s, and under various names in other countries since at least the 1940s, is that it’s humane to help disadvantaged and less fortunate groups whose lack of success in the world has been caused by discrimination on the part of more powerful groups.

Affirmative action is a corrective for past discrimination, a preventive of future discrimination, and an aid to social peace, promoters of the policy say. If only this were the case.

In America, affirmative action started out as preference programs for blacks, who are, the theory goes, held down by whites (though this notion is truly hard to support today). By now it has metastasized to so many other groups that a majority of the population — essentially everyone apart from white males — is eligible for its largess in some form or other.

Mr. Sowell, an economist and social analyst (and the author of “A Conflict of Visions,” “The Quest for Cosmic Justice” and “The Vision of the Anointed,” among other titles) uses charts, graphs and all the relevant data the most scrupulous empiricist among us could want to show that affirmative action is, like many current social policies, an unexamined but fashionable fraud. And not only does it fail to achieve what it’s advertised to achieve, but it has many toxic social side effects as well.

Not the least of which are the abuse of the language and the legal system necessary to make us believe a law that, while clearly stating we are not to discriminate on the basis of race, really means we must discriminate on the basis of race. (George Orwell, call your office.)

Most people who are for or against affirmative action — and there are strong opinions on both sides of this divide — are for or against the theory of affirmative action. What actually happens under affirmative action policies is almost never examined, but the reality is nothing like the theory.

A major unexamined assumption of affirmative action is that when there are large differences in circumstances between groups in a society, this is an anomaly that can and must be corrected by government, lest it fester and cause all manner of social ills.

The truth is that large differences in group circumstances have characterized most places and most times, and have rarely, in themselves, led to inter-group hostilities. Hostility has, however, often been the result when politicians have stepped in and tried to micro-manage the fate of groups.

Mr. Sowell demonstrates that wherever group differences have been politicized — whether in the United States, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, or other countries — the truly disadvantaged have not benefited, or have benefited only minimally, while the relationships between the involved groups have been made worse, often much worse.

In India and Sri Lanka, groups that had lived together peaceably for centuries were brought to violence and, in the case of Sri Lanka, outright civil war, largely on the basis of group identity politics.

Mr. Sowell shows that, although affirmative action has not been much help to the truly disadvantaged among the groups it purports to assist, it has well served the interests of the already relatively well-off members of various client groups.

Truly poor black Americans, or farmers in Malaysia, are not in a good position to benefit from things like university admissions. But well-off minorities are in a good position to make use of government contract set-asides. Set-aside programs have benefited wealthy black athletes like Lou Brock, Julius Irving, and even O.J. Simpson.

Whereas affirmative action may not be good at creating equity, it’s very good at creating resentment on the part of people obliged by the policy to go to the end of the line. In America today, people who’ve never engaged in discrimination are being passed over for jobs, promotions and admissions to college or professional schools in favor of people with lower test scores who have not suffered from discrimination. No surprise, but some of those who are passed over don’t think this is swell.

It’s worth speculating on where the resentments of the unfavored will lead us in America after they have been simmering for years (Mr. Sowell gives us grisly examples from other places). Another feature of affirmative action policies is that at the time of their adoption they are advertised as temporary, but they are really, to quote the old hymn, forevermore.

No group has ever voluntarily given up a political advantage; some have taken to the streets at the mere suggestion. India has had “temporary” affirmative action since 1947.

Acute observers have known or suspected for decades that affirmative action in America is patronizing to its beneficiaries at best — tainting the real achievements of blacks and members of other groups the policy escorts to the front of the line — and a plain hustle at worst. Thanks to Mr. Sowell, readers can now know this chapter and verse, with the numbers to back it up.

The information and analysis offered in “Affirmative Action Around the World” could provide the justification for abandoning a truly misguided policy. But Mr. Sowell also gives examples of the dishonest tactics used to support affirmative action, and the want of political courage to oppose them.

Anyone who questions affirmative action, no matter in how measured and informed a way, is called a racist — one of America’s political and social third rails — by the other side. So there’s little hope that opportunistic or weak-willed politicians will be in any rush to pull the plug, even though Mr. Sowell clearly demonstrates that affirmative action is not a cure for discrimination, but a particularly virulent and long-lasting form of it.

Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa, Fla.

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