Honolulu Advertiser

SECOND OPINION  by Cliff Slater

November 22, 2004

Affirmative action has not served U.S. well

Anyone believing that legislation conferring special benefits on racial groups, such as the Akaka bill, can work well, should read Dr. Thomas Sowell’s new book, “Affirmative Action Around the World.”[1]

He finds that in country after country, including the U.S., not only does such legislation not achieve its original goals but, far worse, the politicizing of ethnic group disparities exacerbates interracial dissension.[2]

Dr. Sowell, a distinguished Hoover Institution economist, is black and began his academic career in a Harlem public school. But, as he says, Harlem schools in the 1940s were then far better than they are today.

Sowell spells out how race-conscious programs can actually harm blacks and complains that while the intent of such legislation is to improve the lot of the less fortunate, the supposed benefits are only assumed and never tested or demonstrated.[3] He says, “Affirmative action in the United States has made blacks look like peoples who owe their rise to affirmative action and other government programs. It has been carefully cultivated by black politicians and civil rights leaders so as to solidify a constituency conditioned to be dependent on them, as well as on government.”[4]

For example, he points out that blacks were improving their condition at a faster rate before the 1964 Civil Rights Act than they did afterwards, including increasing their employment in high level positions.[5]

As long ago as the late 1800s, blacks had higher rates of labor force participation than whites, and slightly higher rates of marriage.[6] And blacks, by their own efforts, had cut their poverty rate in half before there was any affirmative action[7] while some black schools in the past had outperformed white schools.[8]

Then, in 1964 Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act which made it illegal, “to discriminate against any individual with respect to his employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”[9]

However, the Supreme Court, with Justice Brennan writing the majority opinion, subsequently rejected “a literal interpretation of the words” Congress had explicitly approved, claiming that the “spirit” of the Civil Rights Act had, as its primary concern, the economic problems of blacks. Justice Rehnquist, writing for the minority, disagreed, opining that the logic used was Houdini-like in trying to escape the clear language of Congress.[10]

This decision opened the doors to racial quotas and other forms of ‘affirmative action,’ (the British more honestly call it ‘positive discrimination.’)

One result has been that the bar has been lowered to allow more blacks into elite universities by admitting many that would not normally qualify. However, the bar has not been lowered for graduation. This has resulted in a disproportionate number of blacks failing at elite schools whereas they would have succeeded in schools that matched their abilities.

A new UCLA study[11] shortly to be published in the Stanford Law Review agrees with Sowell that blacks would have significantly higher graduation rates were they matched with appropriate schools — as are most non-minority students.[12]

While integration was the goal, affirmative action has tended to resegregate. Even academically strong black students get tarred with the brush of being “quota” students while having weaker students in elite schools has led to the development of black studies programs.

As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has said, “universities … talk the talk of multiculturalism and racial diversity in the courts but walk the walk of tribalism and racial segregation on their campuses — through minority-only student organizations, separate minority housing opportunities, separate minority student centers, even separate minority-only graduation ceremonies.”[13]

Interestingly, it is the black conservatives, virtually all of whom had an impoverished upbringing, that are objecting to such policies as significantly harmful to blacks. It is the black middle and upper classes, those born to success, that are the backbone of the civil rights industry.

While we can only hint at the richness of Sowell’s book, those favoring race-conscious legislation should read it and ponder its findings.

Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at: www.lava.net/cslater



[1] Sowell, Thomas. Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study. Yale University Press. 2004.

Some quotes from the book:

In India those “people living under indigenous rulers tended not to become as educated or as modernized … as those living under British rule.” p. 37.

“Within the short run — which is to say, within the time horizon of elected officials — the most politically expedient thing to do is to continue to extend preferences to more groups and more sectors of the society and the economy. That is in fact what is being done.” p. 51.

In Malaya, “a higher percentage of Chinese children than Malay children received an education, even though the Chinese had to pay for their own private schooling.” p. 58.

“Malays in Singapore are economically better off than Malays in Malaysia. … Clearly, Malays have done better as a minority without affirmative action in Singapore than as a majority with preferences and quotas in Malaysia.” p. 73.

Nigeria: “As in other countries, the things made available through ethnic balancing have been primarily those things of interest and concern to the more fortunate members of the various ethnic groups, such as university admissions, rather than free and universal compulsory education for the poor.” p. 107.

“Women’s representation in professional and technical occupations declined by 9 percent from 1940 to 1950 and then by another 9 percent from 1950 to 1968. As far back as 1902, women’s share of the people listed in Who’s Who in 1902 was more than double their share in 1958. Women received 34 percent of Bachelor’s degrees in 1920, but only 24 percent in 1950.” pp. 133-4.

“Whether the advantages that black males acquire over white males, as a result of affirmative action, outweigh the disadvantages they have relative to white women is an empirical question. But it is a question unlikely to be asked.” p. 138.

“Galling as it may be to acknowledge, every evil of past generations and past centuries will remain indelibly and irrevocably evil, despite anything that we can do now. Acts of symbolic expiation among the living simply create new evils.” p. 167.  Slater’s note: Our forebears who lived 500 years ago number over one million for each of us. Given this number and the times in which our forebears lived, almost by definition, each of us has innumerable forebears who committed vile and unspeakable acts — no matter what one’s color, race or culture.

“… whites’ applications for home mortgages are approved at a higher rate than those of blacks, but applications from Asian Americans are approved at a higher rate than those of whites.” p. 175

“The fact that whites score higher than blacks on the mathematics SAT has been taken as proof of the cultural bias of this test, but the fact that Asian Americans score higher than whites has been passed over in silence.” p. 175.

 “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.” p. 198.

[2] Sri Lanka: “… it was not the disparities which led to intergroup violence but the politicizing of those disparities and the promotion of group identity politics.” p. 92. & p. 22.

[3]  Sowell. p. 115.

[4]  Sowell. p. 164.

[5]  Sowell. p.20 and p. 119. Moynihan, Daniel P. Employment, Income, and the Ordeal of the Negro Family. Daedalus, Fall 1965, p.752.

[6]  Historical Statistics of the U.S. p. 133. ; U.S. Census, Marital Status and Living Arrangements: March 1992. Current Population Reports, Series P-20, No. 468. pp. 1-2.

[7]  Sowell. p. 166.

[8]  Sowell. p.164. See also Sowell’s essay Patterns of Black Excellence in Sowell, Thomas. Education: Assumptions versus History. Hoover Institution. 1986. pp. 7-38.
Slater’s note: It is notable that today a significant number of high poverty schools in the U.S. catering primarily to blacks outperform primarily white schools in affluent areas. See

[9] “… to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual's race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” Sec. 703 (a). Civil Rights Act of 1964.

There was no thought of treating one race different from the other at that time. A little before the passage of the Act, Martin Luther King gave his “I have a dream” speech that his children would one day “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” (Delivered on the steps at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. on August 28, 1963. Source: Martin Luther King, Jr: The Peaceful Warrior, Pocket Books, NY 1968.)

[10] “Thus, by a tour de force reminiscent not of jurists such as Hale, Holmes, and Hughes, but of escape artists such as Houdini, the Court eludes clear statutory language, "uncontradicted" legislative history, and uniform precedent in concluding that employers are, after all, permitted to consider race in making employment decisions.” U.S. Supreme Court, STEELWORKERS v. WEBER, 443 U.S. 193 (1979), 443 U.S. 193.

[12] While other scholars dispute the findings they do appear logical. If black students, whatever their abilities, are bumped up to schools where, if they were white, they would be denied, it is only inevitable that they will suffer higher failure rates than they would if matched with their peers in less rigorous schools.

[13] Grutter. Thomas. pp. 23-24