Affirmative Action Around the World

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Affirmative Action Around the World
Author Thomas Sowell
Country United States
Language English
Subject affirmative action
Publisher Yale University Press
Publication date
Media type Hardcover
Pages 239
ISBN ISBN 0-300-10199-6
331.13/3 21
LC Class HF5549.5.A34 S684 2004

Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study is a 2004 nonfiction work by economist Thomas Sowell.


Already known as a critic of affirmative action or race-based hiring and promotion, Sowell, himself African-American, analyzes the specific effects of such policies on India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria, four countries with longer multiethnic histories and then compares them with the recent history of the United States in this regard. He finds that "Such programs have at best a negligible impact on the groups they are intended to assist."[1]

A sample of his thinking about the danger of perpetual racial preferences is this passage from p. 7: "People differ - and have for centuries.... Any 'temporary' policy whose duration is defined by the goal of achieving something that has never been achieved before, anywhere in the world, could more fittingly be characterized as eternal."

According to Dutch Martin's review of this book:

Among the common consequences of preference policies in the five-country sample are:
  • They encourage non-preferred groups to redesignate themselves as members of preferred groups (1) to take advantage of group preference policies;
  • They tend to benefit primarily the most fortunate among the preferred group (e.g. Black millionaires), often to the detriment of the least fortunate among the non-preferred groups (e.g., poor Whites);
  • They reduce the incentives of both the preferred and non-preferred to perform at their best — the former because doing so is unnecessary and the latter because it can prove futile — thereby resulting in net losses for society as a whole.[2]

Sowell concludes: "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."[1]

Critical reception[edit]

The Economist magazine praised the book as "terse, well argued and utterly convincing" and "crammed with striking anecdotes and statistics."[3] For the Sacramento News & Review, Chris Springer asserts that Sowell's selection of countries for comparison to the United States and his use of evidence was skewed to reach an anti-affirmative-action conclusion. The same review charges that Sowell simply repackaged an earlier book of his, Preferential Policies: An International Perspective (1990), and "fobbed it off" as new material under a different title.[4] Michael Bérubé, writing for The Nation magazine, agreed with Sowell's arguments that affirmative action has gone far beyond what the Civil Rights Act of 1965 intended and that preferential benefits for ethnic groups without historical oppression in the United States are unjustified but criticized Sowell's association of affirmative action with unrest in the countries selected for the study and pointed out the United States has never implemented the racial preference systems of those foreign countries.[5]


  1. ^ a b Sowell, Thomas (2004-10-30). "Affirmative Action around the World | Hoover Institution". Retrieved 2011-01-30. 
  2. ^ Dutch Martin (2004-10-20). "Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study". Retrieved 2010-03-22. 
  3. ^ "Advantages for the advantaged", The Economist 371 (8380), June 19, 2004: 83 
  4. ^ "End it, don’t mend it?". Sacramento News & Review. September 2, 2004. Retrieved March 22, 2010. 
  5. ^ Bérubé, Michael (January 24, 2005), "And Justice for All", The Nation 280 (3): 29–31