Affirmative Action Around the World

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Affirmative Action Around the World
Affirmative Action Around the World.jpg
First edition
AuthorThomas Sowell
CountryUnited States
SubjectAffirmative action
PublisherYale University Press
Publication date
Media typePrint (Hardcover)
331.13/3 21
LC ClassHF5549.5.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 perpetual racial preferences is this passage from page 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]


First, in repudiating what he refers to as the "myths" surrounding affirmative action, he contends that blacks had both higher rates of labor force participation and higher marriage rates before the 1960s' large-scale institution of civil rights laws and policies countering discrimination. Much of the economic upturn, which Sowell attributes entirely to personal initiative, must be put in the context of the postwar economic boom, which was accompanied by the widespread availability of manual jobs requiring little education. The post-civil rights period coincided with an economy that was experiencing steady de-industrialization. Significantly, manufacturing jobs that had been stepping-stones into the middle class for blacks from the U.S. South and immigrants from southern, eastern, and central Europe in the past, were fast eroding.

Second, he questions the conventional wisdom that has evolved around affirmative action. He claims that there is nothing beyond assertions and anecdotes to prove that diversity enhances the college experience for all students; that there is no systematic evidence that black "role models" are essential to the education of black students; that a "critical mass" of black students in the academic setting might actually be detrimental to the education of black students; and finally that black studies programs are "ideological crusades" which provide sanctuary for intellectual lightweights. It is this last point which makes up the bulk of his discussion on how affirmative action has led to a mismatch between minority students and the institutions they attend, setting them up either for failure or turning them out to be bad doctors and lawyers. Sowell asserts that colleges and universities which pledge to "develop minds and skills that serve society at large cannot be subordinated to the impossible task of equalizing probabilities of academic success for people born and raised in circumstances which have handicapped their development, even if for reasons that are not their fault and are beyond their control" (p. 153).

Third, Sowell is highly critical of William Bowen and Derek Bok, former university presidents of Princeton and Harvard, whose 1998 book The Shape of the River caused quite a stir when it revealed how race-sensitive admissions policies increased the likelihood that blacks would be admitted to selective universities and that upon graduation these students were more likely to become leaders of community and social service organizations.

Fourth, he argues that in the United States as in other countries, the original rationale for affirmative action has little to do with how it actually is practiced. The disproportionate benefit that well-placed, affluent blacks receive, with little if any going to those who continue to suffer the most, has discredited the ethos of affirmative action more than anything. On this last point, few disagree.[3]

Critical reception[edit]

The Economist magazine praised the book as "terse, well argued and utterly convincing" and "crammed with striking anecdotes and statistics."[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]


  1. ^ a b Sowell, Thomas (2004-10-30). "Affirmative Action around the World | Hoover Institution". Archived from the original on 2011-01-10. Retrieved 2011-01-30. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  2. ^ Dutch Martin (2004-10-20). "Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study". Archived from the original on 2009-07-08. Retrieved 2010-03-22. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ DasGupta, Kasturi (2005). "DasGupta on Sowell, 'Affirmative Action around the World: An Empirical Study'".
  4. ^ "Advantages for the advantaged", The Economist, 371 (8380), p. 83, June 19, 2004
  5. ^ "End it, don't mend it?". Sacramento News & Review. September 2, 2004. Retrieved March 22, 2010. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  6. ^ Bérubé, Michael (January 24, 2005), "And Justice for All", The Nation, 280 (3), pp. 29–31