January 17, 2011
Last Gasp of Affirmative Action?By Eileen F. Toplansky
In his 2004 book entitled Affirmative Action Around the World, Thomas Sowell reviews affirmative action programs in India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and the United States. The book "addresses the empirical question of just what does and does not happen under affirmative action -- and to whose benefit and whose detriment."
It is particularly apt to review his findings in light of the recent statistics reported in "Minorities in Higher Education 2010: 24th Status Report." According to the AFT on Campus magazine summary, "young Hispanics and African-Americans have made no appreciable progress in postsecondary attainment as compared with their older peers." Further, "attainment rates have dipped for the youngest group (ages 25-34)." Moreover, "among all racial groups ... Hispanics, who are the fastest growing portion of the U.S. population, continue to achieve the lowest educational attainment levels."
Whether it is called "positive discrimination" in Britain and in India or "standardization" in Sri Lanka or "sons of the soil" in Malaysia, Indonesia, and some states in India, group preferences and quotas to achieve equity are not unique to America. Though societies committed to the equality of individuals have claimed that these programs would be temporary -- i.e., in India, it was to last from 1949-1959 -- they constitute a self-perpetuating situation. Such preferential policies have long exceeded their initial claims in all countries.
Sowell writes about how members become affiliated to the preferred group status and the results speak to one of the primary difficulties of affirmative action programs. He explains "how the number of individuals identifying themselves as American Indians in the U.S. Census during the affirmative action era rose at a rate exceeding anyone's estimates of the biological growth of this population." Thus, from the 1960s to the 1980s, there was an increase in people identifying themselves as purportedly oppressed minorities in order to access the preferred status. The same pattern has occurred in China as well as in Australia among aborigines. As a result of these re-designations of individuals and groups, the benefits of the program became diluted and made things worse for the initial beneficiaries. As Sowell explains:
Corruption should hardly surprise anyone, and it is more than a financial fraud. It is a form of covert discrimination -- "Jim Crow's New Face." While many of the recipients of American affirmative action know little to nothing about Jim Crow laws, La Shawn Barber maintains that "a subtle form of segregation has taken ... place." Under the guise of affirmative action, white liberals have convinced blacks that they "now deserve special treatment and separate standards."
Barber's concerns mirror Michelle Malkin's when she writes, "I am not a brown jelly bean. I am more than my skin color. I am more than my parents' homeland. ... I want readers to know me for my ideas, ideology and idiosyncrasies -- not for my Filipino heritage. That is why, after more than a half-dozen years in the newspaper business, I refuse to join race-based organizations such as the Asian-American Journalists Association."
As a consequence of preferential treatment, "the development of job skills ... may be de-emphasized. As a leader in a campaign for preferential policies in India's state of Hyderabad puts it: 'Are we not entitled to jobs just because we are not as qualified?'" Here in the States, "a study of black colleges found that even those of their students who were planning to continue on to postgraduate study showed little concern about needing to be prepared 'because they believe that certain rules would simply be set aside for them.'" So was this woman's success or that Hispanic's success tainted by a double standard? The inevitable question adversely affects the mutual confidence that is so critical to such professions as medicine, firefighting, and policing. It creates an atmosphere of mistrust.
Sowell argues that those who would claim that opponents of affirmative action are just a backlash of angry white people forget that when Asian-Americans displace more whites in prestigious universities and in many high-level professions, there is never such a backlash. This is because the outstanding academic achievement of Asian-Americans is recognized and respected. The resentment felt against affirmative action rests on its premise; how does one fight racism with more racism? When does it end? What is the marker that indicates that success has been achieved? Repeatedly, Sowell states that "both the incentives and consequences tend to get ignored in political discussions of these policies, which focus on their justifications and presumed benefits, while ignoring actual empirical results."
In India, for example, Sowell explains that the "policies have themselves shown great disparities in their distribution of benefits. Thus, these preferences now apply to at least three-quarters of the population of India." It is a fact not lost on Indians themselves. There is a "skewed distribution of benefits" often resulting in benefits going disproportionately to those already more fortunate. Sowell argues that this "skewness" also exists in the United States.
In Malaysia, even one of the advocates of affirmative action, Prime Minster Mahatir bin Mohamad, said in 2002 that "[g]etting scholarships and places in the universities at home and abroad is considered a matter of right and is not valued any more. Indeed, those who get these educational opportunities ... seem to dislike the very people who created these opportunities. Worse still, they don't seem to appreciate the opportunities that they get. ... " This is an all-too-familiar refrain at American colleges, where a "chip on the shoulder" attitude and an outward disdain for shouldering responsibility describe far too many students who are receiving special consideration. Hispanic students will tell me that because of the Zoot-suit riots in the early 1940s, all Hispanics deserve the right to extra consideration. Given this line of thinking, how would one explain the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Philadelphia Nativist Riots? Don't the Chinese and Irish descendants of these events deserve the same consideration?
In Malaysia as well as in the United States, educational standards have declined in the country's universities "after student admissions and faculty hiring were no longer based on individual performances, but on group membership." This is further confirmed in Stephan Thermstrom's piece entitled "Minorities in College -- Good News, But..." as he writes:
In light of the aforementioned, Alberto F. Cabrera in "Hispanics in Higher Education" writes:
How do we change the cultural imperatives that this new generation has taken to heart? William Chace in "Affirmative Action's Last Chance" writes:
In one of my freshman English classes, the students applauded one unwed eighteen-year-old young man who stated that he and his girlfriend were going to have a baby. Unemployed, receiving financial aid, and just beginning college, the student dropped the class midway through the semester.
Should high schools that graduate students who fail to fulfill core academic requirements be held financially responsible? Should parents be held accountable if they show little to no interest in their children's educational well-being? Do we institute more vocational training? Do we start more moral instruction about the value of marriage and responsibility? Do we stop financial aid if an unwed student becomes pregnant? Are these draconian ideas, or are they merely a necessary "lemon law" for educational attainment?
Colleges lower their academic standards; bachelor's degrees are devalued; students are rewarded for effort instead of for results; many students believe that they will make scads of money just as long as they do the minimum necessary to graduate. Perhaps college is not for all. Is the idea that a university education is for everyone a destructive myth?
Thus, worldwide, "[t]he transparent dishonesty with which quotas and preferences have been instituted and maintained ... has produced cynicism and bitterness" and a false sense of success.
Eileen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.