Last Gasp of Affirmative Action?

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:

No historical sufferings of blacks in the United States can justify preferential benefits to white women or to recently arrived immigrants from Asia or Latin America who happen to be non-white, but whose ancestors obviously never suffered any discrimination in the United States.  Similarly the painful history and continuing oppression of untouchables in India can hardly justify preferential benefits to local majorities in particular states, such as Assam, Maharashtra, and Andhra Pradesh. ...

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:

Any serious analysis of how various racial groups are moving ahead in the educational system must look at how well prepared they are to advance to the next level. ... [r]acial gaps in cognitive skills at the end of high school today have not been narrowing in recent years. Indeed, the black-white gap in mean SAT scores, for example, has increased by 14 points, and the white-Latino gap by 7 points. Similarly, ... [the] black-white difference in reading scores at age 17 was as wide in 2008 as it had been in 1996, and in math it had shrunk by only an insignificant one point. For Hispanics, the gap in math was identical in both years, and the reading gap narrowed by a very modest 4 points, from 30 to 26.

These differences are immense. They mean that black students aged 17 do not read with any greater facility than whites who are four years younger and still in junior high. And Latino high school seniors have reading scores that exceed those of white eighth-graders by a mere three points.

Recent studies have shown that an amazing 41 percent of all first-time freshmen enrolled in college have such severe academic deficiencies that they must take one or more remedial courses. For blacks it is 62 percent, Hispanics 63 percent, as compared with 36 percent for whites and 38 percent for Asians. Furthermore, remedial efforts often fail, and it has been demonstrated that Black and Latino students are much less likely than whites and Asians to overcome their deficiencies and go on to pass a regular course on the subject....

The information ... also points to the significance of another racial gap which the authors choose not to explore. On some of the measures used in the study, whites lag behind Asian-Americans by about as much as Blacks and Latinos are behind whites. If our institutions of higher education have a duty to equalize Black and Latino achievement with that of whites, why not set their goals higher still? Why not figure out how to bring whites up to the level of Asian-Americans, and make this loftier level the aim for African-Americans and Hispanics as well? The answer is obvious. Had the authors contemplated this problem, they would inevitably have had to probe the differences in family values, family structure, and family socioeconomic status that explain Asian educational success. And that would have required them to consider how much these variables shape the performance of black and Latino students as well.

In light of the aforementioned, Alberto F. Cabrera in "Hispanics in Higher Education" writes:

Regardless of ethnicity, all high school students have similar chances to enroll in higher education when they plan for college, secure college qualifications, graduate from high school and actually apply to a four-year institution ... Hispanics, on the average, are 20 percent less likely to secure college qualifications, are 9 percent less likely to graduate from high school, and are 16 percent less likely to submit applications for a 4-year institution. Family support, parental encouragement, family socioeconomic status and the presence of at-risk factors facilitate or impede the completion of these college preparatory tasks. Compared to Whites, Hispanics are in a disadvantaged position when considering these factors: they are more prone to have parents with no collegiate experiences, their parents participate less in their school activities, they are slightly more likely to have been raised by single parent families, they have older siblings who drop out from high school, and they are more likely to have a history of low academic performance prior to high school enrollment. These factors contribute to the gaps in each of the steps towards college.

How do we change the cultural imperatives that this new generation has taken to heart?  William Chace in "Affirmative Action's Last Chance" writes:

Even after being enrolled, less than half of all black male students who start college at a four-year institution graduate in six years or less, a rate more than 20 percentage points lower than the white graduation rate. ... It is the lowest college completion rate among all racial groups for both sexes.

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
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