End it, don’t mend it?
If racial injustice is a crippling affliction, then this book is an exposé of medical malpractice—written by a faith healer.
Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, has spent more than 30 years studying affirmative action. Instead of arguing about how it works in theory, he says, we need to look at how it has worked in practice. The twist is that Sowell studies how racial preferences have worked in other societies as well as in our own.
His findings are devastating. In India, positive discrimination has enriched the few at the expense of the many. In Sri Lanka, set-asides have sparked race riots and civil war. In Malaysia, preferences have failed to keep Malays competitive with the ethnic Chinese. And in Nigeria, tribal favoritism has fueled a bloody ethnic conflict. Sowell’s conclusion: Racial preferences have backfired in every possible way.
Sowell’s findings should factor into any future debate about affirmative action. Unfortunately, he presents them as if they end the debate. And they don’t.
Stressing his empirical approach, Sowell quotes John Adams: “Facts are stubborn things.” But Sowell’s facts are conveniently selective. As case studies to compare with the United States, he has chosen four strife-torn Third World countries. He mentions racial preferences in Canada, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, but he omits them from his study. That’s like writing a book called Welfare States Around the World and covering Cuba but not Sweden.
One wonders what else has been left out. Sowell’s evidence is compelling, but he degrades its credibility with his dogmatic approach. He acknowledges no positive results from affirmative action anywhere, at any time—for him, the cure is always worse than the disease. Nor does this book even consider alternatives: class-based preferences, empowerment zones or more-equitable funding for inner-city schools.
Worse than simply withholding treatment, Sowell blames the patient. Repeatedly, he suggests that this or that ethnic group is held back by its own inadequacy. Even when he acknowledges the most harrowing discrimination—like that faced by India’s “untouchables”—his prescription is the same: Let them heal themselves.
A book so ideologically strident ultimately stands or falls on the integrity of the author’s arguments. Alas, Sowell’s principled opposition to affirmative action vanishes when the beneficiaries are rich and white. For “legacies”—children of alumni—he actually defends preferences.
“When some rich student of modest ability does not make it through an elite college,” writes Sowell, “that is neither a personal nor a social tragedy, given the range of options still available to that student.” Besides, he adds, “a child of modest ability from a wealthy family is likely to have had the best education that money can buy.” In other words, let them be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their trust fund.
Just as audacious as the arguments themselves is the way Sowell conceals their origins. Nowhere does he mention his 1990 work Preferential Policies: An International Perspective. That book critiques affirmative action in India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Nigeria and the United States. Sound familiar?
Dozens of quotations from Preferential Policies show up in Sowell’s latest book. Whole sections are paraphrased. Yes, the material has been revised and updated. But essentially, Affirmative Action Around the World is a 14-year-old book, retitled and fobbed off as new.
Facts are stubborn things, professor Sowell.