Dirty Secrets About “Affirmative Action”

by | Nov 20, 2002

“The dirty little secret about affirmative action is that it doesn’t work.” So concluded ABC network reporter Bob Zelnick in his excellent book on the subject, titled “Backfire.” An even dirtier secret is that virtually no one really cares whether or not affirmative action works to advance minorities or women. It works politically to put […]

“The dirty little secret about affirmative action is that it doesn’t work.” So concluded ABC network reporter Bob Zelnick in his excellent book on the subject, titled “Backfire.”

An even dirtier secret is that virtually no one really cares whether or not affirmative action works to advance minorities or women.

It works politically to put its supporters on the side of the angels. It works for ethnic or feminist “leaders” as a rallying cry to mobilize support. For the mushy minded, it works to make them feel morally one-up. Zelnick’s book cites studies by economists which suggest that preferences and quotas have actually done little or nothing for blacks.

My research overseas suggests that it does little or nothing for most of the groups supposedly benefiting in other countries India has had preferences and quotas much longer than the United States, but there too the benefits are far less visible than the backlash and polarization such programs produce.

One Indian writer has pointed out why these programs produce so much hostility for so little actual results. Imagine that there are 10 desirable jobs open and that there are 10 applicants, he says. Suppose that 9 of these 10 jobs are being filled according to the qualifications of the applicants, while the 10th job is set aside for someone from one of the lower castes or tribes. The search then begins for the highest-ranking member of one of the groups that is legally entitled to preferential treatment. If that highest-ranking individual is 30th from the top, there will be 29 people resentful of his selection — 9 because they had to make it on their own merits and 20 because they were not hired, despite having better qualifications. However, 19 of those 20 disappointed applicants would not have been hired anyway, since there was only one job taken by the person who received preferential treatment. Yet all these people will be bitter about that one job.

Sometimes the quota isn’t even filled, but others still resent the fact that it exists. Because India has had affirmative action much longer than the United States, the polarization and hostility have gone much further there. Riots over preferences and quotas have become common in India. A few years ago, 42 people were killed in riots over 6 places set aside in a Bombay medical school, even though not all those places were filled. How is that for minimizing the benefits and maximizing the hostility?

In the United States, preferences and quotas can have negative effects on the groups supposedly benefiting, as well as positive effects. Since only the positive effects are likely to be publicized, the negative effects are seldom counted. For example, the ease with which a discrimination lawsuit can be made against an employer for not having employment statistics that match the local population provides incentives for employers to locate away from minority communities. That can easily cost members of these communities more jobs than they gain from preferences or quotas. But few people even think about trying to weigh the net balance of gains and losses, because it is arbitrarily assumed that there can only be gains.

Some of the worst results of affirmative action occur in college admissions. Black students with qualifications higher than those of most white students often get wiped out academically, because they have been admitted to highly competitive colleges where most white students would also have been wiped out if they had been admitted without meeting very stringent requirements.

Hysteria-mongers may claim that there would be no blacks in our leading academic institutions without affirmative action. But let’s check a few facts. The first black man graduated from Harvard a hundred years before there was affirmative action. The first black man to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard did so just over a hundred years ago. The first black woman graduated from Oberlin in 1862. Blacks were attending Hillsdale College before the Civil War — even though Hillsdale has opposed affirmative action to this very day. Most blacks were of course in no position to achieve things like this, because they did not have the opportunity to get a decent education. That is what they have always needed — opportunities, not preferences and quotas. School vouchers will do more for blacks than affirmative action has ever done

Thomas Sowell has published a large volume of writing. His dozen books, as well as numerous articles and essays, cover a wide range of topics, from classic economic theory to judicial activism, from civil rights to choosing the right college. Please contact your local newspaper editor if you want to read the THOMAS SOWELL column in your hometown paper.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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