International affirmative action

Thomas Sowell
Posted: Jun 04, 2003 12:00 AM

As the Supreme Court of the United States wrestles with the issue of affirmative action as it exists in college admissions at the University of Michigan, the justices are taking on an issue that has been wrestled with in many contexts by courts in India for far longer than group preferences and quotas have existed in the United States.

India is not the only other country with affirmative action, though it has had such programs longer than any other, going all the way back to the days when India was part of the British Empire.

Affirmative action has existed in countries on every inhabited continent -- not only in democratic countries like India and Britain, but in totalitarian countries like the Soviet Union and China, as well as in Nigeria, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, among others.

How have these programs worked out in other countries? There are certain common patterns -- and certain unique differences.

Perhaps the most widespread similarity among programs in these very different countries has been that group preferences and quotas are almost always discussed -- by critics and advocates alike -- in terms of their rationales, rather than their actual results. Some countries have not even bothered to collect data on outcomes.

The most common outcome is that the benefits of affirmative action programs go to only a small minority within the groups that are supposed to benefit from them. This is almost invariably the already most prosperous segment of these groups.

In India, for example, it has long been known that many university places reserved for Dalits -- formerly known as "untouchables" -- remain unfilled. Where the various benefits offered are actually used, they are used disproportionately by particular subgroups who have the money, education, and other advantages that enable them to make use of preferential access to higher education, higher level jobs, and the like.

In India this problem has been so widely recognized that there have in recent years been demands for a "quota within quota," so that the more fortunate subgroups do not continue to take the lion's share of the benefits from affirmative action. A similar problem exists within the United States, but has not been nearly so widely recognized.

Another common pattern is that group preferences have been initiated as temporary measures. But even where these programs have begun with a specified cutoff date -- as in Pakistan, Malaysia, and India -- these programs have continued on for decades past those cutoff dates by subsequent extensions, with no end yet in sight. Often these programs have not only persisted but expanded, covering more sectors or more groups, or both.

Perhaps the most ominous common pattern has been a backlash by others who resent the special preferences given to particular groups. In India, violence against Dalits has escalated in the wake of preferences on their behalf -- preferences which, ironically, relatively few Dalits are able to take advantage of.

In Sri Lanka, where the groups live concentrated in different regions, the escalation of violence has gone all the way to civil war. This small nation has suffered more deaths from this internal strife than the United States suffered during all the long years of the Vietnam war.

Where have large-scale group preferences been successful, at least in the sense that they have benefitted large numbers of people in one group without either ruining another group or degenerating into violent internal strife? Malaysia may be the prime example, but it has had unique features that may not enable it to be a model for other countries.

First, group preferences in Malaysia began in 1970 and were carried out while the country experienced unusually rapid economic growth and transformation from a predominantly agricultural nation to a modern commercial and industrial society. A rising tide raised all boats.

Another key factor is that it is a federal crime in Malaysia to promote intergroup strife. There can be no careers like those of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton in Malaysia. For countries where free speech is basic, Malaysia is not a model that can be imitated.