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Preferential Policies: An International Perspective.

Preferential Policies: An International Perspective. Thomas Sowell. Morrow, $17.95. "Passionate commitment to 'social justice,"' writes Sowell, "can never be a substitute for knowing what you are talking about." For well over a decade, he has been challenging with icy logic the rhetoric of activists for preferential policies-known in this country as affirmative action." In 1980, in an article in the Wayne Law Review, he demolished the basis on which activists claimed that racial discrimination accounted for minority groups not being represented in the professions and high-level positions in proportion to their numbers in the population. Pointing out, for example, that the average age of Mexican-Americans is 18, Sowell asked whether one can logically expect an ethnic group, half of whose population consists of infants, children, and teenagers, to be represented in high-level adult jobs in the same proportion as ethnic groups with an average age of 46 (Jews), 40 (Poles), or 37 (Irish). Now the Hoover Institution economist has expanded his inquiry to preferential policies-those specifying that not all individuals be judged by the case criteria-in the many parts of the world where they are in force. Preferential policies-whether designed for the disadvantaged or advantaged-specify that not all individuals be judged by the same criteria. In Sri Lanka in 1948, the Tamil minority, while only 20 percent of the population, accounted for 32 percent of the government's doctors, 40 percent of its engineers, and 46 percent of its accountants. With independence in 1948, the proportion of Tamil professionals grew even larger. The situation was ripe for a demagogue: In 1956, a stirring political upset by a prime ministerial candidate running on a program of preferential policies favoring the Sinhalese majority led other politicians to vie with each other to jump on the bandwagon. A variety of ever more restrictive measures against the Tamils was put in place, including a cutback in the number of Tamils permitted to go on to higher education, particularly in science and the professions. With opportunity closed off to the younger Tamil generation, violence broke out. By 1985, India had 40,000 Tamil refugees, and in 1987 India landed 50,000 troops in Sri Lanka to take over the maintenance of order from the Sri Lankan army. Within one generation, the politicization of race and ethnicity had brought groups who had lived in amity to the point of implacable hatred and civil war. Ironically, in a reverse situation, the Indian government, following initiatives begun under the Raj, maintains well-motivated preferential programs to help the miserably oppressed untouchable castes improve their lots; the results, according to Sowell, have been disappointing and have come at the cost of lower standards in education and other areas. But the United States remains the laboratory where Sowell most closely examines the gap between the goals of affirmative action and the results. Conceived to compensate blacks for the retardation of opportunity they suffered from enslavement and Jim Crow laws, affirmative action programs quickly expanded to include groups with no such history: Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, women, the elderly. In whatever field any of these groups were "underrepresented," the presumption was discrimination, and the accused employer or institution had the burden of disproving the presumption. But Sowell takes the minority-group activists to task for ignoring the size of the available pool from which to fill those slots. Granting that SAT scores are hardly the sole or even the most important criteria for college admissions, the following observations of Sowell's are nonetheless interesting: While dozens of U.S. universities have entering classes with average combined SAT scores of 1,200 or above, in 1983 fewer than 600 blacks in the entire nation had scores of 1,200 or higher. This meant that to achieve "statistical representation" (I I percent of the U.S. population is black) the eight Ivy League schools alone would need more than the available pool of blacks-making it impossible for the dozens of other top-tier universities to approach their minority quotas. Without, that is, lowering their standards-which is what, under various euphemistic guises, they have done. A dramatic example of the disservice affirmative action may do to the groups it is designed to help can be seen at Berkeley, where the entering class closely reflects the population pattern. But more than 70 percent of black students fail to graduate. In 1987, of 312 blacks entering, all were admitted under affirmative action programs rather than by meeting the standard academic requirements. The average SAT score at Berkeley is 1181. The median score for blacks was 952, which is above the national average for all groups. The tragic irony, Sowell notes, is that the blacks who failed to graduate from Berkeley were perfectly capable of graduating from the average American college; by being mismatched with Berkeley they were derailed by a perverted notion of do-goodism.

Wherever preferential policies exist, Sowell believes they share these characteristics:

Although designated as temporary, they tend to become permanent and to widen their scope ... within the designated groups, benefits have gone disproportionately to the already more fortunate . . . they have increased polarization, with the non preferred group reacting with political backlash, mob actions, or other forms of violence ... official, academic, and journalistic writings have been notable for the dearth of data on the results of such programs.

The outlook, according to Sowell, is not much rosier. Preferential policies will continue to spread because, however ineffective, they are popular with politicians-a quick fix at a low down payment with the real financial and social costs to come later.

To many of today's liberals, Thomas Sowell will come off as cold, hard-eyed, and unsympathetic. (He believes, for example, that improvement in education will start in the public schools when we learn to treat classroom disrupters as problems to be gotten rid of rather than as victims" to be defended.) A more discerning eye may see in him a reasonable blend of conservatism, libertarianism, and vintage liberalism, a man with the courage and intellect to take on a crusade that can only bring him grief and opprobrium.

Leonard Reed
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Author:Reed, Leonard
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1990
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