Jewish World Review Jan. 8, 2003 / 5 Shevat 5763

Thomas Sowell

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Quotas on trial | Now that the Supreme Court has agreed to rule on affirmative action in college and university admissions, will this issue be settled at long last or will the justices come up with some murky compromise, like the Bakke decision of 25 years ago, which has led to a quarter of a century of confusion, hypocrisy, resentments, and polarization?

The late Justice Lewis Powell's much-praised opinion in the Bakke case said many worthy and thoughtful things. But the bottom line was that colleges and universities could keep on using racial quotas -- so long as they didn't call them racial quotas.

The dishonesty that is incidental to other policies is central to affirmative action. Most of what is said in support of this policy is either wholly unsubstantiated or demonstrably false.

What about the notion that affirmative action has helped blacks rise out of poverty? The black poverty rate was cut in half before affirmative action -- and has barely changed since then.

What about the notion that blacks would not be able to get into colleges and universities without affirmative action? After group preferences and quotas were banned in California's state universities, the number of black students in the University of California system has risen.

Fewer are attending Berkeley and more are attending other universities, whose normal admissions standards they meet. These students are now more likely to graduate, which is the whole point. Before, they were being used like movie extras to create a background -- until most either dropped out or flunked out.

What about the magic benefits of "diversity" -- a word repeated endlessly, without a speck of evidence of those benefits? If diversity is so essential, how does a nation like Japan, with a homogeneous population, manage to get its students educated (better than ours), its work done, and its people living in more harmony than we have?

The assumption that there is something strange about not having different groups "represented" in various occupations and institutions in proportion to their share of the population will not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. Massive scholarly studies of countries around the world have failed to turn up a single country in which the different racial or ethnic groups are proportionally represented in occupations or institutions -- except where governments have imposed quotas.

Do either basketball or hockey have racial balance -- or even the same imbalance? Are third basemen and center fielders racially the same? How is it that four of the top five career home run totals in the history of baseball are by black batters?

Proportional representation is what Jeremy Bentham called "nonsense on stilts." But it is nonsense that has been repeated so much that we are conditioned to it, like Pavlov's dog.

What about the idea that affirmative action and multiculturalism are "here to stay" -- the last argument of those who have no argument? What about the idea that "we are all multiculturalists now"?

Multiculturalism and affirmative action have not been around even half as long as the Soviet Union. Why then must they be regarded as set in concrete, when the whole Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe has collapsed?

Whittaker Chambers left the communist movement at a time when he thought it was going to win. Solzhenitsyn defied the Soviet totalitarian state when it looked impregnable. That is the difference between moral courage and moral cowardice.

Those who have opposed multiculturalism and affirmative action have not had to face any gulags or firing squads. If some people are tired of the battles, that is understandable. But suffering combat fatigue is very different from urging others to surrender.

Affirmative action has been tried in many countries around the world and has existed in India and Sri Lanka, for example, longer than in the United States. Seldom has it helped the poor and more often it has benefitted those who were already more fortunate.

Affirmative action has a track record of polarization in many countries, including lethal mob violence in India and a decades-long civil war in Sri Lanka. Do we need to continue down the road that these countries have traveled?

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)


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