Thomas Sowell: does affirmative action help minorities to get ahead?

Economist Thomas Sowell
Economist Thomas Sowell – the best economist in the world

My favorite economist, Thomas Sowell has an article in Investors Business Daily that explains what affirmative action really does to minorities.


Affirmative action is supposed to benefit black and other minority students admitted with lower academic qualifications than some white students who are rejected.

[…]Despite much media spin, the issue is not whether blacks in general should be admitted to higher-ranked or lower-ranked institutions.

The issue is whether a given black student, with given academic qualifications, should be admitted to a college or university where he would not be admitted if he were white.

Much research over the years has confirmed… that admitting black students to institutions for which their academic preparation is not sufficient can be making them worse off instead of better off.

I became painfully aware of this problem more than 40 years ago when I was teaching at Cornell University and discovered that half the black students there were on some form of academic probation.

These students were not stupid or uneducable. On the contrary, the average black student at Cornell at that time scored at the 75th percentile on scholastic tests. Their academic qualifications were better than those of three-quarters of all American students who took those tests.

Why were they in trouble at Cornell, then? Because the average Cornell student in the liberal arts college at that time scored at the 99th percentile. The classes taught there — including mine — moved at a speed geared to the verbal and mathematical level of the top one percent of American students.

The average white student would have been wiped out at Cornell. But the average white student was unlikely to be admitted to Cornell in the first place. Nor was a white student who scored at the 75th percentile.

That was a “favor” reserved for black students. This “favor” turned black students who would have been successful at most American colleges and universities into failures at Cornell.

None of this was peculiar to Cornell. Black students who scored at the 90th percentile in math had serious problems trying to keep up at MIT, where other students scored somewhere within the top 99th percentile.

Nearly one-fourth of these black students with stellar qualifications in math failed to graduate from MIT, and those who did graduate were concentrated in the bottom tenth of the class.

There were other fine engineering schools around the country where those same students could have learned more, when taught at a normal pace, than at a breakneck speed geared to students with extremely rare abilities in math.

[…]Mismatching students with educational institutions is a formula for needless failures.

The book “Mismatch” by Sander and Taylor is a first-rate study of the hard facts. It shows, for example, that the academic performances of black and Hispanic students rose substantially after affirmative action admissions policies were banned in the University of California system.

Instead of failing at Berkeley or UCLA, these minority students were now graduating from other UC campuses. They were graduating at a higher rate, with higher grades, and now more often in challenging fields like math, science and technology.

[…]Does the actual fate of minority students not matter to the left as much as their symbolic presence on a campus?

Now, you might ask yourself on what basis Sowell makes all these assertions, so here are a few of his academic publications about affirmative action, which are state-of-the-art:

Now, I was recently talking to a friend who has empirically false views on a number of topics. He is opposed to capital punishment, opposed to gun ownership, supports affirmative action, and so on. When I ask him why he believes these things, he doesn’t point to any evidence. I offered to give him studies showing that capital punishment has a deterrent effect on crime, that concealed carry laws reduce violent crime rates, that affirmative action laws harm minorities, etc.

If we really want to help minorities, we have to do what makes sense according the evidence. We have to aim to do good, not just feel good.

One thought on “Thomas Sowell: does affirmative action help minorities to get ahead?”

  1. The comments are exactly what affirmative action is for many, maybe even most minority students in “higher ranked” colleges and universities. When such views are published, however, they immediately bring down the racist label as merely being a ghost echo of “keep the blacks where they belong”. In reality there is too much emphasis on college education for all the young people. Many of them would be happier and better off in the long run were they to enter a highly skilled trade and perhaps at some point start their own business in that trade. We need many more electricians, plumbers, etc. How many youth know that a tool maker can made $ 23+ per hour. Industry cries out for these people but they aren’t there. Instead we have young men and women with college degrees working in low level jobs with significant debt from those college years. This applies to blacks, whites, browns and greens. It doesn’t matter.

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