In 1945 the most despised people in this country were Japanese Canadians. Ottawa had robbed them of their property in British Columbia and moved them inland, with few protests from other Canadians. At the end of the war, many in Canada wanted to send them "home" to Japan, which some had never even visited. Their prospects looked dim. After all, most had made their living from fishing or farming. No one could expect them to make a comfortable adjustment to the new (and unfriendly) society developing in Canada.
But in about two decades they were among the best educated and most successful Canadians. They began showing up at the top of the Statistics Canada income rankings, above the white Canadians who had been ready to throw them out of the country. Their equivalents in the U.S. had the same experience. By 1979, Japanese American males had, on average, higher incomes than white American males.
Yet we seldom mention the Japanese when we discuss racial disparities. When discussing other subjects we usually talk about success, but when we speak of race we focus on failure and the need to remedy it. We never ask: How in the world did the Japanese (or the Jews or the Chinese or South Asians or some other successful group) achieve what they did?
Issues like these form the core of Thomas Sowell's work. An American economist who turns 74 this year, he's written some 30 books, most of them crammed with fresh information and difficult questions. Whites score higher than blacks on the mathematics SAT test, which advocates of affirmative action explain by saying the test is biased toward whites; they pass over in silence the fact that Asian Americans score higher than whites. Sowell, while charming in person, is tough and relentless on paper. He never goes out without his facts and seldom fails to disturb conventional opinion.
This month brings another compelling book by Sowell, Affirmative Action Around the World: An Empirical Study (Yale University Press), his account of how racial preferences have served the people of India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and the United States.
Most people who favour affirmative action, and most who oppose it, deal only with theory. Sowell starts with the unorthodox notion that we should conduct politics by judging what works, not what makes us feel good, what makes us believe we are compassionate, or what sounds like a nice idea.
Sowell has noticed the Japanese Canadians. He quotes a 2002 study by the Toronto city government on racial inequality: "Combining all the non-European groups, the family poverty rate is 34.3%, more than twice the figure for Europeans and Canadians." But, as Sowell says, a detailed breakdown shows that Japanese Canadians have lower poverty rates than those of British, French, German, Polish, or Hungarian ancestry. The same report says: "The Japanese are among the most privileged groups in the city." As Sowell notes, this remark will sound like Orwellian Newspeak to anyone who knows what Japanese Canadians had to go through.
In Malaysia, ethnic Chinese have had much more success in education and business than the Malays. Why? No one knows, but guesses are available. Sowell says that the Chinese immigrated to Malaysia "from circumstances in southern China that had long made hard work and frugality necessary for survival." The Malay culture, on the other hand, permitted an easier way of life. Could that have determined the attitudes to work of the two groups? He finds similar distinctions elsewhere -- for instance between the Indians who settled in Fiji and the indigenous Fijians.
In both places, governments have used racial preferences to build up the status of the local people, always without success. Governments rationalize group preferences as a way to promote a more cohesive and peaceful society but they can have the opposite result. After many years of affirmative action in India, inter-group violence only increased. "In Nigeria the phrase 'national unity' has appeared repeatedly in official pronouncements justifying group preferences, even as members of different tribes slaughter each other ..."
Racial preferences everywhere are based on the idea that all races should, in fairness, be proportionately represented at all levels of society. When they are not so represented, we think something has gone wrong and should be fixed, usually by governments. We want not just equality of opportunity but equality of outcome. On these issues, statistics can drive us a little crazy. We confuse numbers with moral value.
Behind that belief is a notion that someday, in some ideal society, all groups will perform equally and thereby share money and stature equally. But no such society exists or ever has existed. As Sowell says, through all recorded history, in every country of the world, nothing has been more common than large disparities in the success of different groups. His views have brought him severe criticism from many of his fellow blacks in the United States, and there are Black Studies departments that routinely dismiss him as a traitor. But reading him over the years has convinced me that he delivers more wisdom on this subject than anyone else alive.