Americans tend to think of affirmative action as a uniquely American institution: an outgrowth of the civil rights movement, intended primarily to improve economic opportunities for African Americans, who have continued to face obstacles to equality long after the Jim Crow era of segregation and overt discrimination. And it is true that as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the U.S. government began to implement affirmative action policies. State agencies and public universities soon followed suit. As these programs expanded to assist other groups, such as women, Native Americans, and Hispanic Americans, affirmative action began to seem like a strategy specifically suited to a Western liberal democracy struggling to reconcile its ideals with its history.
In fact, however, affirmative action is a global phenomenon, practiced by different countries in different ways for different reasons—but always with the goal of redressing inequality. In Malaysia, for example, the federal government has adopted a wide range of policies to boost the status of ethnic Malays and other indigenous groups, who have historically occupied a lower socioeconomic position than the country’s ethnic Chinese and ethnic Indian citizens, prioritizing them for land contracts, university admissions, and civil service jobs. In India, the constitution establishes generous quotas in colleges, for public jobs, and in elected assemblies for lower castes and tribal communities, two groups that have suffered centuries of discrimination. (One state, Tamil Nadu, has set aside nearly 70 percent of undergraduate positions for those who belong to “backward classes.”) And after the end of apartheid, the South African government introduced policies designed to mitigate deep-seated socioeconomic disparities among the different racial groups in South Africa.
Comparing affirmative action across countries is not easy. Although most programs are designed to benefit groups that have been historically disadvantaged, the groups themselves vary significantly, as do the details of each country’s approach. Even within countries, affirmative action policies are applied inconsistently, largely because of disputes over who qualifies for them. In India, for example, the definition of “Other Backward Classes”—one of the main groups singled out for quotas—varies by state and has been hotly contested. And even when there is consensus about who belongs to which group, eligibility can still be a difficult issue. In South Africa, for example, members of that country’s ethnic Chinese population demanded to be included in affirmative action policies, citing the discrimination they faced during the apartheid era. In 2008, South Africa’s Pretoria High Court found in their favor, ruling that ethnic Chinese who had arrived before 1994 were eligible for affirmative action, as were their descendants.
Differences aside, however, affirmative action programs around the world have enjoyed similar successes—and fallen prey to many of the same failures. Most succeed in reducing economic inequality, although often less significantly than policymakers hope. They have a mixed record when it comes to improving social cohesion: affirmative action policies tend to underscore ethnic divisions rather than reduce them, although there is some evidence that racial unrest becomes less likely as economic inequality ebbs. And their most negative effects tend to be in the political sphere: in many countries, policies intended to assist the disadvantaged have been corrupted by political elites who manipulate the system to their own advantage and block any attempts at reform.