If you want a large laboratory to study what works and what doesn't in dealing with the competing claims of ethnic, racial, religious or other communities defined in terms of mostly permanent ascriptive characteristics, look to India. It has castes among its majority Hindus. It has religious division between the Hindus and others, primarily Muslims. And it has long had institutionalized preferences governing the allocation of jobs, educational opportunities and other benefits. This version of affirmative action, or “reservation” as the Indians call it, dates back to the writing of the country's constitution. Originally the system was aimed at giving advantages to what are officially called “Scheduled Castes” or more commonly “backward castes,” which means members of the lower rungs of the Hindu caste hierarchy, as well as to some tribal groups.
Over subsequent years more groups demanded, unsurprisingly, to be included in the system of preferences. Politicians, seeing opportunities to gain votes by being responsive to such demands, duly expanded the ever-more comprehensive and complicated system of quotas for desirable things such as government jobs. Far from undoing the caste structure in India, the system of preferences codified it.
The longer the system of preferences was in existence and the more that advancement in life depended on those preferences, the more resentful those left outside the system became. In India, this now especially means Muslims. An irony is that most Indian Muslims are descended from low-caste Hindus—especially the lowest of the low, now called Dalits—who converted long ago to escape what were then the miseries of low-caste life. Present-day Muslims look enviously at their low-caste Hindu neighbors who have used preferences to lift themselves out of the worst poverty. This means still more demands to expand the preferential system further, with more politicians ready to oblige. The regional party that won a recent election in the largest and poorest Indian state, Uttar Pradesh, has promised to establish educational and employment quotas for Muslims.
As the quotas continue to expand, those in the backward castes who were the original beneficiaries look with suspicion at the newcomers. Seeing a zero-sum world of coveted government jobs and educational slots, they are afraid that preferences for someone else will mean fewer opportunities for themselves. Commenting on the possible establishment of quotas for Muslims in Uttar Pradesh, a seventy-one-year-old Dalit said, “I do not believe that Muslims are more backward. They are doing better.”
For still more consequences of such preferences, move across the eastern Indian Ocean to Malaysia, where ethnic Malays constitute a majority and have controlled the government since independence but where the minority Chinese have been more economically successful. A comprehensive system of preferences for Malays has been in place for over four decades. Within the past couple of years, the prime minister has spoken of loosening that system in response to its increasingly obvious drawbacks, but the preferences are still in place. One of the drawbacks is the encouragement of cronyism (something that has been seen in some minority set-aside programs in the United States). Another has been an entrepreneurial brain drain of ethnic Chinese fed up with the preferential system—a drain that works to the disadvantage of the Malaysian economy.
The United States should take into account the lessons from these experiences whenever it gets involved in any situation overseas (as it has more than once in recent years) in which it has some influence over how conflicting communal interests are handled. It also should heed the lessons as they apply to its own society, at a time when the U.S Supreme Court is about to look again at the American version of preferential treatment.