Does Reverse Racism Exist?

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Black and white chess pieces. Liza Daly/Flickr.com

Acts of racism make newspaper headlines daily. There's no shortage of media coverage about racial discrimination or racially motivated violence, be it plots by white supremacists to kill President Barack Obama or police killings of unarmed black men. But what about reverse racism? Is reverse racism even real and, if so, what's the best way to define it?

Defining Reverse Racism

Reverse racism refers to discrimination against whites, usually in the form of programs meant to advance ethnic minorities such as affirmative action.

Anti-racist activists in the U.S. have largely deemed reverse racism to be impossible, as the power structure of the United States has historically benefited whites and continues to do so today, despite the election of a black president. Such activists argue that the definition of racism isn't just one individual's belief that a certain race is superior to others but also includes institutional oppression.

Explains white anti-racist activist Tim Wise in "A Look at the Myth of Reverse Racism":

"When a group of people has little or no power over you institutionally, they don't get to define the terms of your existence, they can't limit your opportunities, and you needn't worry much about the use of a slur to describe you and yours, since, in all likelihood, the slur is as far as it's going to go. What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? Yeah, right."

In the Jim Crow South, for example, police officers, bus drivers, educators and other agents of the state worked in tandem to maintain segregation and, thus, racism against people of color.

While ethnic minorities during this time may have harbored ill will towards Caucasians, they lacked the power to adversely affect whites' lives. On the other hand, the very fate of people of color is determined by institutions that have traditionally discriminated against them. This explains, in part, why an African American who has committed a certain crime is likely to receive a stiffer sentence than a white person who committed an identical crime.

What Makes White Racism Distinct?

Because American institutions haven't traditionally been anti-white, the argument that whites can be truly victimized by reverse racism is difficult to make. Still, the assertion that reverse racism exists has persisted since the late 20th century when the government implemented widespread programs to make up for historic discrimination against ethnic minorities. In 1994, Time magazine ran an article about a small minority of Afro-centrists known as "melanists" who posit that those with an abundance of dark skin pigment, or melanin, are more humane and superior to lighter-skinned people, not to mention prone to having paranormal powers such as ESP and psychokinesis. The idea that one group of people is superior to another based on skin color certainly fits the dictionary definition of racism. Yet, the melanists had no institutional power to spread their message or subjugate lighter-skinned people based on their racist beliefs. Moreover, because the melanists spread their message in predominantly black settings, it's likely that few whites even heard their racist message, let alone suffered because of it. Melanists lacked the institutional influence to oppress whites with their ideology.

"What separates white racism from any other form …is [its] ability…to become lodged in the minds of and perceptions of the citizenry," Wise explains. "White perceptions are what end up counting in a white-dominated society. If whites say Indians are savages, then by God, they'll be seen as savages. If Indians say whites are mayonnaise-eating Amway salespeople, who the hell is going to care?"

And such was the case with the melanists. No one cared what they had to say about the melanin-deprived because this fringe group of Afro-centrists lacked power and influence.

When Institutions Favor Ethnic Minorities Over Whites

If we include institutional power in the definition of racism, it’s virtually impossible to argue that reverse racism exists. But as institutions attempt to compensate ethnic minorities for the racism of the past via affirmative action programs and similar policies, the government has found that whites have experienced discrimination.

In June 2009, white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., won a “reverse discrimination” Supreme Court case. The suit stemmed from the fact that white firefighters who excelled on a qualifying test to receive promotions were prevented from moving up because their colleagues of color had not performed so well. Rather than allow the white firefighters to promote, the city of New Haven dismissed the test results for fear that minority firefighters would sue if they weren’t also promoted.

Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the events in New Haven amounted to racial discrimination against whites because the city would not have refused to promote black firefighters if their white counterparts had performed poorly on the qualifying exam.

The Case for Diversity Initiatives

Not all whites who find themselves excluded as institutions try to right past wrongs feel victimized. In a piece for The Atlantic called “Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black,” legal scholar Stanley Fish described being ruled out of an administrative position at a university when the powers-that-be decided that a woman or ethnic minority would be a better candidate for the job.

Fish explained:

“Although I was disappointed, I did not conclude that the situation was ‘unfair,’ because the policy was obviously… not intended to disenfranchise white males. Rather, the policy was driven by other considerations, and it was only as a by-product of those considerations—not as the main goal—that white males like me were rejected.

Given that the institution in question has a high percentage of minority students, a very low percentage of minority faculty, and an even lower percentage of minority administrators, it made perfect sense to focus on women and minority candidates, and within that sense, not as the result of prejudice, my whiteness and maleness became disqualifications.”

Fish argues that whites who find themselves excluded when white institutions try to diversify mustn’t protest. Exclusion when the goal is not racism but an attempt to level the playing field can’t compare to the centuries of racial subjugation that people of color experienced in U.S. society. Ultimately, this kind of exclusion serves the greater good of eradicating racism and its legacy, Fish points out.

Wrapping Up

Does reverse racism exist? Not according to the antiracist definition of racism. This definition includes institutional power and not just the prejudices of a lone individual. As institutions which have historically benefited whites attempt to diversify, however, they sometimes favor ethnic minorities over whites. Their purpose in doing so is to right the wrongs of the past and the present against minority groups. But as institutions embrace multiculturalism, they are still forbidden by the 14th Amendment from directly discriminating against any racial group, including whites.

Thus, while institutions engage in minority outreach, they must do so in a way that doesn’t unjustly penalize whites for their skin color alone.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Does Reverse Racism Exist?" ThoughtCo, May. 2, 2016, thoughtco.com/does-reverse-racism-exist-2834942. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2016, May 2). Does Reverse Racism Exist? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/does-reverse-racism-exist-2834942 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Does Reverse Racism Exist?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/does-reverse-racism-exist-2834942 (accessed December 11, 2017).