The Myth of Reverse Racism

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End Hate. Blake Emrys/Flickr.com

In the 21st century, many white Americans feel that they suffer more race-based discrimination than their fellow Americans of minority backgrounds. A 2011 study by researchers at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School found that whites believe that anti-white bias, or “reverse racism,” is at an all-time high. But is this perception accurate? Sociologists and social activists are among those who argue that reverse discrimination is actually not on the rise because it’s more of a myth than a reality.

They say that while some people of color may be prejudiced against whites, they don’t have the institutional power to discriminate against whites in the systemic manner that whites have historically discriminated against racial minorities. Quotes about reverse racism from prominent social progressives explain why it’s far from widespread and why complaints about such discrimination are reactionary. They say that those who complain about reverse discrimination fear losing racial privilege as society moves to level the playing field.

People of Color Lack the Institutional Power to Discriminate Against Whites

In his essay “A Look at the Myth of Reverse Racism,” anti-racist activist Tim Wise discusses why he thinks U.S. society has been organized in such a way that people of color can’t oppress whites in the same way that whites have historically oppressed minorities.

“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,” Wise writes. “What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? Yeah, right. … Power is like body armor. And while not all white folks have the same degree of power, there is a very real extent to which all of us have more than we need vis-à-vis people of color: at least when it comes to racial position, privilege and perceptions.”

Wise elaborates on his argument by discussing how even poor whites have advantages over middle-class blacks. For example, poor whites are more likely to be employed and own property than blacks are largely because they don’t experience racism in the workplace and they’ve inherited property from family members. Blacks, on the other hand, have long faced barriers to employment and homeownership that continue to affect their communities today.

“None of this is to say that poor whites aren’t being screwed…by an economic system that relies on their immiseration: they are,” Wise asserts. “But they nonetheless retain a certain ‘one-up’ on equally poor or even somewhat better off people of color thanks to racism. It is that one-up that renders the potency of certain prejudices less threatening than others.”

Minorities Can Be Prejudiced, But Can They Be Racist?

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva labels the concept of reverse racism “nonsensical.” The author of Racism Without Racists remarked in a 2010 interview with website The Grio:

“When whites talk about reverse discrimination, I feel that they are making a silly argument because what they really want to say is that we, people of color, have the power to do to them what they have done to us from the 13th century.”

Bonilla-Silva says that some people of color are prejudiced against whites but points out that they lack the power to discriminate against whites on a massive scale. “We do not control the economy. We do not control politics — despite the election of Obama. We don’t control much of this country.”

The Idea That Minorities of Influence Seek Revenge Against Whites Is Fiction

Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson says that political conservatives make claims of reverse discrimination to advance the idea that people of color in influential positions are out to get whites. He wrote in a 2010 column on the issue: “A cynical right-wing propaganda machine is peddling the poisonous fiction that when African Americans or other minorities reach positions of power, they seek some kind of revenge against whites.”

Robinson asserts that not only isn’t this idea false but also that prominent conservatives are playing it up to win over white voters. He doubts that most conservatives actually believe that vengeful decision makers of color are using their influence to hurt whites.

“Most of them…are merely seeking political gain by inviting white voters to question the motives and good faith of the nation’s first African American president. This is really about tearing Barack Obama down,” Robinson said. “These allegations of anti-white racism are being deliberately hyped and exaggerated because they are designed to make whites fearful. It won’t work with most people, of course, but it works with some—enough, perhaps, to help erode Obama’s political standing and damage his party’s prospects at the polls.

Reverse Racism Denies the Minority Experience With Discrimination

Bill Maher, comedian and HBO’s “Real Time” host, takes issue with reverse racism because it ignores the people of color continue to experience oppression today. Maher particularly objects to conservative Republicans making more of an issue of so-called reverse racism than they do of racism against minorities. In 2011, he remarked, “In today’s GOP there is only one correct answer to the discussion about racism. And that is: There is no racism in America anymore. ​Except reverse-racism against whites.”

Moreover, Maher points out that Republicans have offered up no solutions to combat reverse racism. He suggests that this is the case because reverse racism isn’t real. Instead, reverse racism functions to deny the racism that people of color in U.S. society have long endured. He explained, “Denying racism is the new racism. To not acknowledge those statistics, to think of that as a ‘black problem’ and not an American problem. To believe, as a majority of FOX viewers do, that reverse-racism is a bigger problem than racism, that’s racist.”