Can Sociology Help Me Counter Claims of Reverse Racism?

Yes, Yes It Can

It's his fault

A former student recently asked me how one can use sociology to counter claims of “reverse racism.” The term refers to the idea that white people experience racism due to programs or initiatives that are designed to benefit people of color. Some claim that organizations or spaces that are exclusive to say, Black people or Asian Americans, constitute “reverse racism,” or that scholarships open only to racial minorities discriminate against white individuals. The big point of contention for those concerned with “reverse racism” is Affirmative Action, which refers to measures in application processes for employment or college admission that take race and the experience of racism into account in the evaluation process. To counter claims of “reverse discrimination,” let’s first revisit what racism actually is.

Per our own glossary definition, racism serves to limit access to rights, resources, and privileges on the basis of essentialist notions of race (stereotypes). Racism can take a variety of forms in achieving these ends. It can be representational, manifesting in how we imagine and represent racial categories, like in costume at “Ghetto” or “Cinco de Mayo” parties, or in what kinds of characters people of color play in film and television. Racism can be ideological, existing in our world views and ideas premised on white superiority and the presumed cultural or biological inferiority of others.

There are other forms of racism too, but most important to this discussion of whether or not affirmative action constitutes “reverse racism” are the ways that racism operates institutionally and structurally. Institutional racism manifests in education in the tracking of students of color into remedial or special ed courses, while white students are more likely to be tracked into college prep courses. It also exists in the educational context in the rates at which students of color are punished and reprimanded, versus white students, for the same offenses. Institutional racism is also expressed in biases teachers reveal in doling out praise more so to white students than to students of color.

Institutional racism in the educational context is a key force in reproducing long-term, historically rooted structural racism. This includes racial segregation into poor communities with underfunded and understaffed schools, and economic stratification, which overwhelmingly burdens people of color with poverty and limited access to wealth. Access to economic resources is a significant factor that shapes one’s educational experience, and the extent to which one is prepared for admission to college.

Affirmative Action policies in higher education are designed to counteract the near 600-year history of systemic racism in this country. A cornerstone of this system is undeserved enrichment of white people based on historical theft of land and resources from Indigenous peoples, theft of labor and denial of rights of African and African American people under enslavement and its Jim Crow aftermath, and denial of rights and resources to other racial minorities throughout history. The undeserved enrichment of white people fueled the undeserved impoverishment of people of color—a legacy that is painfully alive today in racialized income and wealth disparities.

Affirmative Action seeks to redress some of the costs and burdens born by people of color under systemic racism. Where people have been excluded, it seeks to include them. At their core, Affirmative Action policies are based on inclusion, not exclusion. This fact becomes clear when one considers the history of legislation that laid the groundwork for Affirmative Action, a term first used by former President John F. Kennedy in 1961 in Executive Order 10925, which referenced the need to end discrimination based on race, and was followed three years later by the Civil Rights Act.

When we recognize that Affirmative Action is premised on inclusion, we see clearly that it is not consistent with racism, which uses racial stereotypes to limit access to rights, resources, and privileges. Affirmative Action is the opposite of racism; it is anti-racism. It is not “reverse” racism.

Now, some might claim that Affirmative Action limits access to rights, resources, and privileges for white students who are thought to be displaced by people of color who are granted admission instead of them. But the fact is, that claim simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when one examines historical and contemporary rates of college admission by race.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1980 and 2009, the number of African American students enrolled in college annually more than doubled, from about 1.1 million to just under 2.9 million. During that same period, Hispanic and Latino students saw a huge jump in enrollment, multiplying by more than five, from 443,000 to 2.4 million. The rate of increase for white students was much lower, at just 51 percent, from 9.9 million to about 15 million. What these jumps in enrollment for African American, Hispanic, and Latinos students show is the intended outcome of Affirmative Action policies: increased inclusion.

Importantly, the inclusion of these racial groups did not harm enrollment from white students. In fact, data released by the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2012 show that white students are still slightly over-represented in terms of their presence in that year’s freshmen class at four-year schools, while Black and Latino students are still underrepresented.*

Further, if we look beyond the bachelor’s degree to advanced degrees, we see percentages of white degree earners rise as does level of degree, culminating in a stark underrepresentation of Black and Latino recipients of degrees at the level of Doctor. Other research has shown clearly that university professors demonstrate a strong bias toward white male students who express interest in their graduate programs, much to the expense of women and students of color.

Looking at the big picture of longitudinal data, it is clear that while Affirmative Action policies have successfully opened access to higher education across racial lines, they have not limited the ability of white students to access this resource. Rulings from the mid-1990s that have outlawed Affirmation Action at public educational institutions lead to a fast and sharp drop in enrollment rates of Black and Latino students at those institutions, quite notably in the University of California system.

Now, let’s consider the bigger picture beyond education. For “reverse racism,” or racism against white people, to exist in the U.S., we would first have to reach racial equality in systemic and structural ways. We would have to pay reparations to make up for centuries upon centuries of unjust impoverishment. We would have to equalize wealth distribution and achieve equal political representation. We would have to see equal representation across all job sectors and educational institutions. We would have to abolish racist policing, judicial, and incarceration systems. And, we would have to eradicate ideological, interactional, and representational racism.

Then, and only then, might people of color be in a position to limit access to resources, rights, and privileges on the basis of whiteness. Which is to say, “reverse racism” does not exist in the United States. 

*I base these statements on 2012 U.S. Census population data, and compare the category “White alone, not Hispanic or Latino” to the White/Caucasian category used by the Chronicle of Higher Education. I collapsed the Chronicle’s data for Mexican-American/Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Other Latino into a total percentage, which I compared to the Census category “Hispanic or Latino.”