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Reverse racism or reverse discrimination is the concept that affirmative action and similar color-conscious programs for redressing racial inequality are a form of anti-white racism. The concept is often associated with conservative social movements and the belief that social and economic gains by black people in the United States and elsewhere cause disadvantages for white people.
Belief in reverse racism is widespread in the United States; however, there is little to no empirical evidence that white Americans suffer systemic discrimination.[Note 1] Racial and ethnic minorities generally lack the power to damage the interests of whites, who remain the dominant group in the U.S. Claims of reverse racism tend to ignore such disparities in the exercise of power and authority, which scholars argue constitute an essential component of racism.
Allegations of reverse racism by opponents of affirmative-action policies began to emerge prominently in the 1970s and have formed part of a racial backlash against social gains by people of color. While the U.S. dominates the debate over the issue, the concept of reverse racism has been used internationally to some extent wherever white supremacy has diminished, such as in post-apartheid South Africa.
The concept of reverse racism in the United States is commonly associated with conservative opposition to color-conscious policies aimed at addressing racial inequality, such as affirmative action. Amy E. Ansell of Emerson College identifies three main claims about reverse racism: (1) that government programs to redress racial inequality create "invisible victims" in white men; (2) that racial preferences violate the individual right of equal protection before the law; and (3) that color consciousness itself prevents moving beyond the legacy of racism. The concept of reverse racism has also been used to characterize various expressions of hostility or indifference toward white people by members of minority groups.
While there has been little empirical study on the subject of reverse racism, the few existing studies have found little evidence that white males, in particular, are victimized by affirmative-action programs. Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States generally lack the power to damage the interests of white people, who remain the dominant group. Relations between the groups have been historically shaped by European imperialism and long-standing oppression of blacks by whites. Such disparities in the exercise of power and authority are seen by scholars as an essential component of racism; in this view, individual beliefs and examples of favoring disadvantaged people do not constitute racism.
Allegations of reverse racism emerged prominently in the 1970s, building on the racially color-blind view that any preferential treatment linked to membership in a racial group was morally wrong. Where past race-conscious policies such as Jim Crow have been used to maintain white supremacy, modern programs such as affirmative action aim to reduce racial inequality. Despite affirmative-action programs' successes in doing so, conservative opponents claimed that such programs constituted a form of anti-white racism. This view was boosted by the Supreme Court's decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), which said that racial quotas for minority students were discriminatory toward white people.
While not empirically supported, belief in reverse racism is widespread in the United States, where it has contributed to the rise of conservative social movements such as the Tea Party. Claims of reverse racism in the early 21st century tend to rely on individual anecdotes, often based on third- or fourth-hand reports, such as of a white person losing a job to a black person. Ansell associates the idea of reverse racism with that of the "angry white male" in American politics. White people’s belief in reverse racism has steadily increased since the civil rights movement of the 1960s as part of a backlash against government actions meant to remedy racial discrimination.
The perception of decreasing anti-black discrimination has been correlated with white people’s belief in rising anti-white discrimination. Researchers at Tufts University and Harvard reported in 2011 that many white Americans felt as though they then suffered the greatest discrimination among racial groups, despite data to the contrary. Whereas black respondents saw anti-black racism as a continuing problem, white ones tended to see such racism as a thing of the past, to the point that they saw prejudice against white people as being more prevalent. The authors wrote that among white respondents since the 1990s:
Whites have replaced Blacks as the primary victims of discrimination. This emerging perspective is particularly notable because by nearly any metric [...] statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for Black than White Americans.
Conservatives in the U.S. maintain that affirmative action based on membership in a designated racial group threatens the American system of individualism and meritocracy. Psychological studies with white Americans have shown belief in anti-white racism to be linked with support for the existing racial hierarchy in the U.S. as well as the meritocratic belief that success comes from "hard work". A majority (57%) of white respondents to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute said they believed discrimination against white people was as significant a problem as discrimination against black people, while only a minority of African Americans (29%) and Hispanics (38%) agreed.
The critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg argues that the notion of reverse racism represents a denial of the historical and contemporary reality of racial discrimination, while the anthropologist Jane H. Hill writes that charges of reverse racism tend to deny the existence of white privilege and power in society. In Racism without Racists, the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that white people's perceptions of reverse racism result from what he calls the new dominant ideology of "color-blind racism", which treats racial inequality as a thing of the past, and therefore allows it to continue by opposing concrete efforts at reform. In a widely reprinted article, legal scholar Stanley Fish wrote that "'Reverse racism' is a cogent description of affirmative action only if one considers the cancer of racism to be morally and medically indistinguishable from the therapy we apply to it".
Legal challenges concerning so-called "reverse racism" date back as far as the 1970s as asserted in such cases as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke; Gratz v. Bollinger; and Grutter v. Bollinger (regarding discrimination in higher education admissions) and Ricci v. DeStefano (regarding employment discrimination). The idea of reverse racism later gained widespread use in debates and legal actions concerning affirmative action in the United States.
This section may lend undue weight to individual allegations of reverse racism rather than the broader social impact of the term/concept. (March 2019) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
The concept of reverse racism has been used by some white South Africans concerned about "reverse apartheid" following the end of white-supremacist rule. Accusations of reverse racism have been leveled particularly at government efforts to transform the demographics of South Africa's white-dominated civil service.[verification needed]
Nelson Mandela in 1995 described "racism in reverse" when Black students demonstrated in favor of changing the racial makeup of staff at South African universities. Students denied Mandela's claim and argued that a great deal of ongoing actual racism persisted from apartheid.
Mixed-race South Africans have also sometimes claimed to be victimized by reverse racism of the new government. Similar accusations have been leveled by Indian and Afrikaner groups, who feel that they have not been dominant historically but now suffer from discrimination by the government.
- "Not much sober empirical study has been applied to the subject, but the studies that do exist find little evidence that reverse racism in fact exists." (Ansell 2013, p. 137)
- "While there is no empirical basis for white people experiencing 'reverse racism', this view is held by a large number of Americans." (Spanierman & Cabrera 2014, p. 16)
- "[T]here is no evidence that [reverse racism] is a social fact, or that a pattern of disadvantageous outcomes for white people qua white people exists." (Garner 2017, p. 185)
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- List of cases involving allegations of reverse discrimination, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission