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Reverse racism, sometimes referred to as 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 most scholars argue constitute an essential component of racism.
Allegations of reverse racism by opponents of affirmative action began to emerge 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 in relation to various expressions of hostility, prejudice or discrimination 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. Sociologist Ellis Cashmore writes that the terms reverse racism and reverse discrimination misleadingly imply that racism is only a question of beliefs and prejudices, ignoring the material relations between different groups. According to sociologist Rutledge Dennis, individual members of minority groups in the United States "may be racists" toward white people, but cannot wield institutional power or shape the opportunities available to the majority as the majority does in relation to minorities.
Concerns that the advancement of African Americans might cause harm to White Americans date back as far as the Reconstruction Era in the context of debates over providing reparations for slavery. 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.
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. In his 1975 book Affirmative Discrimination, sociologist Nathan Glazer described affirmative action as a kind of reverse racism. 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. 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. Ansell associates the idea of reverse racism with that of the "angry white male" in American politics.
The perception of decreasing anti-black discrimination has been correlated with white people's belief in rising anti-white discrimination. 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. Researchers at Tufts University and Harvard report that as of the early 2010s many white Americans feel as though they suffer the greatest discrimination among racial groups, despite data to the contrary. Whereas black respondents see anti-black racism as a continuing problem, white ones tend to think it has largely disappeared, to the point that they see prejudice against white people as being more prevalent. 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.
According to Ansell, conservatives in the U.S. believe 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".
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 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". Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls the "anti–affirmative action and 'reverse racism' mentality" that has become dominant since the 1980s part of a "mean-spirited white racial animus". He argues that this results from a new dominant ideology of "color-blind racism", which treats racial inequality as a thing of the past, thereby allowing it to continue by opposing concrete efforts at reform.
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)
The concept of reverse racism has been used by some white South Africans concerned about "reverse apartheid" following the end of white-supremacist rule. Affirmative action in South Africa's white-dominated civil service was also met with charges of "reverse racism".
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)
- "[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)
- "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)
- Ansell, Amy Elizabeth (2013). Race and Ethnicity: The Key Concepts. Routledge. pp. 135–136. ISBN 978-0-415-33794-6.
- Garner, Steve (2017). Racisms: An Introduction (2nd ed.). London: SAGE Publications. p. 185. ISBN 978-1-5264-1285-0.
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- Cashmore, Ellis, ed. (2004). "Reverse Racism/Discrimination". Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies. Routledge. p. 373. ISBN 978-1-13-444706-0.
- Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo (2010). Racism Without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (3rd ed.). Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 211. ISBN 978-1-4422-0218-4.
- Ansell (2013), pp. 17, 137.
- Ansell (2013), p. 137.
- Mazzocco (2017), p. 23.
- Blauner, Bob (2022). Black Lives, White Lives Three Decades of Race Relations in America. University of California Press. pp. 377–378. ISBN 978-0-5203-8602-0.
- Ansell (2013), pp. 4, 46.
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- Massie, Victoria M. (June 29, 2016). "Americans are split on "reverse racism". That still doesn't mean it exists". Vox. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
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- Fletcher, Michael A. (October 8, 2014). "Whites think discrimination against whites is a bigger problem than bias against blacks". The Washington Post.
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- Norton & Sommers, quoted in Garner (2017, p. 185)
- Ansell (2013), p. 17.
- Mazzocco (2017), p. 85.
- Wilkins, C. L.; Kaiser, C. R. (2013). "Racial Progress as Threat to the Status Hierarchy: Implications for Perceptions of Anti-White Bias". Psychological Science. 25 (2): 439–46. doi:10.1177/0956797613508412. PMID 24343099. S2CID 6934961.
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- Fish, quoted in Pincus, Fred L. (2003). Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth. Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-1-58-826203-5.
- Garner (2017), p. 186.
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[A]ffirmative action and black economic empowerment were controversial and often misrepresented. In a society in which the greater majority of desk and management jobs were held by whites, there was a clear need for action to move towards a more level job market. Yet many whites have persisted in claiming 'reverse racism'.
- MacGregor, Karen (March 24, 1995). "Mandela slams 'reverse racism'". Times Higher Education. London. ISSN 0049-3929.
- Sinclair, Abiola (September 16, 1995). "Media Watch: All is not well, disappointments, racial clashes". New York Amsterdam News. p. 26. ISSN 1059-1818.
The students maintained that the university was living in the apartheid past with the upper echelons reserved for whites. The students are demanding that some jobs be reserved for Blacks. AZASM had denied the charge of reverse racism. They maintain it is unfair for thousands of Black teachers to be out of work while white teachers sit up in good jobs in Black schools.
- Polgreen, Lydia (July 27, 2003). "For Mixed-Race South Africans, Equity Is Elusive". The New York Times. Archived from the original on March 31, 2013.
- Harman, Dana (September 26, 2002). "South Africans try to 'beat' a segregated past". Christian Science Monitor. p. 1. ISSN 2166-3262.
But old feelings die hard, and some groups – in particular the Afrikaner and Indian minorities – even complain that they are now being targeted by a reverse racism.
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- Anderson, Kristin J. (2010). "'Affirmative Action is reverse racism': The myth of merit". Benign Bigotry: The Psychology of Subtle Prejudice. Cambridge University Press. pp. 278–334. ISBN 978-0-52-187835-7.
- Ansell, Amy Elizabeth (1997). New Right, New Racism: Race and Reaction in the United States and Britain. London: Macmillan. pp. 132–138. ISBN 0-33-364945-1.
- Chang, Robert S. (1996). "Reverse Racism!: Affirmative Action, the Family, and the Dream That Is America" (PDF). Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly. 23 (4): 1115–34. ISSN 0094-5617.
- Dennis, Rutledge M. (1996). "Racism". In Kuper, Adam; Kuper, Jessica (eds.). The social science encyclopedia (2nd ed.). London: Routledge. pp. 715–717. ISBN 0-415-10829-2.
- Fish, Stanley (November 1993). "Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black". The Atlantic.
- Song, Miri (March 2014). "Challenging a culture of racial equivalence". The British Journal of Sociology. 65 (1): 107–29. doi:10.1111/1468-4446.12054. PMID 24697716.
- Suiter, Tad (2016). "Reverse Racism: A Discursive History". In Kiuchi, Yuya (ed.). Race Still Matters: The Reality of African American Lives and the Myth of Postracial Society. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press. ISBN 978-1-43-846273-8.
- "What Does Reverse Racism Mean?". Politics Dictionary. Dictionary.com.
- Brown, Michael K. (2010). "Race". In Valelly, Richard M. (ed.). Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History, Volume 7: The Clash of Conservatism and Liberalism, 1976 to Present. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press. p. 318. ISBN 978-1-60-426647-4.
- List of cases involving allegations of reverse discrimination, U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission