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Reverse racism

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Reverse racism or reverse discrimination is a concept that portrays affirmative action in the United States and similar color-conscious programs as a form of anti-white racism on the part of black people and government agencies; it is commonly associated with conservative opposition to such programs.[1] The concept has also been used to characterize various expressions of hostility or indifference toward white people by members of minority groups.[2]

There is little to no empirical evidence to support the idea of reverse racism.[3][4][5] Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States generally lack the power to damage the interests of white people, who remain the dominant group.[6] 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.[2][7]

Allegations of reverse racism by opponents of affirmative-action policies began to emerge prominently in the 1970s.[8] In the early 21st century, belief in reverse racism is widespread in the United States, despite a lack of supporting evidence.[5][6] 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. Allegations of reverse racism therefore form part of a racial backlash against gains by people of colour.[9]

In the United States

Civil rights

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. 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.[1]

Disparities in the exercise of power and authority are seen by scholars as an essential component of racism. In this view, isolated examples of favoring disadvantaged people over more privileged ones cannot constitute actual racism.[7] 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.[10]

The term "reverse racism" came into use as the struggle for African-American rights divided the white community. In 1966, Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), publicly accused members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of reverse racism in their efforts to exclude or expel white people from local government in Alabama to make room for black people. Williams argued the SNCC's intended "all-black" campaign in Alabama would drive white moderates out of the civil rights movement.[11] "Black racism" was a more common term in this era, used to describe SNCC and groups like the Black Panthers.[12][better source needed]

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.[8] Despite affirmative-action programs' successes in reducing racial inequality, conservative opponents claim 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.[13]

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.[3] Claims of reverse racism in the early 21st century tend to rely on anecdotes of isolated instances, often based on third- or fourth-hand reports, of a white person losing a job to a black person, for example; however, racial minorities in the United States generally lack the power to deny opportunities to white people as a group.[6] 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".[14]

Public attitudes

While not empirically supported, the belief in reverse racism is widespread in the United States.[5] Whites' belief in reverse racism has steadily increased since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The terms reverse racism and reverse discrimination initially arose in the 1970s in opposition to affirmative action and race-based policies that benefited minorities at the expense of whites. Despite data to the contrary, many whites in the early 21st century believe that anti-white racism is more prevalent than anti-black racism.[15]

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.[16] In Racism without Racists, the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that such "color-blind racism" leads whites to dismiss efforts to redress inequality as being racist "in reverse".[4][17] According to University of Kent sociologist Miri Song, "assertions of reverse racism often fail to consider the historically specific ways in which racial hierarchies and inequalities were institutionalized."[18]

Paul Kivel writes in Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice that instances of reverse racism are generally rare, and that many claims of reverse discrimination lack merit. According to Kivel, charges of reverse racism are "usually a white strategy to deny white racism and to counterattack attempts to promote racial justice".[19] Reverse racism is also said[by whom?] to deny the existence of white privilege and power in society.[20]


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.[5][21][22]

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.[23][24]

A 2013 study found that priming white people with status-legitimizing beliefs—which include the belief that anyone can become successful if they work hard enough—led white people to be more supportive of others who claimed they were victims of anti-white racism.[25]

A 2014 study by the same research team showed that white Americans who think the U.S. status hierarchy is legitimate (i.e. that those who are successful have earned their success) are more likely to think that anti-white racism exists.[26]


The Supreme Court held in 2003 that racial preferences in university admissions for minority students do not necessarily violate Equal Protection in cases such as Grutter v. Bollinger. The term gained widespread use in debates and legal actions concerning affirmative action in the United States.[27]

In 2016, the Supreme Court held in Fisher v. University of Texas that affirmative action as practiced by the University of Texas at Austin was lawful.[28]

Affirmative action in the courts

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).[23]

In South Africa

The term has been used actively by both black and white South Africans after the end of apartheid. Accusations of reverse racism have been leveled particularly at government efforts to transform the demographics of South Africa's white-dominated civil service.[29]

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.[30] Students denied Mandela's claim and argued that a great deal of ongoing actual racism persisted from apartheid.[31]

Mandela was later himself charged with reverse racism, during 1997 proceedings of the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission[32] and for supporting the 1998 Employment Equity Bill.[33][34]

Mixed-race South Africans have also sometimes claimed to be victimized by reverse racism of the new government.[35] 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.[36]

Claims of reverse racism continued into the 21st century. Helen Suzman, a prominent white anti-apartheid politician, charged the African National Congress and the Mbeki administration with reverse racism since Mandela's departure in 1999.[37]

South African critics of the "reverse racism" concept use similar arguments as those employed by Americans.[38]


  1. ^ a b Ansell, Amy Elizabeth (2013). Race and Ethnicity: The Key Concepts. Routledge. pp. 46, 135–6. ISBN 978-0-415-33794-6.
  2. ^ a b Cashmore, Ellis, ed. (2004). "Reverse Racism/Discrimination". Encyclopedia of Race and Ethnic Studies. Routledge. p. 373. ISBN 978-1-13-444706-0.
  3. ^ a b Ansell (2013), p. 137.
  4. ^ a b Garner, Steve (2017). Racisms: An Introduction (2nd ed.). Los Angeles, Calif.: SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-41-296176-9. Scholars should reflect on the objectives of using such a concept [as reverse racism] as a political strategy, but should not discount it from analysis just because it is not borne out as an empirical phenomenon.
  5. ^ a b c d Spanierman, Lisa; Cabrera, Nolan (2014). "The Emotions of White Racism and Antiracism". In Watson, V.; Howard-Wagner, D.; Spanierman, L. Unveiling Whiteness in the Twenty-First Century: Global Manifestations, Transdisciplinary Interventions. Lexington Books. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-73-919297-9.
  6. ^ a b c Dennis, R.M. (2004). "Racism". In Kuper, A.; Kuper, J. The Social Science Encyclopedia, Volume 2 (3rd ed.). London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 1-13-435969-1.
  7. ^ a b Yee, June Ying (2008). "Racism, Types of". In Shaefer, Richard T. Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society. SAGE. pp. 1118–19. ISBN 978-1-41-292694-2.
  8. ^ a b Ansell (2013), p. 136.
  9. ^ Ansell (2013), pp. 17, 137.
  10. ^ Ansell (2013), pp. 4, 46.
  11. ^ "Strife on Two Civil Rights Fronts in Alabama: SNCC is Scored by King Group". Chicago Daily Defender. April 25, 1966. p. 1. The move was called 'reverse racism' by Hosea Williams, Southern program director for King's Southern Christian Leadership conference. He described the effort to exclude all whites from public office as being as racist as excluding all blacks. It isn't integration, he indicated, and it isn't likely — in the long run — to help cure the nation's number one headache.
  12. ^ Sustar, Lee (October 12, 2012). "The fallacy of 'reverse racism'". Socialist Worker.
  13. ^ McBride, David (2005). "Affirmative Action". In Carlisle, Rodney P. Encyclopedia of Politics: The Left and The Right, Volume 1: The Left. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications. p. 8. ISBN 978-1-41-290409-4.
  14. ^ Quoted in Pincus, Fred L. (2003). Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth. Lynne Rienner Publishers. pp. 68–69. ISBN 978-1-58-826203-5.
  15. ^ Newkirk, Vann R. II (August 5, 2017). "How The Myth of Reverse Racism Drives the Affirmative Action Debate". The Atlantic. Retrieved March 18, 2018.
  16. ^ Pinder, Sherrow O. (2015). Colorblindness, Post-raciality, and Whiteness in the United States. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-13-743488-3.
  17. ^ Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo (2010). Racism without Racists: Color-blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (3rd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield. p. 263. ISBN 978-1-44-220217-7.
  18. ^ 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.
  19. ^ Kivel, Paul (2011). Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice (3rd ed.). New Society Publishers. pp. 74–75. ISBN 978-0-86571-688-9.
  20. ^ Hill, Jane H. (2011). The Everyday Language of White Racism. John Wiley & Sons. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-4443-5669-4.
  21. ^ Fletcher, Michael A. (October 8, 2014). "Whites think discrimination against whites is a bigger problem than bias against blacks". The Washington Post.
  22. ^ Ingraham, Christopher (August 2, 2017). "White Trump voters think they face more discrimination than blacks. The Trump administration is listening". The Washington Post.
  23. ^ a b Norton, Michael I.; Sommers, Samuel R. (2011). "Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing" (PDF). Perspectives on Psychological Science. 6 (3): 215–18. doi:10.1177/1745691611406922. PMID 26168512. Lay summaryTuftsNow (May 23, 2011).
  24. ^ Norton, Michael I.; Sommers, Samuel R. (May 23, 2011). "Jockeying for Stigma". The New York Times.
  25. ^ Wilkins, Clara L.; Wellman, Joseph D.; Kaiser, Cheryl R. (November 2013). "Status legitimizing beliefs predict positivity toward Whites who claim anti-White bias". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 49 (6): 1114–19. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2013.05.017.
  26. ^ 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.
  27. ^ Sanneh, Kelefah (August 10, 2009). "Discriminating Tastes". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on November 13, 2012.
  28. ^ Massie, Victoria M. (June 29, 2016). "Americans are split on "reverse racism". That still doesn't mean it exists". Vox. Retrieved September 18, 2016.
  29. ^ Susan de Villiers and Stefan Simanowitz, "South Africa: The ANC at 100", Contemporary Review 294, March 2012; accessed via ProQuest, November 6, 2015.
  30. ^ Karen MacGregor, "Mandela slams 'reverse racism'", Times Higher Education", March 24, 1995.
  31. ^ Abiola Sinclair, "MEDIA WATCH: All is not well, disappointments, racial clashes", New York Amsterdam News, September 16, 1995; accessed via ProQuest. "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."
  32. ^ Dean Murphy, "Apartheid-Era Leader Defies Subpoena; S. Africa: Truth commission urges contempt charges against former President Pieter W. Botha", The Washington Post, December 20, 1997; accessed via ProQuest. "The move to charge Botha is particularly sensitive because it comes just days after President Nelson Mandela, in a racially charged address to the ruling African National Congress, harshly criticized white South Africans for protecting their positions of privilege and doing little to reconcile with the black majority. The speech, hailed as accurate by blacks, brought calls of reverse racism from many whites."
  33. ^ Mutume, Gumisai (April 3, 1993). "Racism Spoils It for New Democracy". Inter-Press Service.
  34. ^ Kate Dunn, "Mandela Hits White Wealth", The Christian Science Monitor, February 26, 1998.
  35. ^ Polgreen, Lydia (July 27, 2003). "For Mixed-Race South Africans, Equity Is Elusive". The New York Times. Archived from the original on November 13, 2012.
  36. ^ Danna Harman, "South Africans try to 'beat' a segregated past", The Christian Science Monitor, September 26, 2002.
  37. ^ Scott Calvert, "Against apartheid, at odds with blacks", The Baltimore Sun, May 14, 2004.
  38. ^ Dalamba, Yolisa (2000). "Towards An African Renaissance: Identity, Race And Representation In Post-Apartheid South Africa". Journal of Cultural Studies. 2 (1): 40–61. doi:10.4314/jcs.v2i1.6231. Retrieved November 6, 2015.

Further reading