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Does Reverse Racism Exist?

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Updated January 20, 2010

Acts of racism makes newspaper headlines daily. Take the Associated Press, which recently reported that a federal judge ruled that the New York City Fire Department systematically discriminated against black firefighters. Just 350, or 3%, of the department's 11,500 firefighters are black. In other news, a 19-year-old from Arkansas just pled guilty to plotting to kill dozens of African Americans, most notably President Barack Obama. But what about so-called reverse racism? What are some examples of this phenomenon, and what's the best way to define it? Is reverse racism even real?

Defining Reverse Racism

Reverse racism refers to discrimination against whites, usually in the form of programs meant to advance ethnic minorities such as affirmative action. Anti-racist activists in the U.S. have largely deemed reverse racism to be impossible, as the power structure of the United States has historically benefited whites and continues to do so today, despite the election of a black president. Such activists argue that the definition of racism isn't just one individual's belief that a certain race is superior to others but that defining racism also includes institutional oppression.

Explains white anti-racist activist Tim Wise in "A Look at the Myth of Reverse Racism":

"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. What are they going to do next: deny you a bank loan? Yeah, right."

In the Jim Crow South, for example, police officers, bus drivers, educators and other agents of the state worked in tandem to maintain segregation, and, thus, racism against people of color. While ethnic minorities during this time may have harbored ill will towards Caucasians, they lacked the power to adversely affect whites' lives. On the other hand, the very fate of people of color is determined by institutions that have traditionally discriminated against them. This explains, in part, why an African American who has committed a certain crime is likely to receive a stiffer sentence than a white person who committed an identical crime.

What Makes White Racism Distinct?

Because American institutions haven't traditionally been anti-white, the argument that whites can be truly victimized by reverse racism is difficult to make. Still, the assertion that reverse racism exists has persisted since the late 20th century when the government implemented widespread programs to make up for historic discrimination against ethnic minorities. In 1994, Time magazine ran an article about a small minority of Afro-centrists known as "melanists" who posit that those with an abundance of dark skin pigment, or melanin, are more humane and superior to lighter-skinned people, not to mention prone to having paranormal powers such as ESP and psychokinesis. The idea that one group of people is superior to another based on skin color certainly fits the dictionary definition of racism. Yet, the melanists had no institutional power to spread their message or subjugate lighter-skinned people based on their racist beliefs. Moreover, because the melanists spread their message in predominantly black settings, it's likely that few whites even heard their racist message, let alone suffered because of it. Melanists lacked the institutional influence to oppress whites with their ideology.

"What separates white racism from any other form …is [its] ability…to become lodged in the minds of and perceptions of the citizenry," Wise explains. "White perceptions are what end up counting in a white-dominated society. If whites say Indians are savages, then by God, they'll be seen as savages. If Indians say whites are mayonnaise-eating Amway salespeople, who the hell is going to care?"

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