When Institutions Favor Ethnic Minorities Over Whites
If we include institutional power in the definition of racism, it’s virtually impossible to argue that reverse racism exists. But as institutions attempt to compensate ethnic minorities for the racism of the past via affirmative action programs and similar policies, whites have experienced discrimination. In June 2009, for instance, white firefighters from New Haven, Conn., won a “reverse discrimination” Supreme Court case. The suit stemmed from the fact that white firefighters who excelled on a qualifying test to receive promotions were prevented from moving up because their colleagues of color had not performed so well. Rather than allow the white firefighters to promote, the city of New Haven dismissed the test results for fear that minority firefighters would sue if they weren’t also promoted.
Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the events in New Haven amounted to racial discrimination against whites because the city would not have refused to promote black firefighters if their white counterparts had performed poorly on the qualifying exam.
The Case for Diversity Initiatives
Not all whites who find themselves excluded as institutions try to right past wrongs feel victimized. In a piece for The Atlantic called “Reverse Racism, or How the Pot Got to Call the Kettle Black,” legal scholar Stanley Fish described being ruled out of an administrative position at a university when the powers-that-be decided that a woman or ethnic minority would be a better candidate for the job.
“Although I was disappointed, I did not conclude that the situation was ‘unfair,’ because the policy was obviously… not intended to disenfranchise white males. Rather, the policy was driven by other considerations, and it was only as a by-product of those considerations—not as the main goal—that white males like me were rejected. Given that the institution in question has a high percentage of minority students, a very low percentage of minority faculty, and an even lower percentage of minority administrators, it made perfect sense to focus on women and minority candidates, and within that sense, not as the result of prejudice, my whiteness and maleness became disqualifications.”
Fish argues that whites who find themselves excluded when white institutions try to diversify mustn’t protest. Exclusion when the goal is not racism but an attempt to level the playing field can’t compare to the centuries of racial subjugation that people of color experienced in U.S. society. Ultimately, this kind of exclusion serves the greater good of eradicating racism and its legacy, Fish points out.
Does reverse racism exist? Not according to the antiracist definition of racism. This definition includes institutional power and not just the prejudices of a lone individual. As institutions which have historically benefited whites attempt to diversify, however, they sometimes favor ethnic minorities over whites. Their purpose in doing so is to right the wrongs of the past and the present against minority groups. But as institutions embrace multiculturalism, they are still forbidden by the 14th Amendment from directly discriminating against any racial group, including whites. Thus, while institutions engage in minority outreach, they must do so in a way that doesn’t unjustly penalize whites for their skin color alone.