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Mining the depths of “reverse racism”

A version of this post appears at Phil Ferguson’s ‘Skeptic Money’ blog.

In the past I have spoken, a couple of times actually, about the phenomenon of “regression to the mean”. Basically, this describes the process where repeated observations tend to distribute around the average value. Extreme values – those that lie far away from the average – tend to ‘move’ toward the middle. However, if you’re looking from the perspective of this extreme value, it might look like movement toward the middle is you losing something. It’s a completely understandable misapprehension, borne from a lack of ability to see the full field from any perspective other than your own (also known as privilege).

I’ve talked about this issue in terms of religious privilege – the mistaken belief that religious people are being “persecuted” when secular authority insists on enforcing laws equally for everyone, instead of giving the majority religious group their accustomed preferential treatment. However, it’s easier to spot this phenomenon in the case of what is called “reverse racism”. My problem with this term is twofold: first, it makes the assumption that “racism” is from white people to people of colour (PoCs), and anything else is the “reverse” of normal; second, it’s patently ridiculous. While it is undoubtedly true that white people face racial discrimination at an individual level, they still comprise the majority group in this part of the world (and hold a great deal of power in others).

And yet, whenever one talks about any step being taken to either treat white people according to the same standard that everyone else is treated, or to allow targeted preferential treatment for marginalized ethnic groups, the cry of “reverse racism” goes up, and it appears to have taken deep root in the common psyche:

Whites believe that they have replaced blacks as the primary victims of racial discrimination in contemporary America, according to a new study from researchers at Tufts University’s School of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Business School. The findings, say the authors, show that America has not achieved the “post-racial” society that some predicted in the wake of Barack Obama’s election.

Both whites and blacks agree that anti-black racism has decreased over the last 60 years, according to the study. However, whites believe that anti-white racism has increased and is now a bigger problem than anti-black racism.

I’m going to be honest with you: I didn’t think that the average person was this dumb. Given what we know about rates of incarceration, employment, home ownership, relative wealth, and proposed legislations that disproportionately target PoCs, I thought for sure that people would realize that it’s still a burden to be dark-skinned in the United States. However, it seems as though white America (if you’ll forgive the term) has bought wholesale into the idea that, despite all indications, they are the group most discriminated against.

It is centrally important to note that this about perceived racial discrimination, not observed. This cannot be used to demonstrate the actual existence of racism against white people, let alone to the extent that it outweighs racism against blacks or latinos. These kinds of findings are useful only in understanding what the public perception of a phenomenon is – not the strength of the phenomenon. We should be, and have reason to be, extremely skeptical of the claim that white people are the most discriminated against ethnic group – they disproportionately represent the political and economic power in the United States, and it would be quite something if that’s somehow completely reversed out among ‘the little people’.

Perhaps the most interesting and potentially revealing finding from the study, and potentially a place where work can be done, is this:

Both within each decade and across time, White respondents were more likely to see decreases in bias against Blacks as related to increases in bias against Whites—consistent with a zero- sum view of racism among Whites—whereas Blacks were less likely to see the two as linked.

Whereas both groups tended to see anti-black discrimination decreasing over the years, blacks saw this as the two groups getting closer together. Whites, on the other hand, seem to view any improvement of non-white groups as taking ‘their’ resources away. In essence, there have to be winners and losers in the game of life, and if black people are getting closer to winning then whites must be losing by definition.

The problem with this type of reasoning is that it is entirely possible for groups to grow and improve together. A higher rate of, for example, black home ownership means a reduction in crime, improvements in education, and increased entrepreneurship. This means a stronger economy, as white and black consumers alike begin innovating and producing more wealth. Having a large group of poor black people means not only that racial groups stay segregated, but that the status quo of black people on the bottom remains (with all the negative aspects associated with that).

It is entirely possible that minority ethnic groups have become more vocal in their criticism of white people. Most of this criticism comes in the form that you see here – description of phenomena that fall along racial lines that are not due to inherent genetic differences between groups but where those trivial genetic differences collide with social structures. Some of this is due to the fact that PoCs are less afraid of speaking up and becoming politically active. Some of it, to be sure, is legitimate anti-white racism based on resentment or misunderstandings of history or whatever dumb reasons anyone has to be racist.

However, the mere existence of legitimate anti-white racism does not grant the majority group the victim status. What we’re seeing is the idea of “reverse racism” coming to full fruition – white people aren’t supposed to be discriminated against, and therefore any discrimination is the worst thing that’s ever happened. Hopefully by learning to re-frame racial issues in terms of mutual benefit for all groups, we can begin to finally do away with this oh-so-stupid of ideas.

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