Reversed racism is a controversial contention in which members of a dominant racial group allege racism and discrimination targeted toward them by, or on behalf of, a subordinate or minority racial group. That is, members of a dominant racial group contend that they are being victimized on the basis of their race. Reversed racism can be considered to be a subclass of reversed discrimination, in which members of any majority group feel discriminated against by a minority group, as in, for example, reversed sexism or reversed ageism. As with other forms of reversed discrimination, individuals, groups, or governments can practice reversed racism. In the history of the United States the dominant racial group has been White people. The concept of reversed racism entails White people alleging that they are discriminated against by virtue of being White. For example, a White individual may feel that African Americans are given preferential treatment in hiring or admission criteria and thus allege that those preferences constitute reversed racism.
The concept of reversed racism has been highly controversial, with some scholars debating the validity of the construct. For some, a key component of the definition of racism entails the recognition of the socioeconomic power to put racist beliefs into action in a systemic way. This definition of racism explicitly focuses on the power differential between Whites and racial minorities. Although persons of color may hold prejudices, they lack political, economic, and societal power, and consequently, according to this definition racial minorities, on the whole, lack the power to be racist. Further undermining the concept of reversed racism is the fact that many question the construct of race itself. For example, some scholars contend that race is a social construction that lacks a scientific basis and exists primarily to preserve power and privilege. Therefore, if racism is a social construction, then under a social constructionist definition, reversed racism is also a social construction that ultimately serves to protect and preserve the power of the dominant racial group. Often underlying the issue of race in the United States is the concept of racial salience—the belief that race is an essential part of identity of racial minorities and a nonessential, optional, and unspoken part of the identity of Whites. As a result, when racial minorities seek to overtly address the issue of racism, they are often labeled racist or as practicing reversed racism or labeled as “race baiters.”
While some may question the legitimacy and basis of reversed racism, the term seems to have prominently entered the public discourse in many arenas. For example, to address past racial discrimination and current systemic inequities in health, education, and employment, there may be a need to provide access to health care, jobs, and education previously denied to racial minorities. Such attempts to “level the playing field” mitigate the inherent advantages and privileges of White people. Systemic attempts to provide access and opportunity to racial minorities are often targeted on a systemic level yet may be perceived on an individual level by an individual White person who feels he or she personally has been denied a position or opportunity given to racial minority. Consequently, the individual may present a challenge based on the allegation of reversed racism, frequently seeking a legal remedy. An issue that is often overlooked is that the allegation of reversed racism may emanate from racist beliefs. That is, some White individuals may (consciously or not) endorse racist beliefs in the inherent superiority of Whites and resulting inferiority of other racial groups and therefore may interpret the success of racial minorities as possible only through means of reverse racism. This type of circular reasoning is self-reinforcing.
Federal affirmative action programs and university admissions have often been the flashpoints for allegations of reversed racism. Implemented in 1965 under the Johnson administration, affirmative action programs were created to ensure that qualified women and racial minorities had opportunities of which they had historically been denied and that they were given equal access to educational and employment opportunities. The legislation has been criticized and incorrectly interpreted as a program that maintains a strict quota system and provides racial minorities with preferential treatment to employment, education, and housing opportunities, while excluding or preventing Whites from achieving such positions. Federal Equal Employment Opportunity laws have also been challenged in a similar manner. These allegations and the resulting litigation popularized the notion of reversed racism. Although the debate over affirmative action and Equal Employment Opportunity legislation has been cast in terms of reversed racism, often overlooked is the fact that the main beneficiaries of such programs have been White women.
Education is another arena against which the allegations of reversed racism have been leveled. Admissions policies and race-based scholarships, in particular, have come under fire. Courts have made it clear that quotas cannot be used in selecting applicants, and increasingly the courts have ruled against race as the determining factor in admissions. The University of Michigan was in the national spotlight in 1997 when it had to defend its admissions policy. Rather than defend the presence of racial minorities as a remedy to past discrimination, Michigan successfully made the case that diversity was in the best interest of all students and necessary for optimal learning. Race-based scholarships and programs have also been challenged, with several states having to disband programs or scholarships or open them to all applicants, regardless of race. Although many focus solely on the negative impact of the allegation of reversed racism (e.g., drastically lowered racial minority enrollments in higher education in California), there may have been some positive impact as well. By having to defend admissions policies and commitment to diversity, colleges and universities may have been forced to consider the essential need for diversity rather than rely on programs that may have inadvertently created an atmosphere of tokenism. In addition, a positive impact has been the focus on rural and economically disadvantaged Whites as a group in need of attention from colleges and universities.
Concerns over reversed racism are not confined to the educational and employment arenas; often the media are criticized for practicing reversed racism. For example, the National Council of La Raza and Latino/as protesting U.S. immigration policies has been accused by some in the media of practicing reversed racism in their advocacy of undocumented Latinos/as. Often in the media, attempts by racial minorities to display racial pride are interpreted as reversed racism or equated to overt White racism such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Counselors may deal with the allegations of reversed racism as part of their work with marginalized or oppressed groups in the larger community, or they may encounter statements endorsing reversed racism in individual and group therapy. Counselors may need to keep in mind that a belief in reversed racism may be indicative of a level of racial identity development in an individual. For White clients a stated belief in reversed racism may be indicative of early stages (also termed statuses to reflect the dynamic and fluid nature of identity) of racial identity development (e.g., contact and reintegration) in which the client endorses a belief that race is not important and that U.S. society is fair or neutral on the subject of race. Consequently, the client may be willing to equate acts or statements about racism as having equal impact regardless of the race of the people involved. Some White clients may have experienced or perceived racism or discrimination targeted toward them and, as a result, may have considerable anger and become entrenched in racist beliefs as a matter of self-protection. The counselor’s challenge is to help the White client move toward a higher level of racial identity. Likewise, a racial minority client may also endorse a belief in reversed racism, and this may also be indicative of his or her racial identity development. A necessary prerequisite for helping clients to advance their racial identity is for the counselor to have first advanced his or her own racial identity. Janet Helms has stated that a progressive relationship (in which the counselor’s racial identity is more advanced than the client’s) is optimal for growth in therapy.
It is also important to explore clients’ experiences of reversed racism, because ineffective coping strategies and faulty beliefs could interfere with the counseling process and goal attainment. The notion of reversed racism may be very applicable for White clients who present for educational or career counseling. Reversed racism is perpetuated by the belief that for one group to advance, another must suffer. In the United States, racial minority groups today attain higher levels of education, higher incomes, and are promoted to upper management jobs more than ever before in American history. Those who support reversed racism claim that individuals of the dominant culture unjustly suffer at the expense of advancing racial minorities. Thus a client may perceive himself or herself as a victim without acknowledging the privilege he or she has been afforded. Beyond helping clients move to a higher level of racial identity, integrating race and ethnicity with educational and career counseling can help White clients locate schools or programs and career choices that will best meet their educational and employment needs.
- Carter, R. T., Helms, J. E., & Judy, H. L. (2004). The relationship between racism and racist identity for White Americans: A profile study. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development, 32, 2-17.
- Helms, J. E. (1990). Black and White racial identity: Theory, research, and practice. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Stubblefield, A. (1995). Racial identity and non-essentialism about race. Social Theory and Practice, 21, 346-368.