Why the Discussion on Reverse Racism is Important
“It’s literally impossible to be racist to a white person.” This oft-heard refrain is, at this point, the stock-standard liberal response to claims of “reverse racism.” Ask a modern liberal what racism is, and they will express something along the lines of, “racism is based on a couple of things — historical, systemic oppression and power.” Yet even in the modern age we live in the debate about reverse racism has only intensified. Ostensibly straightforward civil-rights platforms like Black Lives Matter have drawn criticisms along the lines that they do not stand for racial equality. So how come this issue is still with us today? Why, despite the apparent consensus that whites can’t experience racism, are we still talking about it?
First and foremost we need to have an operative definition of racism, and to understand where our definitions come from. One issue with the debate about reverse racism is that those on either side of it are actually using different definitions of racism. While the social-justice-oriented definition of racism draws on history and institutions of power as shown above, you won’t actually find that definition in a dictionary. Indeed, most dictionaries and organizations opt for a different definition: racism “is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics.” This from the Anti-Defamation League, of all places.
One issue with the debate about reverse racism is that those on either side of it are using different definitions of racism.
In fact, nowhere in the modern lexicon save for the most liberal outlets is the definition of racism as representing institutional and historical power used. By this definition there can be no such thing as reverse racism — but this objection relies on the validity of this definition in the first place. Many of those who believe in reverse racism hold to the common definition of racism as racial prejudice. Their claim is that the modern liberal definition of racism is a specific form of linguistic revisionism aimed at silencing cries of reverse racism without having to seriously question the issue of institutional oppression against whites. It’s egregious to suggest that the minor instances of white people facing anything they might claim to be racism (such as the Diddy lawsuit) are indicative of a larger social trend. White Americans of European ancestry have never faced discrimination owing to the color of their skin. The issue with dismissing claims of reverse racism is that it also silences the discussion of the fact that white people also face institutional discrimination, and in larger numbers than disadvantaged black Americans.
…the real issue with dismissing claims of reverse racism is that it silences the discussion of the fact that white people also face institutional discrimination, and often in larger numbers than disadvantaged black Americans.
A common error in human judgement is to perceive a group as a monolith. This takes the form of statements like “all x are y,” where x is a particular group or race of people, and y is some trait that is believed to apply universally to that group. It is as fallacious to say that “all black people are dangerous criminals” as it is to say that “all white people benefit from social institutions of racial power.” A few surprising facts: there are twice as many white Americans living beneath the poverty line than black Americans. More than twice as many white Americans suffer from chronic unemployment than black Americans. Three times more white Americans than black Americans do not hold even a GED.
For all of these statistics, it should be said, the comparative rates by race favor white people. That is, while there are numerically more economically and socially disadvantaged white Americans, those afflicted as a proportion of all non-Hispanic white people (63.7% of the total US population) are less than the comparative proportion of black Americans (12.2% of the US population). But when we focus our attentions solely on the proportions of populations, it’s easy to forget the simple fact that there are five times more white Americans than black Americans. The proportionally smaller disadvantaged portions of the white population actually represent a numerically greater amount of these people. When viewed by proportions only, it’s easy and attractive to dismiss the proportionally smaller number of white Americans who lack institutional privilege.
Dividing socioeconomic issues into the proportions of each race affected by them creates a monolith out of the “other”. We erroneously say that “all white people are currently and historically benefited by social institutions of power,” when in reality there are tens of millions — and in most cases a numerical majority — of disadvantaged, malcontent whites facing the same kinds of socioeconomic oppression which today affects the black community. And while socioeconomic oppression alone can’t account for the entirety of the contemporary black experience, it can show us that to dismiss white claims that they experience institutional oppression is erroneous — even dangerous.
The South, a predominantly white, rural area, was a bastion of Democratic support until the latter half of the 20th century. The shift from the traditional Democratic narrative of class-based politics to identity-based politics alienated the white socioeconomic underclass which had up until then seen their futures as inherently tied to those of disadvantaged blacks — a turn which Nixon capitalized on to plant the seeds of the modern southern conservative preeminence. Today, we face an America which the presidency, supreme court, senate, congress, and majority of governors’ offices and state legislatures are predominantly Republican.
But, like all bad relationships between people and political parties alike, it’s a comforting fallacy to tell oneself that it’s all the fault of the other.
Liberals are struggling to understand how “reverse racism” can still be under discussion, or how Donald Trump managed to win in our supposedly modern age. Many conclude that the Republicans are the ones that have shifted to the right. But, like all bad relationships between people and political parties alike, it’s a comforting fallacy to tell oneself that it’s all the fault of the other. The modern Liberal shift to identity politics has alienated the expansive population of socioeconomically disadvantaged whites who face many of the same institutional obstacles that a large proportion of the black population does.
The next time you as a white person are quick to dismiss the idea that white people are in any way institutionally disadvantaged, you should first check your own privilege. Can you claim to speak for all white Americans? Maybe you personally don’t struggle with the flight of jobs from your communities or the lack of educational opportunities in your towns, but you do not speak for the entirety of the nearly two-hundred-million white Americans. No, white people do not experience prejudice against them for the color of their skin — but that has nothing to do with whether substantial parts of the white population can and do face institutional oppression. And maybe, if the Progressive party wants to regain some of their lost support among white voters, they can start by addressing some of the issues that face both poor white and black Americans alike.