This is a revised version of an essay I published on DailyKos.
In any discussion of racism and it’s alleged reverse, it’s crucial to start by defining prejudice and discrimination, racism and institutional racism. There’s a reason these different terms exist, and a very good reason not to conflate them.
Prejudice is an irrational feeling of dislike for a person or group of persons, usually based on stereotype or on a generalization based on personal experience or perception. Virtually everyone feels some sort of prejudice, whether it’s for an ethnic group, or for a religious group, or for a type of person (like blondes, or fat people, or tall people, or that guy who looks like their evil Uncle Howard). The important thing is they just don’t like them. Prejudice is a feeling, a belief. You can be prejudiced, but still be a fair person if you’re careful not to act on your irrational dislike.
Discrimination takes place the moment a person acts on prejudice. This describes those moments when one individual decides not to give another individual a job because of, say, their race or their religious orientation. Or even because of their looks (there’s a lot of hiring discrimination against conventionally “unattractive” women, for example). You can discriminate, individually, against any person or group, if you’re in a position of power over the person you want to discriminate against. White people can discriminate against black people, and black people can discriminate against white people if, for example, one is the interviewer and the other is the person being interviewed.
Racism is the belief that one race is superior to another. People who believe this are called racists. They advocate the creation of systems that enforce their prejudices, and that will allow them to discriminate, but unless they live in a racist system, their individual racism can be expressed only in personal acts of discrimination. For example, a black person in the U.S. might believe in black supremacy, and might think black people are better than white people, but he or she doesn’t have the ensure that the society’s institutions reflect those racist beliefs. It is very important to understand that individual racism, and racism as an ideology, are not the same thing as a racist society, which is why the term institutional racism has emerged to describe racist systems.
Institutional racism (sometimes simply called “racism,” as well) describes patterns of discrimination that are institutionalized as “normal” throughout an entire culture. At this point it’s not just one person discriminating at a time, but a whole social structure that evolved to enforce discrimination. A racist system actually makes it difficult for a person not to discriminate, no matter how well-meaning they are.
A clear cut example is a slave-holding culture: people are born into a society where one sort of person is “naturally” a master, and another sort of person is “naturally” a slave (and sometimes not considered a person at all, but a beast of burden). In a culture like that, discrimination is built into the social, economic and political fabric, and individuals—even “free” individuals of the “superior” race—don’t really have a choice about whether they discriminate or not because even if they don’t believe in slavery, they interact every day with slaves and the laws and rules that keep slaves bound.
In a racist society, the penalty for slaves who challenge the system is extreme. But even for white people, it takes courage and willingness to subject oneself to scandal or danger to step outside that system and become an abolitionist. It’s not the “fault” of every member of the master class that slavery exists, and some might wish it was gone. But the fact is that every single member of the master class benefits from the unpaid labor of slaves at every level of society because they consume the products that slavery produces, or use the infrastructure that was built with slave labor. Unless members of the master class rise up and oppose the system and try to overthrow it (abolitionists, for example), they’re forced to be complicit in the slave system even if they hate that system. And the system is set up to emphatically discourage those kinds of challenges, just as it is set up to ensure that slaves who revolt will be brutally suppressed.
The above is an extreme, clear example, which I use to make it easier to see the fuzzier, more complex situations we’re in today. Despite the fact that slaves were freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, and that the 14th Amendment gave African Americans voting rights, the institutional structures of racism were not all overturned. Even after the 14th Amendment was passed, white people still had the power to prevent black people from voting by instituting the poll tax, the grandfather clause, and the “understanding” clause, which required blacks to recite any segment of the Constitution the white registrar wanted them to recite. In the Sixties, the Civil Rights Voting Acts were passed, which were intended to knock down those obstacles to voting. But black Americans still do not have political power in proportion to their presence in the population (even though there’s a black President), and the right wing’s focus on alleged “voter fraud” is just another way to put these barriers back in place.
If you look at important voting bodies like the Federal and the State Senates and Congresses, or at the Federal and State Supreme Courts, or at the CEO list of major corporations, or at any other body that wields substantial power in the U.S., you will count only a few black faces (and in some cases, none). And of the faces you count, a number will not be representing the views of the majority of black people in this country, but the views of the white majority. (Republicans are particularly good at supporting the campaigns of black politicians who do not represent black constituencies.) On the other hand, if you count the number of black people in poverty, and in prisons, or the number of people who are unemployed or lack health care, there are far more black people in these categories than is proportionate to their numbers in the larger society.
Unless you are going to argue that African Americans are “naturally” inferior to whites (which is an outright racist position), you have to admit that there is some set of mechanisms that is limiting black opportunity. That’s institutional racism: the interacting social, political, and economic rule systems that all discriminate, either overtly (racial profiling, for example) or covertly (white majority governments redrawing district voting lines so that black majority areas are politically split up and don’t have the electoral power to vote in black candidates; or, white-run banks using zip codes as a criteria for excluding people who apply for loans, and just “happening” to exclude all the majority black neighborhoods in a city, a practice called “red-lining”). One could go on for hours about these various mechanisms, and I’m sure you can think of plenty on your own which discriminate against blacks, Hispanics, “Arab-looking” people, Native Americans, & so on.
Now to “Reverse Racism.” It’s crucial to maintain the distinction between the above three terms, because otherwise it’s too easy to confuse discrimination with racism. Those who promote the idea that “reverse racism” exists, confuse discrimination, and the ineffectual racist ideology of a small number of black individuals, with institutional racism. It’s like a magic trick: the prestidigitation is designed to confuse us into thinking they’re all the same thing. But the truth of the matter is that African Americans: 1) have far less opportunity to discriminate against whites than whites have to discriminate against blacks, overall; and 2) lack a system of institutionalized support that protects them when they discriminate against whites.
Reverse racism is the term racists use to express their fear of a power structure turned upside down, in which they’d suddenly occupy the bottom slot. That has not happened in the U.S., however much white right wing ideologues want to complain that they’re victimized by the few established programs designed to promote equality. White people who complain about reverse racism are actually complaining about being denied privileges, rather than being denied rights. They feel entitled to be hired first and fired last. If, in a rare instance, a black employer discriminates against a white job applicant, that’s not “reverse” anything — it’s simple discrimination. It’s to be condemned on principle, but it’s not evidence of some systematic program by which whites are being deprived of their rights.
And if the whole system did turn upside down, and suddenly enforced black supremacy instead of white, it wouldn’t be “reverse racism.” It would just be… racism.
The right wing popularized the term reverse racism because they were really angry at having their white privileges challenged. Anyone who uses that phrase, whether they are right wing or not, furthers the right wing’s cause. This is what I tell Democrats and progressives who I hear using the term: not only are they being inaccurate, but they’re helping out their opponents.
The above arguments can be applied to any institutionalized structure of oppression, affecting any race, ethnic or religious group, and can be used to to oppose similar claims of “Reverse Sexism” too.