Is 'reverse racism' real?

Two high-profile incidents this summer thrust the concept of “reverse racism” — minorities’ belief in the superiority of their race over whites or discriminating against them — into the spotlight. Former USDA official Shirley Sherrod lost her job and was publicly condemned last month after a heavily edited video surfaced of a speech she made implying that she was unwilling to help a white farmer. Sherrod was later vindicated, but not before she was forced to resign and the debacle cast doubt over her more than 40-year career in civil rights advocacy.

The U.S. Department of Justice also came under fire last month for its handling of a voter intimidation case against members of the New Black Panther Party for Self Defense. Critics, including an ex-Justice Department lawyer, claimed that the federal entity routinely failed to pursue cases involving civil rights violations against whites. Justice Department officials have said there wasn’t enough evidence, and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is now investigating why the charges were dropped. spoke to leading academics and sociologists for their take on the term “reverse racism,” and found that the concept is deeply rooted in the idea of race in the context of power and privilege in society, and has been internalized by Americans both black and white.

“When whites talk about reverse discrimination, I feel that they are making a silly argument, because what they really want to say is that we, people of color, have the power to do to them what they have done to us from the 13th century,” said Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, professor of sociology at Duke University and author of Racism Without Racists, a book which examines how racism has evolved since the collapse of the Jim Crow era. Silva acknowledged that some minorities are prejudiced against whites, but said reverse racism implies minorities in the U.S. have the power and privilege to wholly discriminate against white people.

“The idea of reverse racism or reverse discrimination is non-sensical,” Silva said. “If that by whites believe that we, people of color, have the power to enact and carry systematic policies against them — because we don’t have that.”

“We do not control the economy,” Silva added, “we do not control politics — despite the election of Obama. We don’t control much of this country.”

The notion that racism is commingled with power was borne in part out of African-Americans defining the context of the national discussion on race following the collapse of the Jim Crow system and the end of the civil rights movement, according to Samuel Richards, senior sociology lecturer at the Pennsylvania State University. Political correctness and white guilt are also factors, Richards said. Richards, co-director of the “World in Conversation” at Penn State, which facilitates discussions on race between students across the university, said many Americans now believe if one race has power and privilege in society, they can be racist, but it’s something else if you lack those things and still believe in the superiority of your race over another.

“Truthfully,” Richards said, “they bought into that perspective.” And although generally, it’s conservative whites who use the term “reverse racism,” “those same white people are accepting the debate—the assumption that only white people can be racist, or you wouldn’t call it reverse,” Richards said. “You’d call it racism.”

The phrase “reverse racism” has been in the public lexicon since at least when the first pointed attacks on affirmative action as being discriminatory to whites began, said William A. Darity Jr. Ph.D, professor of Public Policy, African and African-American Studies and Economics at Duke.

“The folks who were constructing the critique of affirmative action definitely wanted to deliver the message that whites were being unfairly penalized by affirmative action,” Darity said. “One way to do that is to inaugurate the concept of reverse racism.”

And while Darity said it was not clear whether “reverse racism” was being used more frequently today than in years past, he said some in the U.S. believe the country is now a post-racial society — epitomized by President Obama’s election — yet blacks still cling to race issues, and that the only real racists left are African-Americans.

Darity and Silva said President Obama has had to govern his administration with reverse racism in mind. Silva said that’s one of the reasons why the White House and the NAACP were quick to originally distance themselves from Sherrod.

”[Obama] is so afraid of being tainted, of being viewed as the ‘race man,’ she didn’t even get her due process,” Silva said.

Reverse racism also could be why Obama may not want to be perceived as taking actions to specifically benefit African-Americans, Darity said.

“He recognizes the nature of the climate,” he said, “and the climate is that it’s almost worse for a black person to be called a racist than it is for a white person. Initially, it cost Shirley Sherrod her job, in the context of a complete misunderstanding of what actually occurred.”