Data show that many Americans do perceive reverse racism to be a significant societal problem. A 2016 Public Religion Research Institute poll indicates that half of all Americans, 57 percent of all white people, and 66 percent of the white working-class believe that discrimination against white people is as big a problem in America as discrimination against black people.
Other studies take that claim further, suggesting that white belief in reverse racism has steadily increased since the civil-rights movement and in their view has become the dominant racial bias in America. This trend appears to parallel the rise of Donald Trump, as a 2016 HuffPost/YouGov poll found that Trump voters think anti-white discrimination is a much more prevalent problem than is discrimination against any minority group.
With respect to higher education in particular, a 2005 Gallup Poll found that, given a scenario with equally qualified applicants, white people were more likely to believe a black candidate would have a higher chance of getting into a given school than a white candidate of equal caliber. White people are generally much more likely to oppose affirmative action than they were two decades ago, and several polls indicate that the majority of white people do oppose it now.
Fears of reverse racism fly in the face of data. White students still make up almost three-quarters of all private external scholarship recipients in four-year bachelor’s programs, almost two-thirds of all institutional grants and scholarship recipients, and over three-quarters of all merit-based grants and scholarships, although white people only make up about 62 percent of the college student population and about half of all people under 19. White students are more likely than black, Latino, and Asian students to receive scholarships.
Also, existing data suggest that race-conscious admissions policies are the main factors keeping overall enrollment roughly representative of America’s racial demographics. A FiveThirtyEight analysis from 2015 found that colleges in states with affirmative-action bans are less representative of the state’s demographics than colleges that are still allowed to consider race. Other simulations suggest that replacing race-conscious policies with colorblind policies that take into account applicants’ socioeconomic status yields less racial diversity on college campuses.
Still, in today’s political climate, sentiment is probably more important than reality. And that’s why the move by the DOJ matters, even though it’s limited to an investigation on behalf of Asian-American plaintiffs. Asian Americans have often been treated as “a racial wedge to disenfranchise other communities of color.” In short, achievement by Asian Americans is used by people decrying reverse racism as the grounding logic to assail race-based programs. Those attacks are useful to white grievance only insofar as they remedy widespread perceptions of white disadvantage. For example, white support for a perceived “meritocracy” without affirmative action plummets amid overrepresentation of and competition from Asian American students, according to one 2013 study.
A 1993 article in this magazine by Stanley Fish perhaps best describes the paradox of that grievance. “Reverse racism is a cogent description of affirmative action,” Fish wrote, “only if one considers the cancer of racism to be morally and medically indistinguishable from the therapy we apply to it.” The current debate provides a showcase on just how—despite all evidence—the cancer and remedy have converged.