Contrary to initial indications, the civil-rights division of the Department of Justice won’t be dismantling affirmative action after all. At least, that’s the current word from Trump administration officials, after a New York Times article claimed the department would be using the broad powers of justice to take on universities that it decided had discriminated against white people. The DOJ since clarified that it was gearing up to investigate complaints from dozens of organizations alleging that certain universities used quotas—which are illegal—to limit the number of Asian American enrollees.
Still, the beacons have been lit, and America’s annual heated argument about affirmative action has begun anew, this time against the background of racial tensions that have helped define the early goings of the Trump presidency. As always, those tensions and long-held beliefs about racial advantages rule the debate.
As my colleague Alia Wong notes, that debate is still hamstrung by a number of misconceptions about affirmative action, including the tendency to flatten issues pertaining to Asian Americans. These misconceptions are often exploited to serve the interests of white resentment that’s surrounded the use of race in job and university-application processes since the 1960s. To quote a 1995 Boston College Third World Law Journal article: “The deployment of Asian Americans as an exemplary group in race relations is nothing new. The model minority myth of Asian Americans has been used since the Sixties to denigrate other nonwhites.”
The Times article jumped immediately to that white resentment. It identified “affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants” as the key target for the Justice Department. It also cited the former Reagan administration and Bush administration official Roger Clegg, who claimed that “it is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian Americans are as well.”
While the Times’s focus on “reverse racism” may not have entirely captured the actual policy issue in front of the DOJ, the connection was understandable. White animus against affirmative action is a driving force in the debate over race-conscious admissions.
The usage of “reverse racism” and “reverse discrimination” arose in direct response to affirmative and race-based policies in the 1970s. Even as outright quotas and more open attempts to equalize the numbers of minority enrollees were defeated, the term stuck. A 1979 California Law Review article defines reverse discrimination as a phenomenon where “individual blacks and members of other minority groups began to be given benefits at the expense of whites who, apart from race, would have had a superior claim to enjoy them.”
Reverse racism—or any race-conscious policy—became a common grievance, one that helped shape a certain post-civil-rights-movement view of America where black people were the favored children of the state, and deserving white people were cast aside.
A recent Twitter thread from the Refinery29 writer Ashley Ford illustrates an example of just how common and extreme that grievance has become. She recounted personal anecdotes about acquaintances who assumed that black people could simply attend college for free:
Do you know how many white people truly and genuinely believe that black people get to go to college for free?— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) August 2, 2017
They had all these stories about white people they knew getting passed over for jobs and promotions in favor of less qualified black folks.— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) August 2, 2017
In a follow-up story, Ford describes two prevailing responses to the thread. “There were many people who were shocked to hear anyone could believe Black people got to go to college for free,” she writes, “and others who insisted we actually do.”
It’s difficult to quantify the extent to which this distorted fear of “reverse racism” actually animates opposition to race-conscious admissions, but there are clues as to its ubiquity. Every few years, donors use those kinds of grievances as a rationale for creating white-only scholarships, such as the $250 Caucasian Achievement and Recognition Scholarship offered by Boston University’s chapter of College Republicans. Op-eds and lawsuits from individuals who believe they faced discrimination in admissions processes often rely on claims of reverse racism. The controversial Fisher v. University of Texas lawsuit was one such case that spawned columns alleging extensive reverse racism. (In that case, the Supreme Court upheld UT Austin’s affirmative-action program, which allows the consideration of race for certain applicants, on the condition that the school regularly assess the program’s merits and ensure all other methods fail to produce adequate student diversity.)
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.