Reverse Discrimination: Really About Justice

Originally published July 30, 2010 on Open Salon

A friend recently sent me a link to an article on Talking Points Memo (TPM) entitled "Commission on Civil Rights: Protecting America From (Reverse) Raci... the gist of which is that the US Commission on Civil Rights is currently following the concerns of its Republican majority and is concentrating primarily on reverse discrimination cases to the consternation of the two Democrats on the Commission who aren't in a position to do anything about this. I get that discrimination is a bad thing in any direction but is this really about justice or is something else going on here?

Let me explain why I'm concerned. We use colors to identify races out of convenience but, at least in the case of black and white, those words carry dangerous baggage. The most obvious example is the imagery of opposition - races aren't opposite but the language involved encourages oppositional thinking.

A more insidious example is the assumption of symmetry; people think of black and white as different categories of the same thing. This has led to such phenomena as at least one book about white racial identity (by a black author; this assumption isn't limited to whites). Such an assumption might make sense worldwide but it doesn't here in the US. The white population of the United States is so huge and diverse as to make the term "white" analytically useless. Being white in America says less about who you are than about who you're not. The black population, on the other hand, is a minority, more analogous to Italians or Jews than to whites.

Actually, the black population is now comprised of two minorities of any size: African American (descended from American slaves) and Caribbean American. The African American population is much larger and has been here much longer so, when most Americans think of blacks, they're usually thinking of African Americans. Incidentally, President Obama is neither.

We don't assume symmetry when thinking about other minorities. If, say, Irish Americans have a St. Patrick's Day Parade, we don't automatically think there should be a parade for Nearly Everyone Else, we just accept that there's an event celebrating a single culture. On the other hand, there are Americans wondering why, if there's a United Negro College Fund, there isn't a United White College Fund.  (There was a time in my life when I thought like this.) The truth is that  a United White College Fund would be almost as silly as a United Gentile Appeal for essentially analogous reasons.

Minorities need protection from the majority more than the majority needs protection from minorities. After all, the majority holds the cards. This makes me suspicious when I start hearing about reverse discrimination. The question that comes to mind is: Is this about justice or  turf?

The way I tell is a way I've discussed elsewhere in a different context. If you're concerned about justice, you fight discrimination wherever you find it. If, however, you've never complained about centuries of American discrimination regarding race, gender, nationality, religion, disability or sexual orientation but you suddenly get religion when it comes to reverse discrimination, chances are this is a turf issue masquerading as a justice issue. In other words, this is really about protecting one's own. Protecting the majority against minorities but not the other way around isn't justice; in fact, it's exactly the opposite.

I'm not saying that real reverse discrimination is impossible. I'm not even saying that opposition to reverse discrimination can't be honestly about justice but, let's face it, most of the guys protesting reverse discrimination didn't exactly march with Dr. King. I'm just saying that using the language of justice isn't enough. If this isn't just an example of cynical deception, you have to actually mean it. I'm afraid most of those currently protesting reverse discrimination would fail that test.

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