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Americans are split on "reverse racism." That still doesn't mean it exists.

Plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher speaks to the media after the Supreme Court heard arguments in her case on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Plaintiff Abigail Noel Fisher speaks to the media after the Supreme Court heard arguments in her case on October 10, 2012 in Washington, DC.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Fisher v. Texas last week dealt a major blow to one of affirmative action opponents’ key arguments: that such programs are a form of "reverse racism."

The case's plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, maintained that the University of Texas Austin used her racial identity as a white person against her in the admissions process to admit less qualified students of color.

While the Court ruled Fisher’s argument was a gross oversimplification of UT Austin’s policy, a new report suggests Fisher isn’t alone in thinking this way. In fact, it may be more appropriate to view her case as a sign of the times.

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 49 percent of Americans believe discrimination against white people is as big of an issue today as discrimination against people of color. The same percentage of people (49 percent) disagreed. However, the even split disintegrates among racial groups. Only 29 percent of African Americans and 38 percent of Hispanics share this belief, compared with 57 percent of white people — and 66 percent of working-class white people specifically.

Americans are split on whether they believe “reverse discrimination” is real.
Americans are split on whether they believe "reverse discrimination" is real.

The results aren’t shocking: According to a Pew Research Survey out this week, 70 percent of African Americans said racial discrimination is a barrier to black people getting ahead today, versus only 36 percent of white people. And while 53 percent of white people said America still has work to do to ensure black people achieve equal rights to their white counterparts, white Americans were split on whether equality will be achieved in the future (40 percent) or if enough changes have already been made (38 percent).

The massive gap in how people of color and white people view the seriousness of "reverse discrimination" further illustrates the massive gap between how white people and people of color view life in America today. But it also gives us a glimpse at how white Americans are reacting to slow but steady steps toward racial equality over the past 50 years.

What is "reverse racism"?

Although Americans are split on whether reverse racism is real, it's important to define what reverse racism actually is.

Reverse racism refers to the idea that dominant racial groups (typically white people) experience discrimination based on their race in the same way that people of color do.

The PRRI survey used "reverse racism" and "reverse discrimination" interchangeably. But that may be a fundamental part of misunderstanding the differences between the two.

Discrimination, like prejudice, is not the same as racism. Discrimination refers to the biases one exhibits against a racial group. Racism, by contrast, reinforces discriminatory attitudes with social, political, cultural, and economic institutions that have historically disenfranchised a group of people simply because of their racial identity. When reverse racism is treated as discrimination, as is the case for the PRRI study, racism is flattened into a set of attitudes without the power dynamics that give certain biases salience over others.

According to the aforementioned Pew Research Study, 23 percent of white Americans believe African Americans experience discrimination in the workplace, compared with 64 percent of African Americans. Yet disproportionately racist hiring practices against people of color have been documented. For example, the National Bureau of Economic Research found that applicants with stereotypically white-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get a callback than applicants with stereotypically African-American-sounding names.

What’s more, data shows racism is a form of prejudice that targets people of color in very concrete ways — in housing, in education, in the criminal justice system. And despite belief, rarely, if ever, do white people experience the systemic negative effects of racial discrimination.

Black and white people view progress very differently

Michael I. Norton, a Harvard Business School professor, and Samuel R. Sommers, a psychology professor at Tufts University, published a paper in 2011 that found belief in anti-white bias among white people has been rising since the 1950s and '60s — a moment marked by the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

Neither professor claimed to know the source of the changing sentiment. But as power dynamics shift and white people begin to navigate a new terrain of racial relations (notably through policies like affirmative action), they begin to perceive themselves as victims under threat:

On the practical side, affirmative action policies designed to increase minority representation may focus whites’ attention on the impact of quota-like procedures on their own access to education and employment, in effect threatening their resources. On the symbolic side, whites may fear that minorities’ imposition of their cultural values represent an attack on white cultural values and norms, as evidenced by whites’ resentment of norms of political correctness.

For the white people surveyed, anti-white bias came with a zero-sum fallout — white people saw rising racial tolerance for people of color in direct contrast to rising intolerance for whites. African Americans’ views on anti-white bias remained relatively flat, and unlike their white peers they did not view anti-white bias and zero-sum racism as related.

Other studies corroborate the "zero-sum" view. A 2009 sociological study showed that white people were more likely to advocate for merit-based admissions policies based on test scores and grades alone instead of affirmative action — but only insofar as it gave them an upper hand against the nonwhite applicants they were competing against.

Again, this could be another sign that black and white Americans’ views on race are worlds apart. But as the concept of reverse racism becomes more mainstream, and as America shifts toward a majority minority population, these attitudes may speak to a larger question: How will white Americans adjust to an America that cannot and does not focus on their rights alone?

Watch: Race isn't biologically real

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