Playing Our Race Card: Reflections on “Reverse Discrimination”

Published as a ZNet Commentary, 4/19/05

Perhaps it would do us some good to put things in perspective.

Although many a white conservative is seeking to make more of it than is justified, the recent “reverse discrimination” case arising from New Orleans — in which the city’s first black D.A., Eddie Jordan, apparently fired 53 whites in his office and replaced them with African Americans — does not, in fact, signify some larger social trend.

It does not indicate a pattern, whereby persons of color are wielding their power to oppress the white majority. It is not evidence of that much-vaunted social pendulum having swung in the other direction, nor proof of the societal equivalence between anti-white and anti-black discrimination. Not by a long shot.

Though Jordan’s sledgehammer approach to achieving diversity in the D.A.’s office was clumsy, wrongheaded, and guaranteed to bring about the successful lawsuit just completed (in which 43 of the employees were awarded $1.9 million in back pay and damages), it is remarkable not so much for its commonality but rather for the infrequency with which such things happen.

Whereas discrimination against folks of color rarely makes the news at all, unless it involves a case as blatant as, say, Texaco or Denny’s from a few years back, the relative rarity of anti-white bias propels cases like this to the status of front-page news. It is the equivalent of the two-headed baby at the sideshow carnival: fascinating precisely because we rarely have ever seen such a thing before.

Having heard dozens, if not hundreds of white men (and occasionally women) complain about being the victims of reverse discrimination over the years, I long ago developed a simple method for separating those that might have some merit from those that were entirely spurious: namely, when confronted with such a claim, I ask the person forwarding the complaint a few obvious questions: questions that any real victim of discrimination should easily be able to answer.

First, what was the company or government agency, or contractor to which you had applied for a position or contract, which you believe discriminated against you?

Second, when did you apply for this job or contract?

And, finally, who was hired or given the contract ahead of you, and what evidence do you have that they were less qualified, objectively than you for the position?

Three simple questions, and yet, typically, none of them (and certainly never the last one) is ever answered by those to whom I put the challenge.

When asked such specifics they routinely “forget” the details, usually retreating to the tried but true argument that they were “told” by the employer or contractor in question how much more qualified they were, but how, unfortunately, the employer was being “forced” to hire a minority.

Well, perhaps. But studies have found that employers will often tell rejected white applicants such a thing, even though no federal or state law requires, encourages or even allows such a practice. Indeed, hiring someone solely because they are a person of color is illegal, and that is not how much maligned affirmative action programs operate, or have ever operated.

Fact is, real evidence of anti-white bias in the workplace is extraordinarily rare. Although whites, when asked, are twice as likely to believe that reverse discrimination — as opposed to its old-fashioned counterpart — is common, few whites actually claim to have been victimized.

In fact, no more than thirteen percent (and as few as two percent) of whites polled say they have ever lost out on a job to a person of color, for any reason, let alone because of unfair racial preferences.

Consistent with this data, only about four percent of all discrimination claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) are filed by whites alleging to have been the victims of racial bias. From 1995 to 2000, approximately 183,000 race discrimination cases were resolved by the EEOC, of which 167,000 were brought by persons of color, while fewer than 17,000 were brought by whites.

So, even though whites outnumbered folks of color in the workforce by more than two-to-one, there were nearly ten times more discrimination claims filed by persons of color during that period.

And make no mistake, this disparity does not merely signify that whites have thicker skin, or are somehow less likely to file suit, even when they might have a strong case. Indeed, white men are as quick to file suit as anyone else, when the evidence supports a claim. As Fred Pincus notes in his book, Reverse Discrimination: Dismantling the Myth, white men make up the clear majority of age discrimination claims filed with the EEOC.

In other words, when they feel aggrieved and have sufficient evidence to actually press a legal claim, whites (and white men in particular) have no aversion to seeking legal remedy; suggesting that in the area of racial bias, there is simply insufficient indication of having been victimized, such that might warrant seeking redress in the courts.

Finally, it should be noted that claims of reverse discrimination are notoriously less credible than claims of bias filed by persons of color, even when both are presented to courts of law. So, for example, discrimination claims brought by people of color are approximately seventy-two percent (almost three-fourths) more likely to succeed at trial than claims brought by whites, alleging reverse discrimination.

Indeed, evidence going back several years suggests that whites often assume that the person of color hired over them was less qualified, even when objective evidence suggests otherwise.

As just one example, consider the case of Tom Wood, one of the instigators of an anti-affirmative action initiative in California in the mid-’90s. Wood claimed at the time to have been rejected for a faculty position at San Francisco State University, and not only that, but more to the point, passed over so as to make way for a clearly less qualified woman of color. Yet, it turned out that Wood had never even applied for the job, and that had done so, he would have lost out anyway, seeing as how the woman in question had far more scholarly publications and teaching experience than he did.

Or for that matter, consider Jennifer Gratz, the lead plaintiff in a reverse discrimination suit against the University of Michigan, which was resolved in her favor in June 2003.

Despite her successful claim against the undergraduate school of Literature, Arts and Sciences, it is impossible to claim that she was actually victimized so as to make way for less qualified students of color. After all, the year she was rejected, there were not only several dozen students of color who got in to Michigan ahead of her, despite having had lower test scores and grades than she, but there were well over a thousand other whites with lower scores and grades who were also admitted ahead of her.

Furthermore, there were approximately two thousand other whites who were rejected along with Gratz, despite having had higher scores and grades than she.

The first of these facts suggests that Gratz was not passed over on behalf of people of color, so much as other whites, who fit certain admissions criteria better than she did, while the second of these facts indicates that even in the absence of any affirmative action program at Michigan, Ms. Gratz wouldn’t have been admitted to the first year class in Ann Arbor, as there were two thousand other white applicants in front of her in line, using the straight grade and SAT formula that she seemed to favor.

Any way you look at the evidence, the result is the same: it is people of color, and not whites, upon whom the weight of discrimination regularly falls, the New Orleans DA’s office notwithstanding.

After all, study after study for years has found that blacks and Latinos with equal qualifications to whites (in terms of education and experience) will still be less likely to find work, and even when they do, it will be at lower pay and less likely to be in managerial or high-profile positions.

Even after controlling for other factors that could effect earnings, like age, experience, geographic location, or educational performance, whites still earn, on average, between ten and twenty percent more than their African American counterparts.

Amazingly, one study from a few years back found that white men who claim to have a criminal record and to have served prison time are equally or slightly more likely to get a call-back for a job interview than black men who claim to have no criminal record, even when all other credentials are equal.

And of course, nearly nine in ten jobs are never advertised at all, thereby becoming open to a free and fair competition. Rather, they are filled by word-of-mouth and networking: a process which disproportionately disadvantages people of color, irrespective of qualifications, simply because of prior opportunity (or the lack thereof) and ongoing de facto residential segregation and isolation, which restricts the degree to which persons of color are likely to be in the best networks for jobs.

Indeed, one of the unmentioned aspects of the New Orleans case is the extent to which Jordan, though clearly in the wrong for having summarily dismissed so many whites to make way for blacks, was hardly breaking with some previously color-blind tradition. Having lived in New Orleans for a decade, I learned early on how jobs in the prosecutor’s office,(and pretty much everywhere else in the city and state) were filled, and it wasn’t by virtue of some purely objective “merit” criteria.

The DA’s office, under Harry Connick Sr. had been given to favoritism as well: and although this favoritism had been less blatantly racial than Jordan’s, its effects had been no different. Lawyers or staffers with the right family connections, or with degrees from Tulane or Loyola, were clearly overrepresented, irrespective of actual ability, and out of proportion to any objective indicator of merit.

If only that kind of preferencing were seen as racial favoritism, in the way that Jordan’s was, then perhaps we could engage a discussion of racial bias honestly. But that’s the problem: the everyday workings of white racial preference are typically ignored, while the rare instance of preference for persons of color comes to be seen as commonplace.

In its normalcy, its unremarkable typicality, white privilege and preference remains invisible, at least to white folks, even as it forms the necessary backdrop of all so-called “reverse discrimination” tales to people of color.

So long as we fixate on the one (and much smaller) phenomenon, to the exclusion of the other, and much larger one, we can hardly expect to be taken seriously as a nation concerned with equal opportunity for all.

Footnotes for this article may be obtained from the author at Alternately, this material and the notes for the same can be found in Tim Wise’s book, Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (NY: Routledge, 2005)

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