Storytelling and the Myth of Reverse Discrimination

On occasion, I find myself engaged in a conversation with a complete stranger—in an airport, on the bus, or in a bar. More often than not this stranger is demographically similar to me, white, college educated, and male. These discussions generally start off with greetings, introductions, and a conversation about what each party does for a living. Once the stranger learns that I am a sociologist who studies labor markets, work, and organizations, I can be fairly certain that the topic of race, employment, and Affirmative Action will soon ensue.

Other times, these conversations begin a little more abruptly, such as when someone walks up to me, leans over and whispers something like, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait until I am in a place where I am not a minority.” This actually happened to me a few years ago in the Miami airport. The assumption is that we are similar, and so they tell me stories.

Such storytelling is (or should be) fascinating for sociologists. These narratives usually commence with some leading statement like, “I am not racist and I think everyone should have equal opportunity, but… Affirmative Action has wrongfully discriminated against white men.”

In a recent interaction, the white gentlemen actually used the term “white man’s plight.” As the conversation progressed onto the topic of Affirmative Action, he referenced the term “white man’s overbite” and the movie “White Men Can’t Jump” as further indicators of white male oppression in contemporary society. For example, the man asked, “Why is it okay to have a movie called White Men Can’t Jump, but not a movie called Black Men Can’t Read? It’s not PC to say anything bad about any group except white men.”

I work to subtly (or sometimes not so subtly) interject facts and reasoning into the conversations while also attempting to learn how they came to hold the beliefs they do.

In addition to the traditional racist attitudes that sometimes emerge in these conversations, the men’s narratives often stress how hard they had to work to get a college degree and gain their current job. As one man told me, “They don’t offer any handouts to white men like they do for everybody else.”

Embedded within most of these conversations is usually some story about an alleged incident of “reverse discrimination.” As W.I. Thomas famously stated “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” And the men I have spoken with genuinely seem to believe that reverse discrimination is real—an objective reality—and a serious problem confronting white men in the U.S.

The anecdotes above underscore the point that Affirmative Action has been one of the most contentious policies in U.S. history. It may very well also be the least understood. It has become particularly controversial among whites since the late 1970s when claims of “reverse discrimination” in employment (McDonald v. Santa Fe Transport) and education reached the Supreme Court (Regents of the University of California v. Bakke). It has continued to be a divisive issue in public discourse, politics, the media, and the courts (e.g., Fisher v. University of Texas).

Despite Presidential executive orders establishing Affirmative Action in the 1960s, which banned discrimination in firms engaging in contracts with the federal government, most of the popular discourse around Affirmative Action has focused on the unfair advantages it has presumably granted to less qualified racial minorities, especially African Americans, and how it has disadvantaged qualified whites.

In contrast to popular opinion that assumes that all employers are subject to Affirmative Action, the presidential executive orders were explicit in limiting Affirmative Action to federal contractors and federal employment. In effect, federal contracts issued to private firms and government agencies are funded by taxpayers. Therefore, it makes sense that the government requires that these organizations not discriminate in employment opportunities against the people who fund these private sector organizations.

Affirmative Action does not entail hiring quotas. Rather, it only requires employers to make good faith efforts to hire qualified underrepresented minorities and to not discriminate in employment opportunities. Compliance and non-compliance are not well defined. Debarment from future government contracts is a potential sanction for non-compliance. In reality, this has rarely happened; however, this may be changing due to increased accountability (see also Washington Post). As such, Affirmative Action has historically been less powerful in shaping employment opportunities than many might think.

Although the anecdotes I provided above may not be generalizable to the population, public opinion survey data reveals that the majority of whites in the U.S. believe that blacks may have unfair advantages over whites in the workplace. For example, in a 2010 National Opinion Research Center survey, respondents were asked,

“What do you think the chances are these days that a white person won’t get a job or promotion while an equally or less qualified black person gets one instead? Is this very likely, somewhat likely, or not very likely to happen these days?”

Approximately 16% of whites reported “very likely”, 49% reported “somewhat likely”, and 35% reported “not very likely.” Hence, nearly two-thirds of whites in the U.S. believe that whites are disadvantaged and are likely to lose out to blacks in the workplace.

The perceptions of reverse discrimination are interesting considering that the 2010 U.S. census revealed that blacks only account for 13% of the population. Given the size of the white population versus the black population the chances that an instance of “reverse discrimination” is even possible is relatively small. The fact that the unemployment rate for blacks has consistently been twice that of whites makes this possibility even less tenable.

More objective evidence from actual workplaces is revealed in my recent book with Don Tomaskovic-Devey, Documenting Desegregation, in which we find no evidence of “reverse discrimination” against whites in our analysis of employment opportunities since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Using the data collected from private sector firms as mandated by the Civil Rights Act, we find that federal contractors initially hired more black workers into lower level jobs in the 1960s. This had the immediate consequence of pushing white men higher up in those organizations.

If anything Affirmative Action in employment appears to have provided black workers access to employment, but benefited white and male workers with access to higher level and higher paying jobs. Hence, rather than harm the labor market opportunities of whites, Affirmative Action benefited whites and men.

Why do whites’ beliefs about “reverse discrimination” persist in the absence of objective evidence as well as greater support for the ideal of equal opportunity? A number of scholars (e.g., Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s Racism without Racists) have indicated the emergence of “colorblind racism” in which whites hold support for equal opportunity and less traditional racist attitudes, but fail to support policies and programs that might actually produce equal opportunity.

Nancy DiTomaso’s new book The American Non-Dilemma echoes some of these themes and suggests that a great deal of contemporary racism persists as whites do things for the in-group–family and friends who are also white rather than acting on conscious racial antipathy (aka old-fashioned racism).

Picca and Feagin’s book Two-Faced Racism, suggests that whites appear to value equal opportunity and condemn racism in their public selves, yet maintain a traditionally racist self in the backstage when interacting with friends and family in private spaces.

I would suggest that another reason racial prejudice and discrimination persists may be the actual practice of sharing the myth of reverse discrimination with strangers in public places. In other words, not only is racial prejudice perpetuated by providing opportunities for the in-group or engaging in traditionally racist behavior in our backstage performances for close friends and family in private settings, but also through interactional rituals in public spaces with complete strangers (who are perceived to be white).

In these public interactional settings (white and non-white spaces included), I believe that many whites are willing to share traditionally racist, as well as colorblind, attitudes with people they’ve never met before. I can easily imagine how the types of interactions I describe above might serve as powerful rituals recreating and reinforcing the myth of “reverse discrimination.”

For instance, these strangers may function as “weak ties,” to use sociologist Mark Granovetter’s term, providing individuals access to new and non-redundant information, in this case anecdotes and stories, which might subsequently diffuse through webs of more intimate group affiliations. This would be one mechanism by which myths—stories without empirical evidence—might become widely held beliefs.

I suspect that such stories also function to increase one’s sense of connection, and perhaps even accountability, to other demographically similar others. If commonly practiced, these interactional rituals may also help maintain, or even enhance, the salience of white racial identification and support the U.S. racial hierarchy.

6 comments
  1. Well said. Having moved from one region to another, to another, I would only comment that there may be regional variance in the willingness to share publicly. First, I should note that I am a middle class, middle aged, white Anglo male (since who I appear to be will obviously influence the conversations I have with others). When I lived in the Deep South (South Carolina and Louisiana), it was as if people assumed I supported crass racism and could be expected to reinforce it in them. When I lived in the Mid-Atlantic states (Virginia, North Carolina), racism was there, but often was not fit for open public dialogue. In the prairies of the Midwest (i.e., not Chicago, but rural areas), beliefs of reverse discrimination exist, but are not supposed to be discussed publicly – they seem to be carefully reserved for backstage conversations with known allies. But I could be wrong… Good work, Kevin.

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