What does "reverse discrimination" mean?


Author: Joshua Thompson

Discrimination.  Period.  With respect to race, it means treating certain people differently because they have a certain favored or disfavored skin color.

I am often dismayed by opponents of racial preferences (opponents of discrimination), or proponents of equality under the law, when they use the the term "reverse discrimination."  Wikipedia defines the term as "discrimination against members of a dominant or majority group, or in favor of members of a minority or historically disadvantaged group." This is supposedly in contrast to plain vanilla "discrimination," which Wikipedia defines as: "the treatment taken toward or against a person of a certain group that is taken in consideration based on class or category."

The linguistic problem is that the "discrimination" definition already covers "reverse discrimination."  Thus, the former term cannot be seen as a contrast to the latter.  At most, the latter term can be seen as further refining the broader term, but that is not how its used.  It's used as a contrast, which gives proponents of discrimination (or, racial preferences if you will) the linguistic weapon to label proponents of equality under the law as only caring about a certain class of discrimination.  When in reality, that side of the debate is the only side which actually opposes "discrimination" – regardless of its state-sponsored form.

The problems with using "reverse discrimination" don't end there.  John Rosenberg, over at the excellent blog discriminations.us, has consistently written about many of the problems.  One example is "double-reverse discrimination."  There, a school board policy had a minority-set aside number for teachers at each school.  But when a black teacher attempted to transfer to another school, she was denied because they already had too many black teachers there.  Thus, while the policy is an attempt at "reverse-discrimination" (i.e. helping people of certain skin colors at the expense of people with other skin colors), it actually harmed people of the race it was designed to protect.

A more fundamental problem with using the term "reverse discrimination" is the too frequent scenario where individuals from historically discriminated against races are also disfavored.  Asians, from a historical perspective, have suffered extreme forms of state-sponsored discrimination (see here, here, here, or here).  Yet most (if not all) university or school policies designed to give certain races preference over other races, do not grant that preference to Asian students.    Thus, we are confronted with a contradiction.  "Reverse-discrimination" is supposed to help those individuals who are "members of a minority or historically disadvantaged group," but Asian-Americans, who are both a minority and historically disadvantaged, are left outside the preference circle.

Proponents of equality under the law should stop using the term "reverse-discrimination."  Treating people differently because of something so genetically insignificant as skin color has a sordid past in America.  As we fight for a society that treats people equally under the law, we must point out all instances of discrimination – regardless of the race being favored or disfavored.  Discrimination is discrimination is discrimination.