The “double-r words” have been invoked again. I bristle every time I hear the term “reverse racism” applied in a new context. It’s kind of like the blogger at “I’m not a racist, but,” who tracks the use of this phrase in Facebook postings, then documents the clueless racist statements that inevitably follow. Same goes for the double-r; whenever you hear it, brace yourself for what follows.
Last week, The New York Times reported that a relative has come to the defense of Deryl Dedmon, a white teenager who is being charged with murder for his alleged role in beating and then driving his truck over James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old black man.
The gruesome incident took place in Jackson, Miss., in late June and was caught on video by a security camera monitoring the parking lot where the attack took place. It burst into national headlines when CNN aired the video last week. Hinds County Prosecutor Robert Shuler Smith is expected to bring hate crime charges against Dedmon. He was among a group of white teens allegedly involved in beating Anderson while repeatedly yelling racial epithets, including “White Power!” according to witnesses. Smith has asked for federal assistance in investigating the crime, according to the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, and is exploring charges against additional teens allegedly involved in the incident. One other teen, John Rice, has been charged with simple assault.
More than 500 people marched in Jackson on Sunday to denounce the crime and memorialize Anderson.
On a Facebook page set up by Dedmon’s supporters, the teen’s great aunt said, “He is not a racist or a murderer…. If anything, he is being tried by the media, suffering from reverse racism and placed in jail without bond. I am sick of the race card.”
With this recasting of the story, the alleged white murderer is now the victim, the perpetrator is the media, and the crime is “reverse racism.” And anyone suspecting racist foul play is recklessly playing the race card.
If your head is spinning, welcome to the Orwellian world of so-called post-racialism, where the new racists are people of color, along with anyone who still sees or speaks about racism. The new victims of racism are always white. Any effort to redress racism is itself racist.
The gospel of this new, upside-down world is colorblindness, which treats any kind of race consciousness as a cardinal sin. Of course, there are exceptions, such as when you play the race card in an effort to absolve someone likely to be charged with a racially motivated murder. That’s an irony that I’m sure is lost on those whose only true colorblindness is to their own whiteness.
Efforts to equalize opportunities across race, such as affirmative action and voluntary school integration, are viewed in this new universe as “reverse racism,” merely because they acknowledge racism’s existence. This sentiment is best epitomized by U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts, who famously opined, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis or race.”
In other words, focusing on racism is the problem, rather than racism iteslf. It follows that ignoring race—not remedying racism—is the solution, at least as seen through Robert’s rosy colorblind lens.
Those with a clearer view of the real world, however, see these twisted efforts to characterize racial remedies as “reverse racism” as the distraction they are intended to be. Sure, racial prejudice can go in all directions—forward, sideways and especially backwards. But racial prejudice is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the realities of racism. Power, more than prejudice, is the foundation of racism.
Despite holding the overwhelming share of economic, political and cultural power, some white people believe in “reverse racism” because they truly fear that whites are the targeted and threatened racial group. If you hold this worldview, the concepts of systemic racism, white superiority or even white privilege are likely to escape you. This reductionist view limits racism to mere personal prejudice.
But most racism stems from a historically-evolving and institutionally-based system of racial hierarchy and inequality that routinely privileges white people and disadvantages people of color. It’s alive and well today, and even worsening—as, for instance, with the widening racial wealth gap, which has reached record highs thanks to a recession that has hit people of color hardest.
For further evidence of systemic racial inequality, look at any key quality-of-life indicator in the U.S., from infant mortality to life expectancy and everything in between. Whether it’s household income and wealth, home ownership or health care access, educational attainment or employment, it’s all racially skewed. Any one of these glaring disparities is serious enough, but taken together—the cumulative and compounding impacts—they point to an organized and ongoing system of racial inequality.
So when it comes to the dubious concept of “reverse racism,” I’m a literalist. “Reverse” means to go in the opposite direction. So in my book, “reverse racism” means reversing all the damages of racism. Only problem is, racism, once it has occurred, can’t truly be reversed.
How do you give someone back his or her life? How do you give people back their stolen land, their foreclosed homes, their precious health or the wealth lost by their exploited labor? Don’t get me wrong, there’s still plenty to do about the racism that’s already gone down. We can and should strive for racial reconciliation and reparations. We should force predatory lenders to return the goods to their rightful owners. We should support affirmative action and equitable policies to help level the playing field of access and opportunity. And we should bring people to justice for racial crimes, past and present.
But remedying racism cannot be confused with reversing it. Sadly and soberingly, “reversing racism,” much like “post-racialism,” is just not possible. To talk about either is delusional and disingenuous. There’s too much water, and blood, under the bridge.