A new poll may help explain why conservatives rallied behind Abigail Fisher, the University of Texas applicant who complained that the school was biased against her because she was white, or why actress Charlotte Rampling claimed that the debate over diversity at the Academy Awards was “racist to whites.”
Americans are now evenly divided about the extent to which they believe discrimination against whites, or so-called “reverse racism,” is a bigger problem than racism itself. According to a new report from the Public Religion Research Institute, 49% of Americans agree that "discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities," while 49% disagree.
Two-thirds of the working class white people polled by PRRI said that they agreed with the statement that discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. Among white people of all classes, 57% believed that discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. (Just 38% of Latino Americans, and 29% of black Americans, share this view.)
The finding represents a shift from five years ago, when only 46% of respondents said that discrimination against white people was as big a problem as discrimination against minorities.
How did we get here?
In a paper published earlier this year, pundit Bruce Bartlett explored the idea of reverse racism and how it has taken hold in the U.S. He says it started during the late '60s with Richard Nixon's appeal to white evangelicals, then took off again in the late 1980s with the rise of conservative media. Google's ngrams feature helps illustrate this path.
Finally, Bartlett said, the election of Barack Obama has caused white paranoia to reach the levels of concern we now see today.
"The election of our first black president, Barack Obama, has, unfortunately, elevated racial strife by injecting a racial dimension into ordinary political conflict and competition," Bartlett writes. "Many whites cannot help harboring at least a suspicion that some of Obama’s actions are motivated by his race, to the detriment of whites, and that this goes beyond the normal partisan or ideological divide in American politics."
Indeed, another report released Monday by Pew shows one-third of whites say Barack Obama has made race relations worse.
Bartlett goes on to cite a paper by Michael I. Norton of the Harvard Business School and Samuel R. Sommers of the Tufts University Department of Psychology, who found that Americans, and mainly white ones, may believe "there is a fixed amount of bias out there that has to fall on some group. If there is less on one group, there has to be more on another." Here were their findings about how blacks and whites found discrimination against both groups:
And here is how the two authors put it:
Both within each decade and across time, white respondents were more likely to see decreases in bias against blacks as related to increases in bias against whites— consistent with a zero-sum view of racism among whites—whereas blacks were less likely to see the two as linked.
The clearest effect of the perceived rise in reverse racism has been the success of Donald Trump. This is Bartlett's principal thesis: that Trump has tapped into the victimhood that many white people feel, whether justified or not.
Numerous reporters, historians and political scientists have noted the strong appeal Donald Trump has for white racists. He is often likened to Alabama Governor George Wallace. Yet it is doubtful that many of these people think of themselves as racists, but rather as victims of a system that does not care about their concerns—including the idea, however foolish, that the core racial problem in our society is discrimination against white people.
Trump’s hard line against Muslims and undocumented immigrants tap into the view that these groups are now receiving preferential treatment, Bartlett says.
More recently, the Fisher v. University of Texas case showed the degree to which the concept of reverse racism has entered the mainstream. Fisher claimed that not being admitted to UT was the result of her being penalized for being white under the school's affirmative action admissions guidelines. At least eight southern and conservative groups filed amicus briefs supporting Fisher's case.
The court decided against Fisher, with Justice Anthony Kennedy writing that schools should be allowed "considerable deference" when considering who gets admitted into the school. Fisher had also put forward a "zero-sum" argument, which the court rejected.
"Plaintiffs cite no evidence to show racial groups other than African-Americans and Hispanics are excluded from benefitting from UT’s consideration of race in admissions," Kennedy wrote.
But challenges are also pending against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina and the groups bringing them say the court’s ruling was narrow enough that the other lawsuits could still be successful, the Washington Post reported.
In other words, feelings of reverse racism remain alive and well.
Rob covers business, economics and the environment for Fusion. He previously worked at Business Insider. He grew up in Chicago.