“Reverse Discrimination”: Vestiges of an Old Bargain

Lillian Smith, in her 1949 memoir Killers of the Dream, writes of white Southerners and the “bargain” they make with one another in regards to the “Negro.” The Rich White tells the Poor White: you let me take care of the money, since I know more about that than you do, and I’ll let you take care of the “Negro.” That is, keep non-whites in “their place.” This bargain was to keep the Poor Whites from joining up with African Americans in the unions that were then becoming popular in the North, forcing Rich Whites to pay more money to their workers. To keep these two groups at odds with one another, the Rich Whites continually reinforced to the Poor Whites that they were “better than” people of color, which kept the Poor Whites busy defending their sense of pride against those who might be in competition for their own jobs, nevermind the low wages and poor working conditions in all their jobs.

I can’t help but feel this same “bargain” is being played out today under the narrative of “reverse discrimination.” The story of reverse discrimination goes something like this: I (a white person), applied for a job, and I was clearly the most qualified candidate. Because of the overwhelming pressure to conform to unfair standards of political correctness, those making the hiring decisions opted for a much-less qualified candidate because they were a minority. It’s not fair that I didn’t get this job; I was discriminated against because I was a white person.

First of all, let me disclose that I am not on the job market currently, so I am distanced from the existential anxiety and fear of getting passed over for a job. That being said, I realize that there are a lot of people looking for work; there will be a lot of people trying to apply for jobs that can only be given to one person. That is, there are sheer numbers which point to the current difficulty of getting a job in today’s job market.

Having been on the hiring side before, I remember that there were a number of different factors involved in making the final decision. Race was one of them, but not to conform to “political correctness.” We considered race because of the population of persons who would be coming through our office and who would benefit from looking at the people who worked there and see “here is at least one other person who looks like me, maybe they can help me feel more comfortable here.” I was also aware of the continued problem of racism and discrimination in hiring practices, so I wanted to make sure I was not consciously dismissing a candidate based on race.

Ultimately, though, we hired a white person because we felt she was the most compelling candidate. But I couldn’t help wondering to myself, “was part of it the fact that she looks like me? That I feel more comfortable working with her because she looks and sounds more like me than another candidate?” Again, that may have been one of the complex underworkings of my subconscious–we often prefer that with which we feel most comfortable, and if we’ve been around predominantly white people most of our lives then that is the group of people we may feel most comfortable around. This is how prejudice continues–we like to be around people who look like us, and so we begin to make assumptions about people who don’t look and act and speak like us.

I share this anecdote to say that: 1) even race-conscious employers do not always choose minorities; 2) the role of “affirmative action” in hiring, in my experience, has been negligible–no one enforces it, no one asks you in great detail how you came up with your decision (though I know at other institutions this process may differ and be more strenuous, but even then, my experience has been that the candidate hired was white); and 3) the hiring process is very complicated and not attributable to one factor (ie., we hired her because ____.) Rather, there are multiple factors which go into why a particular person was hired, such as: current make-up of staff and trying to compensate for particular areas of need, past experiences of the employer and who you may or may not remind them of, personal charisma of candidate and her ability to connect well with the employers, candidate’s prior experience and education, personality, and expected consumer needs. These are just a few of the myriad reasons or factors that go into hiring (or admitting someone into an educational program as more often my experience has been).

And perhaps challenging our own narratives may help us refocus our energies. The narrative I imagined above I’ve copied below with some suggestive reframing:

I (a white person), applied for a job, and I was clearly the most qualified candidate [how do I know that? did I read all the resumes? do I know all the candidates?]. Because of the overwhelming pressure to conform to unfair standards of political correctness [is it a mandate in this company to abide by a “quota”? because actually, those have been illegal for a while now], those making the hiring decisions opted for a much-less qualified candidate [do I know all their qualifications? do I know who the clients are that this employer is wanting to serve via this candidate?] because they were a minority [again, the hiring process is much too tedious and time-consuming for it all to revolve around one trait]. It’s not fair that I didn’t get this job [it may be unfortunate since I wanted this job, but it’s probably not unfair or unjust]; I was discriminated against because I was a white person [if I looked across the statistics for income and wealth disparities, access to healthcare and safe neighborhoods, would I still feel like I as a white person have been a victim of discrimination?].

Finally, returning to my initial hypothesis that reverse discrimination is a new iteration of the Rich White-Poor White bargain, I think claiming reverse discrimination too easily takes the pressure and focus off of those controlling the resources: Rich Whites. By pitting poor and middle-class whites against persons of color, wealthy whites can remain in control of the money and not have to worry about a more equitable distribution system that would pay CEO’s less so that more staff persons could be hired, etc. I’m not an economist, but I can’t help but feel that it’s never the wealthy who lose as a result of discrimination.

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