The concept of reverse racism in the United States is commonly associated with conservative opposition to color-conscious policies aimed at addressing racial inequality, such as affirmative action. Amy E. Ansell of Emerson College identifies three main claims about reverse racism: (1) that government programs to redress racial inequality create "invisible victims" in white men; (2) that racial preferences violate the individual right of equal protection before the law; and (3) that color consciousness itself prevents moving beyond the legacy of racism.
Racial and ethnic minorities in the United States generally lack the power to damage the interests of white people, who remain the dominant group. Relations between the groups have been historically shaped by European imperialism and long-standing oppression of blacks by whites. Such disparities in the exercise of power and authority are seen by scholars as an essential component of racism; in this view, individual beliefs and examples of favoring disadvantaged people do not constitute racism.
While there has been little empirical study on the subject of reverse racism, the few existing studies have found little evidence that white males, in particular, are victimized by affirmative-action programs. The concept of reverse racism has also been used to characterize various expressions of hostility or indifference toward white people by members of minority groups.
Concerns that the advancement of African Americans might cause harm to White Americans date back as far as the Reconstruction Era in the context of debates over providing reparations for slavery.
The term "reverse racism" came into use as the struggle for African-American rights divided the white community.Hosea Williams of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), publicly accused members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of reverse racism in their efforts to exclude or expel white people from local government in Alabama to make room for black people. Williams argued the SNCC's intended "all-black" campaign in Alabama would drive white moderates out of the civil rights movement. "Black racism" was a more common term in this era, used to describe SNCC and groups like the Black Panthers.
Allegations of reverse racism emerged prominently in the 1970s, building on the racially color-blind view that any preferential treatment linked to membership in a racial group was morally wrong. Where past race-conscious policies such as Jim Crow have been used to maintain white supremacy, modern programs such as affirmative action aim to reduce racial inequality. Despite affirmative-action programs' successes in doing this, conservative opponents claimed that such programs constituted a form of anti-white racism. This view was boosted by the Supreme Court's decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978), which said that racial quotas for minority students were discriminatory toward white people.
While not empirically supported, the belief in reverse racism is widespread in the United States. White people’s belief in reverse racism has steadily increased since the civil rights movement of the 1960s and has contributed to the rise of conservative social movements such as the Tea Party. Ansell associates the idea of reverse racism with that of the "angry white male" in American politics. Claims of reverse racism in the early 21st century tend to rely on anecdotes of isolated instances, often based on third- or fourth-hand reports, of a white person losing a job to a black person, for example.
The perception of decreasing anti-black discrimination has been correlated with white people’s belief in rising anti-white discrimination. Researchers at Tufts University and Harvard reported in 2011 that many white Americans felt as though they then suffered the greatest discrimination among racial groups, despite data to the contrary. Whereas black respondents saw anti-black racism as a continuing problem, white ones tended to see such racism as a thing of the past, to the point that they saw prejudice against white people as being more prevalent. The authors wrote that among white respondents since the 1990s:
Whites have replaced Blacks as the primary victims of discrimination. This emerging perspective is particularly notable because by nearly any metric [...] statistics continue to indicate drastically poorer outcomes for Black than White Americans.
Psychological studies with white Americans have shown belief in anti-white racism to be linked with support for the existing racial hierarchy in the U.S. as well as the idea of meritocracy, specifically the idea that success comes from "hard work". A majority (57%) of white respondents to a 2016 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute said they believed discrimination against white people was as significant a problem as discrimination against black people, while only a minority of African Americans (29%) and Hispanics (38%) agreed.
The critical race theorist David Theo Goldberg argues that the notion of reverse racism represents a denial of the historical and contemporary reality of racial discrimination, while the anthropologist Jane H. Hill writes that charges of reverse racism tend to deny the existence of white privilege and power in society. In Racism without Racists, the sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva argues that white people's perceptions of reverse racism result from what he calls the new dominant ideology of "color-blind racism", which treats racial inequality as a thing of the past, and therefore allows it to continue by opposing concrete efforts at reform. In a widely reprinted article, legal scholar Stanley Fish wrote that "'Reverse racism' is a cogent description of affirmative action only if one considers the cancer of racism to be morally and medically indistinguishable from the therapy we apply to it".
Legal challenges concerning so-called "reverse racism" date back as far as the 1970s as asserted in such cases as Regents of the University of California v. Bakke; Gratz v. Bollinger; and Grutter v. Bollinger (regarding discrimination in higher education admissions) and Ricci v. DeStefano (regarding employment discrimination). The idea of reverse racism later gained widespread use in debates and legal actions concerning affirmative action in the United States.