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Teachable moments – Reverse discrimination

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
August 14, 2020

Like many topics in the field of equal opportunity, how you see the issue is often influenced by the media, personal experience or impacts on your life. A topic like reverse discrimination can certainly be described as a hot button issue. This next article in my teachable moment series, hopefully provides you a different insight or perspective than you’re used to, yet without the “heat.” Let’s start the conversation with a paradoxical statement: “There is no such thing as reverse discrimination;” but, “the concept is alive and well.”

As usual, I’ll start with a definition. The term “reverse discrimination” reflects the belief that the group now being discriminated against had previously been the one doing the discrimination. Because of affirmative action and governmental policies that were taken to promote equal opportunity for marginalized groups, this term crept in as a backlash to those efforts.

I first became aware of the term when studying the Allan Bakke Case. He sued the medical school at University of California at Davis for discrimination. He was a white male. UC Davis reserved 16 percent of their admissions to the school for Black, Asian and Hispanic students. Bakke had unsuccessfully applied for admission twice before he filed his lawsuit. In it, he claimed that because his grades and test scores were higher than many of the minority students who were accepted, that he was unfairly discriminated against based on his race. He labeled this as “reverse discrimination” and alleged it was against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1978, they declared that affirmative action was constitutional and that as part of those efforts, race could be used as one of many factors without being discriminatory. But they also agreed that the specific actions of the medical school, were illegal. They stated it was a strict “racial quota” attempting to right the historical wrongs of past discrimination in society generally. UC Davis wasn’t fixing their specific past discrimination and therefore their set quotas were illegal. The court was bitterly divided and had six different opinions written about the case. The decision is often called Justice Lewis Powell’s “grand compromise.” It is considered a landmark case almost as critical to equal opportunity in education as was “Brown versus the Board of Education.”

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 (and as amended) outlaws discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It gave jurisdiction to the district courts of the United States to provide injunctive relief against discrimination based on those factors, and to prevent discrimination in federally assisted programs. It also established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So, in the legal sense, there is no such thing as reverse discrimination. If a male, or someone who is white is illegally discriminated against because of their race or gender, then this act covers them too. Yet the term as a media and popular concept does remain in vogue today because it describes an unusual and non-traditional type of illegal discrimination. Thus, the concept is well understood even if it’s not a legal basis for filing a complaint or lawsuit. 

As a side note, Bakke ultimately was admitted to medical school. He first applied when he was 32, after attending night school while working as an engineer in a NASA lab. He was also a former Marine. Dr. Bakke specializes in anesthesiology and has been in practice for almost 40 years in the Rochester, MN area. Often asked for interviews or comments about his case, Dr. Bakke has had little to say about the importance of his case and its impact on equal opportunity.

The thoughts and opinions expressed in this article are based on the author’s learning and experience. That includes serving as a Military Civil Rights Counselor/Facilitator, Senior Coast Guard Instructor and Liaison Officer at the Department of Defense’s Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Past Co-Chair International Society for Performance Improvement (ISPI) Diversity Committee, and Civil Rights, Assistant Civil Rights for Human Relations Committee assignments over a twenty-eight-year active duty military career. The views expressed by the author are their own and not the views of the Community Voice, the U.S. Coast Guard, or any other organizations the author references.