Five Comebacks to "Reverse Discrimination"

This past week, I wrote an opinion piece that ran in the Des Moines Register (which some of you saw, but here is the link if you’d like to read it).

The beautiful farm has stayed in John's family in large part because of government loans and programs

The op-ed was about debt relief for farmers of color, designated by the Federal Stimulus Relief Package. The idea of the law was to take one small step toward making amends for years of well documented discrimination by the US Department of Agriculture against Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian and other non-white farmers. And like a predictable sitcom, White people complained (and I capitalize “White” here after much deliberation, to indicate that White people are in fact a group with distinct common experiences as the dominant culture in the US). Lawsuits were filed and injunctions given, and allegations of “reverse” discrimination were lodged.

I wrote the opinion piece to explain to fellow White people why the law is in fact not discrimination (part of which I will explain below). And I heard from many people who said that they had been approached by White people complaining about the law, but didn’t really know how to respond. Let’s be honest too, there are any number of similar laws or situations for which there is a lot of White whining - and while it is up to other White people to set the record straight, many of us are at a loss for words.

So, although I am no expert, I wanted to give five quick explanations you can pull out of your back pocket when someone runs off at the mouth about things like "reverse discrimination" against Whites.

Point #1

Discrimination is not something that happens once in a while (like when you can’t apply for a program that is not designed for you)

Racism and discrimination happen over long periods of time and across different types of businesses and government agencies, like when Black people are not able to purchase homes in certain areas while also being rejected for jobs, denied bank loans, access to college, etc, etc. Challenge your whinning White friend to think of ways White people - as a group - have been denied access or benefits for extended periods of time, to anything.


Point #2

Programs and grants always have boundaries as to who can apply and who can’t

All programs define the traits a recipient needs to have to apply. There are college scholarships for athletes, for example, and “legacy” students get in easier than those whose parents did not attend a school. There are government programs for veterans, for youth, for women. Landowners who have historically grown corn receive monies farmers who grow apples cannot access and government subsidized crop insurance is available for some growers and not others.

Why is offering a program based on race and ethnicity - particularly to those who have often been denied access other programs - then unwarranted?

Point #3

For most of American history, virtually all government programs were available only to White males.


Until 1870 - almost 100 years after the US was formed and 40 percent of our nation's history - only White males got to vote, accessing the totality of all government programs for their benefit. And while Black men got the right to vote via the15th Amendment, many states did not uphold that right. Women’s suffrage came only in 1920. I don't need to give you the history lesson about Civil Rights and how access to many programs was denied through intimidation and the whole "separate but equal" idea (which was anything but equal).


Fast forward to the 1980s farm crisis, Black farmers received only 1% of all loans and it took three times longer to process their requests than it did for their White peers. Even today, the average eligible Black farmer receives less than half the USDA subsidies of an eligible white farmer.

Point #4

There is no such thing as pulling yourself up by your bootstraps


John works hard, but it was access to land that allowed us to farm

We have all heard the complaint. “I worked hard, why can’t they?” But let's be honest - I have never, ever gotten a job based on merit alone. Every single time, I have known someone who knew someone who gave me a job. These are the boot straps that most Whites are able to pull. Acting like success is based only on hard work denies the benefits people in a community have received because of who we are and where we live. Our network of contacts come from our communities and if your community holds little power or wealth, it is extremely hard to pull on bootstraps that don’t exist.

Point #5

Life is not a zero sum game.

If you succeed, it does not mean I then must fail. In fact, in many cases, working together makes us far stronger than working against each other. A city with a lot of great restaurants means that there is more opportunity for other restaurants to open. And researchers have found that even when dealing with natural resources, groups - from Maine fishermen to African pastoralists - that work to safe guard them together, benefit not only ecologically but economically too.


So if my Black and Indigenous farming colleagues have their debt written off while I don't, so be it. Life isn't fair - everyone doesn't get the same opportunities in life - and it won't be the last time I am denied something that someone else gets.


I am providing these points because it is time to join the conversations that are going on in our communities. People need to stop and think, and to get them to do so, we have to challenge their incorrect racist assertions, rather keep quiet and avoid conflict.


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