With the Black Lives Matter protests and events are occurring as part of a call for justice, I want to do my part to help the movement.
While police brutality is what triggered this movement, there are a lot of complex roots underlying it. This post focuses on the disabled angle.
As a disabled person, I am very aware of ableism and the injustices that the disabled community as a whole faces.
This post is predominantly directed at non-black disabled folks to help us better understand the situation. If you are a black, disabled person, I’d appreciate any feedback you can provide on resources and tone in this post. I’m doing my best to be a supportive ally, but completely recognize that I won’t always get things right.
Black disabled people are an intersectional identity that is extremely marginalized and deserves focus and attention. So let’s explore some of the issues around that intersection of disabled and black identities.
Black people become disabled at a higher rate than most other races in the US
First thing to understand is that black people in the US are disproportionately disabled. One in four black people are disabled, but the number of white(1:5), Asian(1:10) and Hispanic(1:6) disabled people is lower. The only racial group with a higher frequency are Native people(3:10), who are another group that is severely marginalized.
The CDC doesn’t explain why, but I would estimate that systemic racism is, in large part, to blame.
Those of us disabled folks who aren’t black need to respect that black people join our community at a higher rate than most. Life with a disability isn’t easy, so as the largest minority, we should be supporting all members of our community.
Police Brutality towards disabled people
Given the current protests, the first challenge I want to acknowledge is issues with law enforcement.
The US police force participates in racism and ableism, leading to disturbing information, like disproportionate murder of disabled people in general by the police, with an estimated half to one-third of people killed by police having some form of disability.
Intersectional identities, like black disabled people, are the most impacted by police brutality. Unfortunately, there is not much reliable effort put into recording these intersectional identities(police records rarely record whether or not an individual is disabled), making it possible that the numbers are actually higher.
I support the protests against the deaths of so many black men and black women in the hands of police.
I want to make sure that police brutality towards disabled people is also recognized as so very many black disabled people have died in the hands of police – and many of the trainings(such as on bias training) that would benefit black people could also benefit the disabled community.
I see the work of the Black Lives Matter movement as one that can and should help all black people, and ideally intersectional identities that also are fighting injustices in treatment.
Removal of disability from our history
Those of us managing disabilities benefit from knowing that others with disabilities have succeeded, to give us hope for the future.
Unfortunately, in many cases, the disabled aspect of many people’s identities are removed from their histories, so that it’s harder for us to understand our place in society.
Part of the challenge is that in many cases, disabled people have ‘passed’ as nondisabled in order to succeed, or the people who wrote their stories chose to minimize or remove their disabled identity.
In other cases where that was impossible, like Helen Keller, their significance in history may be minimized or poorly represented.
I know that my personal education in terms of Helen Keller was focused on ‘inspiration porn’ stories of her early challenges in connecting with the world, rather than her later work towards women’s rights, her support of socialism, and other relatively unique contributions she made to society.
Knowing how bad it is for whites, let’s pause a moment to recognize that this same issue occurs for black people as well. Given the huge gaps in recorded black history due to slavery and racism, it’s a lack that may be deeper felt and is certainly more obvious.
Racism in society makes success harder for blacks
Disturbingly, while most racial groups experience increased health as income increases the same cannot be said for blacks. Research has also indicated that while reaching higher levels of social and financial success relieves pressure on non-Hispanic whites, blacks remain in a similar level of stress even if they have increased income or other signs of social success.
As mentioned above, black people become disabled at a higher rate than whites(more on that in the next section), and minorities have much higher rates of stress-associated health conditions. There are now studies suggesting mechanisms for this process. However, what it boils down to is that being black is stressful, even when comparing people with similar life histories and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The Center for American Progress lays out a relatively concise and readable history of systemic racism in employment in the US. The short version is that while slaves were freed, blacks have historically been pushed towards lower-wage professions, had limited ranges of opportunities, and these ‘historically black’ jobs have not been protected the same way ‘historically white’ jobs were.
Most opportunities to help people in need focused on white people and most organizations designed to support black rights or systemic equality were underfunded.
Today, these issues persist, with black people being paid less than whites who are doing the same job, and black boys can expect to earn less than their white classmates in similar socioeconomic situations.
Is it any wonder that people are protesting in the streets?
For white people stating that they aren’t racist, we are participating in a social system that is designed to give whites the benefit of the doubt, and which disproportionately penalizes minorities in all matters.
The system is rigged, even if individuals aren’t actively trying to hurt black and brown people.
Recognizing bias – in ourselves and in others
But everybody has biases, and due to participating in a racist social system with biased information sources, all of us are socialized towards a racist mindset.
And, in all honesty, we’re also all socialized towards an ableist mindset as well.
These systemic biases run deep and we’re not necessarily conscious of them. That’s what makes things like Harvard’s Implicit Bias tests so important.
I like to think of myself as a bit of an activist and as deeply embracing social equality.
I hate that systemic racism exists, and I have friends of all races.
However, I remain slightly biased against blacks, and somewhat biased against disabled people.
I still have work to do.
The first step to solving any problem is recognizing that there is one.
I hope that this post has helped awaken you to the fact of systemic racism(or reignited your fire about it), so that you can take steps to help fight it.
Test yourself – there are a lot of options in that test and many can help you better recognize your own biases and better understand your own tendencies.
Having bais is simply a reality – everybody has some preferences, beliefs, or ideas that come from their life experiences.
The problem isn’t the existence of bias, the problem is that so many people don’t acknowledge their bias and believe they are making a fair or reasonable decision despite the fact that their decision is affected by their bias.
By knowing your own tendencies, you can question yourself and do your best to manage or account for your own personal bias.
Again, if you don’t know you have a problem, there’s nothing you can or will do to fix it.
So what can white folks do?
What can you do now?(If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem).
Well, if you aren’t one, work on understanding the experiences of black disabled people.
Do some googling, take the bias test, search the hashtag #blackdisabledlivesmatter on social media.
When you see your fellow disabled folks who don’t share your racial identity(or sexual orientation, etc), take a moment to say hi and get to know them a bit. Try to break down whatever biases you have by getting to know others with those identities.
All of us with disabilities deserve to live better lives – and focusing on helping multiply marginalized members of society rise up will help all of us take a big step towards social equality.