If there’s one thing the events in Charlottesville demonstrate, it’s that racism is not a thing of the past, nor are groups like the nazis and kkk. (Grammatically speaking, those two names should be capitalized, but since first letter capitalization implies respect, I will capitalize neither.)
I haven’t published much on race on this blog, mostly because I can’t quite figure out how to adequately word my thoughts. I am white, so I cannot speak as someone who’s been systemically discriminated against due to skin color. It’s not my place. That said, I have done a fair amount of research into how race influences life in America. There are sizable overlaps between racism, sexism, ableism, and anti-Semitism, all of which the white supremacists embody. However, they’re examples of fanatics. The subtle discrimination is often more profound and indirectly supports the extremists.
Institutionalized racism is still present in education, and it starts before kindergarten. According to the US Department of Education, black students made up only 18% of the preschool population, but 48% of preschool children who had been suspended on more than one occasion in the 2011-2012 school year. I couldn’t find any data for years past that, but I highly doubt that’s changed terribly much, as the academic achievement gap is still shamefully wide.
There’s also a disparity between black and white students in special education. While I am a strong advocate for disabled students receiving all the help they need, I also realize that misdiagnosis can be just as harmful, if not more so, than being missed altogether.
Disability has long been used as a tool to discriminate against people based on everything from race to gender to social class. Unfortunately, when it comes to education, an official diagnosis of intellectual disability could harm a child’s opportunity for life when the real problems behind their academic struggles are an unstable home life, unconscious bias in school, or a missed learning disability. I specify intellectual disability, because black students tend to be misdiagnosed with that and emotional disorders more often than white students do. The resulting inappropriate treatment can lead to a higher likelihood of dropping out early and difficulty functioning as an adult. Again, this only applies to those whose true challenges were not recognized and addressed accordingly.
Unfortunately, those students of color who were properly identified early on, their chances of getting proper help relies heavily on income level and the school district in which their enrolled. Lower income districts, which are disproportionately populated by people of color, often have fewer accommodations available. Those present are often of lower quality than in wealthier districts. If both parents are present, and they both work full time, they may not have the crucial support at home and advocacy that students with all forms of disability so desperately need. This is by no means true in all cases, but it does still happen.
If a student makes it through high school and college, they face additional challenges on the job hunt. One well studied aspect is in discriminatory hiring practices based upon name. A 2014 article from Fortune discusses an experiment done by four professional researchers. They sent out carefully crafted resumes of fictional college graduates; the only significant differences being names typically seen as “non-white” or “white”, along with gender and class. It demonstrated what several other similar studies have since validated – folks with non-white names were less likely to receive requests for interviews, despite the fact they have the same or comparable skills. While this may be illegal, the burden of proof is placed upon the specific victim, and when all they receive is a generic rejection letter, they have no material evidence to support their case.
Bear in mind, what I discussed here is only a fraction of the role racism plays in the American culture. It’s not often talked about in white communities, because it’s not something we directly experience. Although my parents made an effort to raise my siblings and me around a diverse cross-section of people, I was still largely ignorant of many racist elements of my culture into adulthood. Because I’m white, I was sheltered from it. It was not intentional, but it still happened.
That lack of discussion, and the bullheaded unwillingness to listen to peoples’ of color stories, is what allows white supremacists, like the ones in Charlottesville and elsewhere, to exist. It’s what allows these patterns of hate to thread through the rest of our country, and allows preventable suffering to continue.
Yes, this blog is usually geared to disability, but race also plays a role in how disability is handled in school and work. White people especially must do the hard work of finding where racism has colored our perceptions, and change how we live our lives. We must celebrate the myriad of cultures that come with varying skin colors, and listen to their stories. The only way we can learn and assist in fixing problems is to first learn about them. We are not all the same, but that’s a good thing. It’s only through working together with those different than we are that we can create a better world.
Jordan, Kathy-Anne. “Discourses of Difference and the Overrepresentation of Black Students in Special Education.” Journal of African American History, vol. 90, no. 1/2, Winter/Spring, pp. 128-149.