Check It Out …Blackness as Disability, a legal strategy? (Jan. 31)


Every generation reevaluates the past; whether the results are beneficial or detrimental depends on the conclusions drawn.
Four years ago on MLK Jr.’s holiday an article was published called: The Civil Rights Movement was a failure. The author wrote, “The success of the civil rights movement is gospel in this country….Here’s the problem: I’m not really convinced that the civil rights movement succeeded. In fact, I think maybe it failed miserably. Why? Well, the movement was ‘successful’ in ending de jure segregation in the south (no more separate schools for Blacks and Whites) but did pretty much nothing to end de facto segregation everywhere else (lots more employment and housing discrimination). And ultimately, it was those ‘subtle forms’ of institutional racism that have done more damage than the racism of the American south.” (This comparison ignores the reasons for the “great migration” between 1916-1970 six million Blacks left the “American South” for a better life in the North and Midwest. This comparison also ignores that the NAACP lawyers defeated “separate but equal” by proving segregation produced an inferiority complex, psychologically damaging Black children.)
Then the author said pretend you’re a civil rights leader in 1960 and you wanted to make improvements. Would you go to Birmingham, Alabama, where Black people can’t sit in White restaurants by law, or do you go to Chicago, where Black people are trapped in slums by racist practices like denying access to capital through redlining? The author said you’d probably go to Birmingham because it’s a more winnable fight. (I’m glad Fred Shuttlesworth didn’t have to read that.)
The author justified this claim by stating, “Have you ever heard of the Chicago Freedom Movement? Did you know Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Chicago to try to improve conditions in the slums? Probably not … And maybe that’s because in Chicago, the civil rights movement came to a screeching halt … Once LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, the Civil Rights Movement was officially over in the minds of most Americans.”
Now, what has the conclusion drawn by this author produced?
Recently, the Fordham Law News published an excerpt from an upcoming article called “Blackness as Disability” for the Georgetown Law Journal. It’s written by Kimani Paul-Emile, an associate professor of law at Fordham University and associate director of its law school’s center on Race, Law, and Justice.
Professor Paul-Emile argues that Black, as a racial designation, is and was designed to be: disabling. Race-focusing civil rights laws and the Supreme Court’s equal protection jurisprudence have been relatively effective at countering intentional discrimination, such as Jim Crow, but has failed to tackle modern-day racial injustice, such as: unconscious bias, stereotyping, and structural inequality —inequities rooted within social systems and institutions that create inequality in the absence of intentional discrimination.
Professor Paul-Emile continued, “Blackness, of course, is not, by itself, an impairment. However, disability law recognizes that many traits understood as disabling do not necessarily arise from a medical condition, but are instead simply traits that create disadvantage when combined with an inhospitable social or physical environment. This “social model” of disability offers a critical lens into the meaning, production, and cultural relativity of disability that is useful for thinking about race. For instance, it allows us to see how some disabilities are quite literally manifestations of sociocultural forces, as is the case with “anorexia nervosa.” Professor Paul-Emile added African Americans might initially spurn the “Blackness as disability” label, but it can actually be a wise court plan.
Black History Month is about to start, and if this generation keeps drawing these types of conclusions, the generation after next might rename February Disability Month.
(J. Pharoah Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier. He blogs at
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