Professor’s Approach To Racism:  Call Yourself Disabled

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I grew up in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, as did my mother in the 1920s and ‘30s. To her family’s chagrin, my mother married a Northerner and, worse, a Catholic. My father had his faults, but he was rock-solid in one way – his abhorrence of Southern bigotry.

At extended family gatherings, in the 1960s, I was shocked to hear cousins and uncles regularly toss out the N-word – a use of language never allowed in our house.

Years later, in the early 1980s, I was a sportswriter when Doug Williams, an African-American, quarterbacked the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Letters to the editor streamed in, claiming that no (expletive N-word) was smart enough to be an NFL quarterback (which is why I rooted heartily for the Williams-led Redskins in the 1988 Super Bowl).

Thirty-some years later, attitudes are more enlightened. But racism, in the South and everywhere else, still exists.

Conditions of African-Americans are improved, according to the National Urban League, but more improvement is needed, especially where discrimination exists.

How to combat racial discrimination? One law professor, Kimani Paul-Emile of Fordham, has a novel idea:

Label African-Americans as disabled.

She’s not kidding.

Professor Paul-Emile believes that laws fighting racial discrimination can only go so far. Blacks need more protection:

“Although race law has been relatively effective at countering intentional discrimination, such as Jim Crow, it has failed to combat the predominant forms of discrimination that now harm minority populations:  unconscious bias, stereotyping, and structural inequality …”

You cannot create laws regulating the unconscious thoughts of citizens, so the good professor is promoting a legal maneuver by declaring a whole race of people disabled.

“A range of statutes, most notably the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which together I will refer to as ‘disability law,’ were drafted to remedy interpersonal and structural discrimination against individuals with disabling conditions.

“Unlike race law, disability law does not require aggrieved parties to show that the exclusion or harm they have suffered was intentional.”

I do not want to take the professor’s words out of context, and I am no lawyer (only the son of one).  Please read the presentation yourself. I did. I don’t doubt her good intentions, nor her intellectual might. But I find this approach misguided.

After decades of struggling for quality, African-Americans now want to be considered disabled? That is difficult to believe.

At one point, the professor seems to backtrack, declaring that “Blackness, of course, is not, by itself, an impairment. However, … many traits understood as disabling do not necessarily arrive from a medical condition, but are instead simply traits that create disadvantage when combined with an inhospitable social or physical environment …”

Professor Paul-Emile refers to the “paradigm-shifting contention of this model [of social disability].” In other words, the law can be adjusted … in this case, to African Americans.

But who else can be declared disabled? Other minorities? Women? The list might be endless.

The professor sees a problem – the existence of racism – and wants to attack it with a legal loophole, applying assistance that was designed for those physically and mentally disabled.


Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights …” 

Those noble words meant little to the nation’s residents who were enslaved at the time (including those enslaved by the author).

But are not the words still true? Should not the effort be focused on striving towards equality, and not creating a new, lawyerly distinction?

The danger in bringing up this subject, as a white man, automatically attracts claims of racism. In this social media climate, it’s impossible to avoid. In an article I wrote last April – No Father, No Peace – I voiced concern about the decline in family structure, including African-American families. I based it on both statistics and voices from black men with similar concerns.

Racism exists and must be countered, always. But is that the sole answer?

A stable family life cures many ills, while improving the education of children which, in turn, improves the economic outlook.

I do not claim the climb is easy, but there are ways to rise. Calling yourself disabled is not one of them.


Kevin Thomas is a writer and former teacher, living with his wife and children in Standish, Maine.