What's The Problem?

Last week, the President of RespectAbility, a disability rights organization currently focused on disability issues in the U.S. elections, posted this on her Facebook page:

It’s cliche I know, but my first response, literally, was to say “What the fuck?!” … under my breath because I was sitting in a public place when I read it. The second thing I said was, “Oh, no, no, no!” because this wasn’t the first time she had said or done something racist, while trying to make a point about something else.

Later that day, she deleted the post, but if you don’t think better of an offensive Facebook post within a half an hour or so, deleting it tends to do more harm than good. Instead of saying, “Wow, did that come out wrong, sorry about that!” she went into defense mode. It was definitely going to be a thing, and it deserved to be.

The next day, she was quoted in a CNN article about Hillary Clinton’s recent speech on disability policy, and basically reiterated what she’d said in her Facebook post, that white people who care about disabled people are going to be key to Clinton’s election. I don’t know whether she said this to the reporter before or after her Facebook post, but the effect was a kind of “sorry / not sorry.” She deleted the post, then said basically the same thing in a news article.

On Sunday morning, I was one of a long list of people who received an emailed apology from Ms. Mizrahi. As it turned out, on Friday she had issued the following public apology on the RespectAbility website:


This was, at that point, “the least she could do.” ***

So, what, exactly, is the problem?

I’m not highly qualified to say. I am a white man. I am disabled, and have been all of my life, but I am also privileged … socially, educationally, and, most of the time, economically. On top of that, despite over 20 years in the disability rights movement, and a lifetime being a left-leaning liberal, my understanding of how race and disability relate to each other is pretty thin. That right there is, I think, a clue about the nature of the problem.

Still, you don’t need a doctorate in sociology to spot the most obvious offense in the post … the implication that white people’s votes matter more than other peoples’ votes. And when challenged on this, Mizrahi doubled down by repeating the other side of that coin … that Black people and other people of color can be counted on to vote Democratic, and what’s really important is that white Trump supporters who have disabled family or friends might cross over and vote for Hillary Clinton because of Trump’s disrespect of disabled people.

Whether or not these are sound predictions and valid strategies, (more on that later), can we at least agree that it’s gross and unhelpful to underscore and celebrate taking minority voters for granted, while pining for and prizing the votes of white racists?

But this is only the most overt problem. It also reveals and reinforces deeper issues that transcend one person or incident.

There is a history of racism in the disability rights movement. On one level, this is not surprising or even especially scandalous, since the disability rights movement in the United States is rooted in American culture, which includes both intentional and habitual racism. We like to think that disability rights is a special and virtuous movement, and it is, but it’s not so special that it is immune from all prejudices.

In fact, there is a unique and insidious kind of racism in the disability community, even to this day. Specifically:

1. Until very, very recently, the projected, carefully crafted face of the movement has been overwhelmingly white. The word “erasure” can sound like jargon to the average observer, but it really means something. When you don’t see people like you in popular culture, in school, in workplaces, or in a movement you care about and want to be a part of, it can be a barrier as solid as stairs to a wheelchair user. And when someone in the movement says something that seems to validate your lesser status and invisibility, it really is like a slap in the face. You don’t have to be “over sensitive” or “PC” to feel the pain.

2. This “whiteness” of the disability rights movement also relates to one of the more questionable aspirations of the movement ... a quest to make disability rights some kind of crossover social justice movement, easy to support and palatable even to conservatives, bigots, and people who disapprove of protest and diversity. It’s tempting to make disability somehow “post racial,” and a stand-alone issue, but since disability and other minority communities overlap, this doesn’t even make any sense. Nevertheless, I think that in a lot of ways we keep trying to pull this off, sometimes deliberately, often without realizing that’s what we are doing.

3. For what it’s worth, in addition to being an odious goal, I don’t think there’s much to it. There is little evidence that apolitical people, conservatives, or racists suddenly learn to love and understand social justice because they or a member of their families have a disability. They might engage in necessary self-advocacy, and that’s not nothing, but when it’s time for systemic activism, solidarity, and yes … voting … people who aren’t into those things to begin with usually find other things they need to be doing, regardless of their personal experiences of disability. And political ideology usually wins out over practical experience in the voting booth, too, even among disabled voters. That may change someday. It may be starting to change this year. But it’s definitely too early to cut allies lose because we think we’ve assembled a new voting bloc.

So, in addition to Mizrahi’s wording and phrasing being offensive on its face, it revives this old, offensive, and highly questionable strategy, which has had a long and, frankly, embarrassing history in the disability community.

Finally, this seems to relate also to a wider strategy in some liberal and Democratic Party circles … the never-ending effort to “win back” the white racists and social conservatives who left the party when it committed to civil rights in the 1960s and ‘70s. It’s not that anyone literally says it, but prioritizing and messaging speak loudly. People of color are in the bag for “us” and our Holy Grail is to find just the right “wedge issues” to persuade white racists, who fundamentally despise us and everything we stand for. As the saying goes, good luck with that.

It’s one thing to understand your enemy, find a little common ground, and chip away at their periphery. It’s quite another to treat your friends like ho-hum garbage and beg your enemies for approval that never comes. It’s offensive and pathetic … and it doesn’t work.

*** Note: Ms. Mizrahi posted a longer apology after most of this commentary was already written. While there is more there than her one-line apology from last Friday, it doesn’t alter any of the points I have made here. I hope it’s clear that the problem I’m addressing isn’t, in fact, only about one person or a single “mistake,” but rather a case of backsliding into an old, divisive formulation that threatens the small but precious progress we have made to make our movement truly inclusive.