Few people believe disability rights is a racial justice issue. On face value, it isn’t. But did you know, although less than 3% of the total population, Black San Franciscans are twice as likely to be disabled than white San Franciscans?
How is this possible? How can somebody’s race make them more likely to be disabled or not?
While I don’t have all the answers to that question, I can make some educated guesses. I can guess that it has something to do with food deserts in Black communities, where nutrition options are usually limited to liquor and junk food. This is likely a contributor to the increased rates of diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease than other ethnic groups in the U.S. I can guess that it has to do with rising inequality from the billionaire class. I can guess it has something to do with more than 60% of tech jobs going to white people and less than 8% to Black people, which accounts for more than 25% of our local economy. I can guess that of non-tech jobs that are available, many more are manual labor and dangerous, such as working as a security guard, night shift construction or jobs where physical safety of workers is not made a priority. I can guess it has something to do with the disgustingly racist medical triage system where, according to Harvard University, black children have a 500% higher death rate from asthma compared to white children.
Who’s Left Out of the Picture?
One thing that startles me about disability justice activism, is how overwhelmingly white it all is. Few groups for social justice are more homogenized and racially segregated than disabled folks, and it’s something that pops out and screams to be acknowledged. If you’ve ever been to any disabled event hosted by a nonprofit—which is almost all of them, since we are constantly obstructed from building relationships with each other—you know what I mean.
Most all nonprofit CEOs (*ahem* I mean “Executive Directors”) that “serve” disabled people are either led by non-disabled people and/or white people. And while identity leadership isn’t everything, it sure can be a barometer to start with when investigating who’s actually making a difference and who is (or isn’t) being seen.
Outside of the boardroom, the glossy NGO lobby or below the picturesque billboards of our “do-gooderism,” you don’t have to look far to see who the majority of disabled homeless neighbors are. They are Black Americans, and other people of color (POC) being brutalized by a system that doubly hates them for simply existing.
As someone who faces daily cruelty and obstacles as a wheelchair user, it’s hard to fathom what those compounding extra layers of discrimination must do to one’s psyche, self-esteem and overall access to the basics like housing, food, and relationships. In the dozens, if not hundreds of meetings I’ve attended at City Hall, including SF access committees, Mayor’s Office on Disability, In Home Support Services and others, race is barely even a whisper in the room. It’s the elephant the pencil pushers and PR heads do their best to avoid at all costs. Unless there’s a massive uprising like in 2020, then sometimes they might make a passing meaningless statement about it.
Silence is complacency, as the saying goes, and these pretend diplomats of disabled inclusion add insult to injury when they refuse to acknowledge the horrible pain and suffering that is unleashed through routine, systemic, racial profiling and discrimination in housing, jobs and everywhere else that bigotry can nestle its filthy snout.
Where’s The Watchdog?
For racial discrimination of this sort, San Francisco has an underfunded and largely ineffective Human Rights Commission you can go to to air grievances. If they do bother to reply to your emails—an “if” in my experience—you can expect to wait four to five years for a housing discrimination investigation to be completed, usually in the landlord’s favor. Not that it matters, by that point you’ve probably been gentrified already. I fought it out for those years, but I’m white, and the societal advantages that I was born into are the only reason I am able to continue living in housing as a severely disabled San Franciscan.
Our ruthless politicians and even a newly “forward-thinking Democrat” appointed supervisor have rushed to the fore with a solution: “Conservatorship!” they say. “Let’s expand conservatorship!” In other words, if they can’t eradicate homeless people through encampment destruction, racial profiling, defunding social programs, stealing their belongings, or police brutality, they propose to convince us to give police the power to literally enslave homeless people to the State, under the cause of “mental incapacity.”
These gargoyles of fascistic intent intend to strip grown adults of their democratic freedom to handle their own money and personal decisions. That sure did wonders for Britney Spears (sarcasm), who suffered incredible anguish and mental and emotional damage from abuse. As an international celebrity with millions of fans around the world, it took her many years to finally be able to have control of her own life. How long do you think it would take a Black disabled San Franciscan with none of those things, similarly manipulated or wrongfully accused?
No, conservatorship is not the solution to homelessness, racial profiling or disableism. And while nihilism, apathy, gaslighting or disinformation might trick us into believing otherwise, there are some very good solutions to the very real issues. Here are some steps (or rolls) in the right direction, I believe we can take today to begin solving this crisis:
1. Talk about it. Stop pretending that racial profiling doesn’t exist in the disabled community, and it isn’t a rampant problem. You can’t fix anything without addressing its existence first. There should not be a single meeting on disabled issues that doesn’t prioritize racist exclusion in the community.
2. Acknowledge that disability rights are a racial justice issue. When we protest for BLM, disability services and similar causes of justice, let’s also demand inclusion of Black and indigenous POC who are disabled and their needs. Is your protest accessible to disabled people? Don’t assume it is or isn’t, invite your disabled friends and ask. Is your disabled event hosted by majority white people? Ask for feedback or put text on the flier asking for thoughts on access and inclusion. Don’t say “we are inclusive” – say that you strive for inclusion. You won’t get it perfect, but asking and being humble is a great way to begin the conversation.
3. Demand better funding and leadership at the Human Rights Commission. This is a local body whose sole purpose is to supposedly protect groups from discrimination. However, they have almost no power; they cannot levy fines or fees of any kind on bad actors. They also drag their feet and do not have enough investigators, or ones that are incentivized to do good. Speak up one of their meetings or at a Tuesday meeting at City Hall, and organize within your community for better accountability from this department.
4. Re-elect or reinstate Chesa Boudin or a similar district attorney who actively combats and litigates against racial discrimination, both within and outside government and NGOs.
5. Defund the police. Every year Black Americans are made disabled from acts of police violence and brutality. 2022 marked more police killings of black people in a decade, and yet, our Mayor continues to increase the police budget with a “no strings attached” mentality. However, it’s only the deaths that make the news. What about the people who were shot and choked for several minutes, but survived with disabling conditions? Or disabled people of color who are profiled by police so much that they made an album about it? Support them and support the cause of removing funds from our always-increasing police budget to re-invest in community programs and harm reduction services.
6. Get to know your disabled neighbors of color. Ask them what kind of community improvements they’d like. Support BiPOC communities with healthier food alternatives through gardening initiatives. Offer to pick up or deliver food or medication, and get to know your disabled neighbors of color. You might be surprised at how kind and generous they are!
7. Divest from apps or gig economy startups, which only further racist disenfranchisement, and the digital divide. and hurt workers through anti-union practices, minimum wage/fair compensation loopholes and other unsavory tactics that harm workers or color. Support brick-and-mortar stores that are Black-owned, like Marcus Books.
8. Renting a room? Take the extra effort to include in your ad that you welcome prospective tenants with disabilities and tenants of any race or national background. Sure, this kind of discrimination is illegal (though often practiced), but there’s a big difference between avoiding the wrong thing and encouraging the right thing! Adding this language can help people feel seen and know where to prioritize their limited energy to respond.
9. Look at the policies and actions, not the figure. It’s no secret that our city plays heavily on politics of identity, often putting token puppets into positions of power over others. Don’t let a single person in a position of authority speak for an entire population of that shared identity. Alex Wagner, the only Asian American prime time cable news host put it most eloquently, “It’s absolutely humbling to represent a huge diaspora that is definitely not all within me.”
9. Listen and look to communities for what they want, not politicians or “stakeholders” – get your news and info directly from the source by reading this newspaper, or ones like it!
10. What are your ideas for improvement? We’d love to hear from you, write us at firstname.lastname@example.org