Jennifer Erkulwater is a professor of political science at the University of Richmond. Her scholarship focuses on the politics of poverty, social security and disability rights. Below are highlights from an interview with The Conversation. Answers were edited for brevity and clarity.
What is your research focused on?
Erkulwater: My current job involves trying to understand why people of color are apparently missing out in debates about disability rights.
Colored people, especially African Americans, are more likely to report medical disabilities than whites, and yet popular media tend to showcase largely white people with disabilities. This is an absence that has been criticized on social media with the hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite.
I think about this from a political angle. The history of the American Disability Rights Movement is almost exclusively a history of white people. Political debates about disability rarely focus on the characteristic ways in which people of color experience disability. I tried to understand that silence. My work has largely looked at the role that public policy, namely the Social Security Act, has played in defining disability as white, as well as the strategies of disability organizations to create a coherent social movement of people with disabilities.
What will people find surprising about your work?
Erkulwater: It is not that the absence of people of color among people with disabilities was surprising, for I knew it to study only the politics of poverty. Colored people and people with disabilities are much more likely to experience poverty, rely on income support and struggle with unemployment than the general population. But I also knew political debates about access and employment for people with disabilities tend to focus on the needs and experiences of whites. I wanted to find out why this was the case.
I think it was surprising, back through its history and politics, that absenteeism is constant. And even in the 1960s and 1970s with some of the grassroots groups coming in to advocate for the civil rights of people with disabilities, they would say we really need to get more people of color.
But not only would this not happen, there was also a feeling that the advocacy for coloreds within the disability rights movement was competing with the attempt to build a coherent disability identity.
Not only did activists in the 1970s fear that claims of racial identity would separate people with disabilities, but throughout the 1980s, activists set disability rights as the antithesis of welfare, at a time when the term “welfare” became deeply racial. has. One of the arguments that activists and members of Congress made for the Americans with Disabilities Act in the late 1980s was that if the government banned discrimination against people with disabilities, people with disabilities could get a job rather than be dependent on welfare. to get done. .
*What motivates you to continue the research you are doing today?
Erkulwater: I just find it very interesting that you have a puzzle. No one has ever thought of that. I want to know the answer to that.
So some of the things I researched date back to the 1930s, the 1940s – but politics is still relevant today.
How are you inclusive? As an activist in a social movement, how do you try to include the diversity of people you claim to speak for? I think a lot about the ways in which policies and laws frame some groups, such as people with disabilities, as people to whose needs we must respond, but others, such as “the poor” or people on welfare, as undeserved of social assistance.
What is the one thing you want people to take away from your research?
Erkulwater: It’s really hard to be inclusive. Like really, really, really hard.
White activists with disabilities sometimes argued that Blacks should sit in the back of the bus, but the disabled could not even get on the bus. That argument erases Black people with disabilities, whose exclusion is the result of both racism and incompetence. When we advocate for human rights, it is important to recognize that our movements include people with marginalized identities, and there is value in centering those experiences and perspectives.
So many contemporary movements draw inspiration from the Black Civil Rights Movement. This is rightly so, but these comparisons may ultimately exclude African Americans. Drawing parallels with the Black Civil Rights Movement is useful if the goal is to show points of affinity and build common cause, (but) less so if the goal is to compare suffering. Comparing the oppression of white people with disabilities to that of African Americans under Jim Crow inherently excludes people of color with disabilities and participates in a competition over who is more deserving.
I do not know that for me it is a very productive way to build coalitions and to try to include the series of experiences and struggles that people go through. And so trying to listen to it, to be considerate, to be constantly aware of it and to act in a way that is ethical – I think it’s a challenge. And I think it’s important to acknowledge that. And it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you try to fix them.
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