The Black Prison Called “Special Education”

“If you can control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions. If you can determine what a man thinks you do not have to worry about what he will do. If you can make a man believe that he is inferior, you don’t have to compel him to seek an inferior status, he will do so without being told and if you can make a man believe that he is justly an outcast, you don’t have to order him to the back door, he will go to the back door on his own and if there is no back door, the very nature of the man will demand that you build one.”-Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)

Even though the physical chains have been removed from the ankles of the ancestors of slaves, today the chains kneaded from the clay of oppression have been reshaped through the fires of time into covert racist components which are embedded within all major institutions in America in a continued effort to disable and control Blacks, but more often, specifically targeting Black males. Due to this major difference, Black males are then subjected to a more intense measure of control and hardship directed by Whites and their system of oppression.

As children, young Black males are handcuffed on the tilted playing field of opportunities designed by the dominant White majority that consciously and subconsciously reproduces subjugation and control. Effects of this control can be seen in the high rate of Black males within special education. Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) of 1975, (P.L. 94-142), known presently as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1990 (Reauthorized in 2004), was initially enacted to provide all students classified as special education students, access to a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE).

As noted by Turnbull and Turnbull in 1998, the message conveyed to the public by lawmakers who devised IDEA was that they intended to protect the rights of parents and their children as well as assisting state and local education agencies (LEA) in educating these students in an effective least restrictive environment (LRE) while attending to the issue of race in special education classification. Before IDEA, it was estimated that at least four millions of children, especially children of color were segregated from their regular education peers and did not receive “appropriate educational services” and sufficient access to the educational prospects that were offered to their counterparts within the public school system. IDEA was enacted to deter these incidences of discrimination.

The enactment of IDEA, as many today believe, was to halt discrimination of those with special needs and children of color who were previously stored away from their regular education counterparts. But today it is evident that discrimination, segregation, and overall inequities exist toward special education students of color. Racism very much exists today with respect to students of color. Sec. 601 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states that “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” But, in general, Black, and to some extent Latino students (the majority from low socioeconomic homes), in relation to their population are still being denied and excluded through their placement in the category of special education.

In fact this is occurring at disproportionate rates in comparison to Whites and others; Black (and Latino) students are kept apart (outside of the regular education settings) and denied the proper benefit of an inclusive education as mandated by IDEA. Specifically, it has been estimated that Blacks are placed in special education at a rate of 3 to 1 in comparisons to White students. The special education analysis completed by the Department of Education in 2001 and 2006 noted this occurrence, but did not expand upon this topic as it relates to gender. Due to the disproportionate number of Black males that are within special education with such arresting labels as Emotionally Disturbed, Mentally Impaired, and etc., the conclusion can be drawn that they are more likely to be educated in segregated learning environments than their White counterparts.

The fact that this is occurring within rich and poor districts can be construed as reckless on the behalf of public schools–when faced with scholars that have noted and criticized the diagnostic criteria and testing currently used as vague, invalid, and culturally biased against people of color. But we , in the public schools, continue to use them. If this clandestine and at times overt plight to hamper students of color, specifically Black males’ academic and social progress, is not addressed from a policy and social justice structural approach, said population will continue to be seriously hindered, which will result in an increasing number of young people not gaining the benefits of a quality education. Due to areas and ramifications of the topic addressed, social scientists within education and sociology should feel challenged to continue the work directed at investigating this issue. No, in fact, we as a people should challenge the threads continuously woven by an archaic racist system that has a foundation soaked with oppressive spew.