Discourses of Difference and the Overrepresentation of Black Students in Special Education

By Jordan, Kathy-Anne | The Journal of African American History, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Discourses of Difference and the Overrepresentation of Black Students in Special Education


Jordan, Kathy-Anne, The Journal of African American History


The 23rd Annual Report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) indicates that African American students continue to be overrepresented across all thirteen legally sanctioned disability categories with significant disproportionality occurring within the categories of mental retardation (MR) and emotional disturbance (ED). (1) These are two of the three most prevalent disability categories that also include learning disabilities (LD) and together account for the largest number of children served in special education. (2) When one examines the overrepresentation data among these three most prevalent high-incidence disability categories--MR, ED, and LD--it becomes clear that African American students are not only overrepresented in special education, but are clearly being assigned the most stigmatizing disability labels. (3)

Recent research, commissioned through the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, described the extent to which African American and other minority children are identified as disabled and educated in restrictive special education environments. Many of these research studies, compiled and presented in the book Racial Inequity in Special Education, provide a troubling picture of ongoing overrepresentation and segregation of African American children within special education classrooms in U.S. schools. For example, an analysis of information pertaining to enrollment and disability categories reveals that African American students nationwide are nearly three times more likely than whites to be labeled MR, almost two times more likely to be labeled ED, and almost one and a half times more likely to be diagnosed with LD and not included in general education classrooms. (4) Where individual states are identified, the likelihood of African American overrepresentation in the category of MR or ED may range anywhere from two-to-six times that of whites. (5) For example, African American students in Nebraska were six times more likely to be identified as ED and over four times more likely to be labeled as MR in Connecticut. (6) The risk of identification of African Americans within the MR category increases in states where African Americans are most heavily concentrated, with the highest levels of overrepresentation occurring in several of those states with a history of racial apartheid, for example, Mississippi, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, and Alabama. (7) African American males especially are disproportionately represented within these categories, and are more often segregated in special classrooms. (8)

In another research study, Edward Fieros and James W. Conroy sought to determine the extent to which African American students designated as MR, ED, and LD are educated in restrictive placements. (9) An examination of district level data from ten urban school districts revealed not only that disproportionate numbers of African American students are represented within the categories of MR, ED, and LD across most of the ten districts, but also that these students constitute significant percentages of those populations of students so labeled who spent more than 21 percent of the school day outside the general education classroom. In Atlanta, for example, 99.21 percent of students designated with MR are excluded from general education more than 21 percent of the time, and African Americans make up 96.98 percent of this MR population. These research findings indicate that the disproportionate identification of African American youth within high-incidence disability categories and segregated class placements go hand-in-hand, raising serious issues about educational inequity. This troubling picture of overrepresentation and exclusion therefore warrants consideration of how African American youth are positioned and constructed as disabled within the organizational and disciplinary discourses of school.

The purpose of this essay is to examine the discourses that undergird social constructions of difference among adolescent African American students, especially males. …

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