Ableism Is the Go-To Disguise for White Supremacy. Too Many People Are Falling for It.

Agents of white supremacy count on society’s existing behaviors toward the mentally ill—and all disabled people—to aid and abet their agenda without anyone taking a closer look.

[Photo: A protester in a wheelchair crosses his arms, eyes closed, while Capitol police surround him]
In the face of the GOP’s repeated attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act, the disability rights group Adapt staged protests around the country. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Another day, another mass shooting. In these United States, nothing is more American than dinner in front of the evening news while listening to the details.

The after-shooting media cycle may have shortened over time, but the same discourse seems to happen repeatedly. The right will imply mental illness or Islamic terrorism, depending on the color of the perpetrator (hint: The lighter the shooter, the more forgiving the label) while the left will demand why mentally ill people are allowed to purchase guns in the first place. Shooting. Rinse. Repeat.

Across the board, any attempt to address the true culpability behind mass shooting is met with claims of mental illness, painting perpetrators as lone wolves whose radicalization has no source. While it‘s possible that many of these killers possessed mental illness diagnoses, racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are not mental illnesses—and painting them as such only further endangers the lives of disabled people.

Often, the connection between all of these perpetrators of mass violence isn’t mental illness, but white supremacy—the ignorance of which is meant to silence disabled people while the status quo remains intact. White supremacists often find difficulty in expressing what they stand for other than “whiteness,” so they consistently harp on the things they are not. They demonize members of the LGBTQ community, accuse (white) women of being weak-willed and in need of protection, and target members of marginalized racial communities for extermination. Through all of this, ableist epithets are used to differentiate these groups from the “master race” white supremacists claim to be a part of.

While the news would lead viewers to believe otherwise, evidence shows that there is no link between mental illness and an increased propensity toward mass violence. Many mass shooters possess no history of treatment, and access to firearms only increases the chances of carrying out violence toward oneself, not others. Mentally ill people are, in fact, 12 times more likely to be victimized because they are traditionally the least likely to be believed when they report. Negative experiences with medical institutions and law enforcement means crimes against people with mental illness go underreported and under-litigated.

Agents of white supremacy count on society’s existing behaviors toward the mentally ill—and by extension, all disabled people—to aid and abet their agenda without anyone taking a closer look. For the most part, this works. Rather than addressing the domestic radicalization of mass murderers, media outlets focus mainly on wrapping a gift for an insanity defense in a nice bow.

Most famously, the defendant in the Charleston church shooting case was editorialized as mentally incompetent to stand trial. Subsequently, his lawyers proposed an “insanity” defense for the racially motivated massacre. In an ironic twist, he used his racism as justification for his own competence.

This is something “both sides” are guilty of. By “othering” mass shooters, many seem enraptured with the idea of pinpointing the characteristics that make shooters different from so-called everyday white folk, rather than confronting within themselves, and the institutions they serve, those elements that make this environment the perfect Petri dish for radicalization to thrive. They’ll continue to allow racist comments to flow at family dinners and will ignore the signs of isolation and violence in the effort to remain comfortable.

Though this cycle of white supremacy using ableism as a tool to infiltrate and influence mainstream discourse may be easiest to pinpoint after mass shootings, it has worked its way into our everyday rhetoric. The history of eugenics in this country that inspired Nazism in Germany remains strong.

While white supremacists, and their tacit supporters, wash their hands of any violent behavior that hurts their brand, they also use undertones of ableism to justify stripping rights from marginalized groups.

Race science—the thoroughly debunked study of inferiorities as caused by one’s race—has seen a resurgence in recent years. Although many want to dismiss it as the rantings of a few “alt-right” radicals, its tenets were instrumental in forming some Republican-drafted policies.

Arguments against enfranchisement are coded in ableist language that questions people’s ability to make decisions, such as the choice of whom to vote for. Before voting rights were reinstated to those with felony convictions in the recent election, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida required those with such convictions to wait five years and then present themselves in front of a panel that mainly focused on their “value to society,” rather than the fact they had served their time. Only 10 percent of those who had applied to have their voting rights restored were granted their request.

And when it came to providing evidence for the recent tax cuts for the wealthy, Charles Murray, author of the Bell Curve—a book positing that poor Black people are inherently less intelligent than white or Asian people—was asked to testify to a Senate committee on welfare reform. House Speaker Paul Ryan has also claimed that Murray is an expert on poverty and has repeatedly referenced his work. He isn’t alone: Seemingly moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush and Rand Paul have also made their appreciation for the author known. Effectively, a debunked branch of science has become the ground upon which U.S. policymakers stand.

Even advocacy groups often don’t address the ableism used to subjugate their members. In many marginalized groups, the party line is “we’re all the same at our core,” so when accusations of disability come into the mix they use accomplishments—moments of “overcoming” adversity—as rebuttals rather than calling out such behavior. This can lead to further isolation of disabled people who might expect to be protected by these groups. Isolating themselves from the disabled community will prove detrimental to the racial, sexual, and gender-based justice advocacy groups because disabled people are experts at identifying codified ableist language and manipulations that serve a patriarchal white supremacy.

Non-disabled people will point to the moment Donald Trump poked fun at New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski as an example of blatant discrimination, but disabled people will tell you the GOP’s repeated attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act were far more detrimental to their lives. The disability community would also express their irritation at the suggestion from Trump surrogates and supporters that Hillary Clinton was sick and disabled, and thus unfit to serve as president. Justice Brett Kavanaugh may be appointed to the bench as an alleged sexual predator, but his views of disability are also horrifying. A majority-Black county was only able to shut down polling stations by citing inaccessibility because the public doesn’t invest in access when there aren’t elections.

Claims of unproven disability after mass violence or in marginalized communities, and hints at mental illness, only serve rhetoric about the “master race.” It is the easiest way to prove that others are inferior. Unfortunately, a majority of U.S. society signs onto these comparisons and repeats unvalidated claims made about violent white actors, creating a false dichotomy between abled and disabled, good and bad.

These ideas of disabled people as dangerous at the worst of times, helpless and unthinking at the best of times, have serious repercussions for disabled people. Since 2013, more than 550 disabled people, a majority of whom were children, were murdered by family members as a direct result of their disability. When it comes to reporting on these incidents, media outlets often paint their deaths as reasonable for people who were burdens to their family.

To recognize how ableism is being used to manipulate the public, one must take the time to listen to disability rights advocates who are disabled themselves. They have a lifetime of curbing these false correlations. Disability isn’t to blame for many of this country’s problems; white supremacy’s manipulation of this country is.