Written by:
June 4, 2020

Black & autistic

Last updated on September 8, 2021

A particularly dangerous duality, and a history fraught with pain and injustice

At Embrace ASD we tend to focus on topics related to general news, science, and the history of autism. However, this is a time for solidarity and to bring attention to what is a terrible scourge of racism, bigotry, and supremacy.

I live in the United States, where contemporary white supremacy is integrated into the fabric of society. The history of slavery in the U.S. is a story of horrible depravity and moral degradation.

Slavery in the U.S. began with the Transatlantic Slave Trade and instilled a racist ethos that’s still with us to this day.[1]Consequences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade | Open Learn

Many people less affected by this racial injustice may have been blind to it; I know for a long time I was. But if the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, or Ahmaud Arbery shows us anything, it’s that this nation has much more work to do. That indispensable leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. (pictured below), Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, and other countless figures who fought for equality, often at the expense of their lives, are relying on us to continue to fight.

An illlustrated portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.

For the record, I’m not black. I’m equal parts Puerto Rican and Dominican. While my Dominican side includes black family members, I’ve not experienced the discrimination one does when one has black skin. That is my privilege. With that said, in this article, we’ll cover some of the structural roots of black oppression, and how this relates to autism.

This article will undoubtedly make many readers uncomfortable. That’s great. This isn’t a comfortable subject and reading about this should create discomfort and open the way for compassion.


The founding of the U.S. and the illusion of liberty and justice for all

The tale of the founding of the U.S. is familiar to those who grew up in the U.S. public school system. We’re taught, starting at around 4th or 5th grade, that the founders of this country pursued liberty for all. Yet in the same curriculum, we learn about the American Civil War and the enslavement of black people. The apparent contradiction, at least in my classroom, wasn’t ever addressed.

The founders of the U.S., many of whom were then some of the richest men in the world, owned plantations and the slaves who worked them.[2]Founding Fathers and Slavery | Encyclopedia Brittanica Ironically, these men recognized the contradiction inherent in their arguments for supposedly “uninalienable rights” of all people while also owning slaves.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. (Thomas Jefferson)

It’s also important to note that the founders had ignored the rights of Indigenous Americans who occupied lands well before any Europeans visited North America. The founding of the U.S. is writ in the blood of the many Indigenous and black people slain, owned, and tortured in the name of financial growth and racial supremacy.[3]Founding Fathers and Slavery | Encyclopedia Brittanica To this day Indigenous peoples suffer from structural oppression.[4]Indigenous reconciliation | The Conversation[5]Understanding the Destruction of Native American Life Today | Native Hope[6]Contemporary Native American issues | Wikipedia


Every action has an equal and opposite reaction

There’s no doubt that black Americans have fought long and hard to achieve the legal and social status they have in the U.S. today. However, there’s a tendency to assume that this progress means the work is done. This couldn’t be any further from the truth.

The murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor are three drops in the ocean of innocent black lives lost to state-sponsored and vigilante violence.[7]White Witness and the Contemporary Lynching |New Republic[8]Lynching in America | Equal Justice Initiative

Like in Newton’s third law of motion, each progressive step black people in America took was met by disenfranchisement and violence.

Radical Reconstruction began several years after the Union defeated the Confederacy in 1865 in the American Civil War. Following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, Andrew Johnson became the commander-in-chief. Johnson was more conservative than most of the Republicans led by Lincoln. Johnson’s racist attitudes and sympathy for states’ rights led to many bitter disputes and nearly had him impeached.[9]Reconstruction | Encyclopedia Brittanica

Despite Johnson’s opposition, new Southern Republicans, including, for the first time, black elected officials, started a series of progressive actions. Amended to the United States’ Constitution were the 14th and 15th amendments which, respectively, granted citizenship and full civil and legal rights to emancipated slaves, and guaranteed that the right to vote regardless of “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” [10]14th Amendment | Encyclopedia Brittanica[11]15th Amendment | Encyclopedia Brittanica In response to these newly obtained rights, Jim Crow laws sprouted throughout the South to reverse the gains achieved by Reconstruction and further disenfranchise black Americans.[12]Brief history of Jim Crow | Georgetown University The legacy of these unjust laws remains with us today.[13]An ugly legacy of Jim Crow | Fordham University

By the 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan was in full force. This group still exists today, and they are domestic terrorists with a long history of murdering, torturing, and terrorizing black communities. Their ethos is that of white supremacy and there’s a long history of KKK and other white supremacist group members in law enforcement. This trend continues to this day. In 2006, the FBI released a bulletin calling for attention to the growing issue of white supremacists infiltrating law enforcement organizations.[14]White supremacist infiltration of law enforcement report | FBI


Wolves in police clothing

Over the last decade, the FBI found KKK, neo-Nazis, and skinheads organizing within law enforcement departments in Illinois, Ohio, Texas, and Florida just to name a few states.[15]FBI warned of white supremacy | PBS Further complicating matters is the evolving tactics of the white supremacists, which often include subtler talking points that espouse racist views that often fly under the radar, such as those promoted by white supremacist influencers.

In more recent times, we see this reaction manifest as attacks against Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement formed in 2013 as a  response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the vigilante murderer of Trayvon Martin. BLM’s three founding organizers are Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi.[16]Herstory of Black Lives Matter | Black Lives Matter

Since the movement’s formation, BLM has garnered support from many celebrities, and most famously Colin Kaepernick, a former football player ranked as one of the top 20 quarterbacks in the NFL and who was a second-round draft pick, kneeled as a display of protest against police brutality during the national anthem in a preseason game in 2016. The reaction to this was swift and harsh, with NFL team owners colluding to keep from signing Kaepernick despite being one of the best players in the league.[17]A timeline of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality | The Washington Post[18]Colin Kaepernick’s forced exile from NFL | The Intercept[19]Quarterbacks starting to speak out four years after Kaepernick took a knee | FiveThirtyEight

Today, we see the resistance to this change manifest in the outright abuse of peaceful protestors by law enforcement.[20]Police failing to ensure right to protest, endangering lives | Amnesty USA This response is reminiscent of the resistance to the American civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s when the police were called in to violently suppress protests.[21]Long, painful history of police brutality in the U.S. | The Smithsonian Magazine[22]U.S. law enforcement infiltrating protests | The Intercept

For more on the history of black surveillance, please check out this article on COINTELPRO, a (formerly) secret FBI operation


Why being black and autistic is doubly dangerous

Hopefully, you’re still with me. That background information was necessary (though far from exhaustive) to understand the underpinnings of the system we live in today.

Having black skin, as we’ve seen, already makes one more susceptible to abuse and disenfranchisement.

And, as we’ve covered in other past articles, being an autistic person of any color already makes one more susceptible to abuse.

Misunderstood and mistreated
How would an autistic survive in prison?

However, black autistics have a compounded susceptibility to violence. Racist attitudes combined with ableism and misunderstanding autistic behavior, such as stimming, leads to unnecessary harm or death.[23]Cop shoots caretaker of autistic man playing in the street with toy truck (2016) | Miami Herald[24]Shooting of Charles Kinsey | Wikipedia[25]Police killings: the price of being disabled and black in America | The Guardian

Unarmed black people are far more likely to be seen as threats by law enforcement, other authorities, and the general population. Such was the case in the shooting of Ricardo Hayes, an autistic black man who wandered away from his home, so his caretaker called the police to find him. Sgt. Khalil Muhammad shot Hayes twice, once in the arm and again in the chest, despite no provocation. Chicago officers lied and reported that Hayes was acting aggressively, however security footage caught the incident and exonerated Hayes, who luckily survived the ordeal.[26]Video shows Chicago cop shooting unarmed black autistic teen | AP News

Police are scarcely trained in handling mental health crises. Add to this fact that black skin is often seen as a threat and it’s no wonder so many distress calls end in the death of the person who needed help and posed no threat. Although Ricardo Hayes was lucky enough to survive, this isn’t the case for many other autistic and other neurodiverse folks.[27]If you are black and in a mental health crisis, 911 can be a death sentence | The Intercept

The list goes on, and all of the aforementioned people were black.[31]If you are black and in a mental health crisis, 911 can be a death sentence | The Intercept

This racism isn’t unique to law enforcement. Racism runs so deep that it permeates every institution. Such is evident in the case of Joseph Adewale, an autistic black man with intellectual disabilities.

Adewale moved to a community home, the Key Center, where he lived with a few other autistics and his caretaker staff. Adewale, 34, standing at feet tall and weighing 190 pounds is a large black man. Although he had a sweet and lovable character, often laughing and smiling, his caretakers and others in the community were afraid of him due to his physical characteristics. He was often neglected and was once almost abandoned at the mall, and it was a struggle to get the staff to properly administer his medication.  Some made terrible comments about him, even asking why anyone would “let him out”.[32]Adewale V. Black autistic lives matter | Autism: open access

According to a study done by Roland G. Fryer Jr., a Harvard Professor of Economics, 1 in 65 black men died by police. Approx. 25% of those black men killed by police were unarmed. According to data from The Guardian, that means that 8% more unarmed black men than unarmed white men are killed by police despite black men making up a far smaller slice of the U.S. population.[33]Reconciling results on racial differences in police shootings | Harvard University In 2015, the Washington Post reported that:[34]A year of reckoning: Police fatally shoot nearly 1,000 | The Washington Post

Although black men make up only 6 percent of the U.S.population, they account for 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police this year. (The Washington Post)


So, what can you do about it?

The long, cruel, and unjust history of systemic oppression against black people still lives on today. To amend these issues, we must work together.

Firstly, if you’re able to vote, then go to the ballot boxes and vote for politicians who are sponsoring bills for police reform among other necessary changes. If you’re able to then support your fellow humans by participating in peaceful protests in your local area.

And, most importantly, learn to understand what privileges you have by merit of your skin color, financial status, sexuality, gender, among other attributes. Understanding your role in society is necessary for affecting change.


You can directly support positive change by donating to the following organizations:

Campaign Zero
Reclaim the Block
Official George Floyd Memorial Fund
I Run With Maud
Gas Mask Fund
Black Visions Collective
NAACP Legal Defense Funds

For in-depth info on how to effectively donate, follow the link below.

How to Support the Struggle Against Police Brutality | The Cut
Mental health resources for those who may need it

To learn more about racism and its history check out this list on USA Today.

References

References
1Consequences of the Transatlantic Slave Trade | Open Learn
2, 3Founding Fathers and Slavery | Encyclopedia Brittanica
4Indigenous reconciliation | The Conversation
5Understanding the Destruction of Native American Life Today | Native Hope
6Contemporary Native American issues | Wikipedia
7White Witness and the Contemporary Lynching |New Republic
8Lynching in America | Equal Justice Initiative
9Reconstruction | Encyclopedia Brittanica
1014th Amendment | Encyclopedia Brittanica
1115th Amendment | Encyclopedia Brittanica
12Brief history of Jim Crow | Georgetown University
13An ugly legacy of Jim Crow | Fordham University
14White supremacist infiltration of law enforcement report | FBI
15FBI warned of white supremacy | PBS
16Herstory of Black Lives Matter | Black Lives Matter
17A timeline of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality | The Washington Post
18Colin Kaepernick’s forced exile from NFL | The Intercept
19Quarterbacks starting to speak out four years after Kaepernick took a knee | FiveThirtyEight
20Police failing to ensure right to protest, endangering lives | Amnesty USA
21Long, painful history of police brutality in the U.S. | The Smithsonian Magazine
22U.S. law enforcement infiltrating protests | The Intercept
23Cop shoots caretaker of autistic man playing in the street with toy truck (2016) | Miami Herald
24Shooting of Charles Kinsey | Wikipedia
25Police killings: the price of being disabled and black in America | The Guardian
26Video shows Chicago cop shooting unarmed black autistic teen | AP News
27, 28, 29, 30, 31If you are black and in a mental health crisis, 911 can be a death sentence | The Intercept
32Adewale V. Black autistic lives matter | Autism: open access
33Reconciling results on racial differences in police shootings | Harvard University
34A year of reckoning: Police fatally shoot nearly 1,000 | The Washington Post
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