Beyond Bias: Cultural Capital in Anti-Discrimination Law, 53 Harv. Civ. Rights-Civil Lib. Law Rev. 381 (2018). link
This Article explores race and class inequality in the distribution of special education benefits pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). Scholarship in this area has focused on the disproportionately high representation of black children in special education and in the most stigmatized disability categories. The consensus view is that racial differences in disability prevalence are due mainly to teachers’ discrimination against black children. Little noticed is middle-class white children’s disproportionately high representation in autism, a category associated with relatively greater resources and more advantageous educational outcomes than are associated with the categories in which black children are disproportionately represented.
This article argues that to understand the disproportionate allocation of special education resources by race and class — and other distributional disparities like it — scholars and policy makers alike must shift focus from a preoccupation on bias toward investigating the precise mechanisms for how legal benefits are allocated. In special education, no child simply “receives” special education services because a teacher wants him to. Under the IDEA, children receive appropriate benefits only when their parents take on the role of ardent advocate, using special education knowledge and behavioral strategies. Only parents with these sets of knowledge and behavioral strategies — what sociologists call “cultural capital” — will be best able to navigate the process. In predominately white, relatively affluent school districts, schools where the racial disparities in special education are most pronounced, middle-class white parents are best able to con- vert their economic and social capital into the cultural capital needed to secure preferable diagnoses and resources.
Using special education as an example, this Article argues that when a legal scheme requires beneficiary action as a prerequisite to receiving benefits, stratification in cultural capital will influence which individuals, and consequently which groups, receive the benefit to which they are entitled. Cultural capital helps scholars and policymakers understand how groups come to disproportionately capture scarce legal resources and benefits, moving us beyond a sole focus on discrimination against groups to a more complex and nuanced focus on how privilege is reproduced.