Research has found that students of color, especially African-Americans, are disproportionately likely to be classified and labeled as learning disabled and placed in special education programs. This is especially the case for more subjective categories of disorder and disability, like emotional disturbance, rather than for medically diagnosable disabilities. The tendency to categorize students of color in this way owes less to genuinely greater levels of disorder in such students than to the racial dynamics of the schools they attend[. . .]in Arizona public schools, males of color at mostly white schools are two-thirds more likely to be labeled as emotionally disturbed or learning disabled than minority males at mostly minority schools, even though the latter are far more likely to have grown up in poverty, and thus could be expected to occassionally demonstrate emotional or cognitive impairment. This suggests that at whiter schools, teachers are more apt to see dysfunction in black and brown students, not because they necessarily demonstrate more of it, but because of the teachers’ own inabilities to relate to the students of color, or because of various unconscious biases.
[. . .]
Although the labeling itself [of students as emotionally disturbed or mentally disabled] is not the cause of [some] students’ failure to complete their schooling, it creates a set of expectations and stigmas for those so labeled that can supress the drive to achieve academically. Nationally, for instance, research has found that students labeled as mentally handicapped or emotionally disturbed are likely to be placed in restricted learning environments, despite evidence indicating that such students need exactly the opposite in order to thrive.
–From Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat From Racial Equity (City Lights Books, 2010)