Why Do We Vilify Low-Income Black Women Simply for Being Mothers?

Debra Harrell, Frankea Dabbs, Shanesha Taylor—all dehumanized and criminalized for taking care of their children the best they can.

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When Debra Harrell allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play in a park unattended on July 1, the 46-year-old South Carolina mother did not abandon her child, as some provocative headlines would have readers believe, nor did she carelessly leave her to fend for herself amid pedophiles and pimps.

In a nation where black mothers struggling in poverty are routinely mischaracterized as leeches on a system overburdened with coddling corrupt corporations, Harrell did what we’re told black mothers must do or face swift and painful condemnation: She went to work.

After weighing her few options, Harrell made a decision that she felt was best for her child; a decision that enabled her to continue to provide for her daughter without leaving her home alone. She gave her a cell phone in case she needed her and left her among throngs of children and parents in a popular park while she trekked less than one mile to her job at McDonald’s.

On any other day, Harrell would have taken her daughter with her and allowed her to surf the web on her laptop. Unfortunately, that laptop was stolen from their home and, with nothing to do while her mother worked, the young girl asked to go outside and play.

While she was playing at the park, a concerned woman asked the girl why she was unsupervised. When she responded that her mother was at work, the woman immediately called the police. This chain of events led to Harrell being arrested for “unlawful neglect toward a child” and her daughter being placed in the custody of the Department of Social Services.

Tragically, it never once seemed to occur to this woman that there were other ways to alleviate her concern, the most obvious choices being to call Harrell or keep an eye on the girl until her mother returned.

Apparently though, the entire proverbial village has been completely destroyed and that would’ve been too much like right.

This is not to say that it’s anyone’s responsibility other than a child’s parent to ensure that child’s safety, but the fact remains that more energy was expended on criminalizing Harrell than protecting her daughter. She was immediately stripped of her humanity and reduced to a pile of stereotypes—poor, black, irresponsible, unfit mother—and her child was taken from her in a blink of an eye, tossed into a system where she is more likely to be abused and/or neglected than she was in danger of being abducted by a stranger at the park.

According to an essay written by Professor Dorothy Roberts, author of Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, “Black children in the child welfare system are placed in foster care at twice the rate for white children [according to federal statistics]. A national study of child protective services by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported that ‘minority children, and in particular African-American children, are more likely to be in foster care placement than receive in-home services, even when they have the same problems and characteristics as white children.’ Most white children who enter the system are permitted to stay with their families, avoiding the emotional damage and physical risks of foster care placement, while most black children are taken away from theirs. And once removed from their homes, black children remain in foster care longer, are moved more often, receive fewer services, and are less likely to be either returned home or adopted than any other children.”

In addition to these disheartening findings, 26 percent of children placed in foster care are African American; this number is double the percent of African-American children in the population in the United States.

As Roberts notes, “If you go into dependency court in Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles without any preconceptions, you might conclude that the child welfare system is designed to monitor, regulate, and punish black mothers.”

That risk, of being under constant surveillance by a society which sharply criticizes black mothers in poverty for daring to have children, while simultaneously calling their wombs “dangerous,” is likely not one that Harrell had time to focus on that day. Instead, she went to work in an effort to maintain her fraying independence within a system designed for her to fail; the very same system that decided that she’s an unfit mother and snatched her child away without a backwards glance.

And the cycle continues.

“The fact that the mother is a black woman with probably a low-income job at McDonald’s probably made her and her child less sympathetic and less familiar, less understandable to the middle class and more white community around them,” New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait said during a recent HuffPost Live interview. “Which presented them as being criminals as opposed to a working family trying to make its way through a tough situation.”

This uncomfortable truth about racial bias is situated within a long tradition of pathologizing black motherhood, and to some extent, black fatherhood, which is under indictment by simply being completely absent—figuratively and literally—from this story’s narrative.

The myth of the “Bad, Black Mother” is one that I discussed recently in an article on Frankea Dabbs, the troubled, homeless mother who left her 9-month-old daughter alone on an NYC subway platform. In that case, as well as the case of Shanesha Taylor, the homeless Arizona mother who was arrested after she left her children in the car so that she could go to a job interview, it is the flawed presumption of the innate criminality of Blackness, conflated with blatant hostility toward poverty and black womanhood that silenced these mothers before they even had the chance to speak.

That black women are consistently cast as asexual, nurturing mammy-figures in relation to whiteness, while being deemed too reckless to care for their own children is a clear manifestation of misogyny and racism that cannot be ignored.

“The biggest story here isn’t about the rise of helicopter parenting or figuring out the appropriate threshold for when onlookers and the state should intervene to censure parents,” said  Jayne Huckerby, an Associate Professor of Clinical Law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Duke University School of Law, in an email to me. “It is instead about the gender, racial, and class biases that mean some parenting actions are criminalized when others are not.”

 “Punishing Harrell,” continued Huckerby, who specializes in women’s rights, “a low-income, single mom of color is also an easy way to sideline a harder conversation about the public-policy choices, including lack of affordable childcare, that create these massive inequalities.”

That privileged and often bigoted disregard of institutionalized “massive inequalities” brings the hypocrisy of the situational concern for Harrell’s daughter into stark relief.

Where is the overwhelming “concern” for black children when their bodies lay scattered in the streets of Chicago and Detroit and Los Angeles and New York City and Philadelphia? Where is this heartfelt “concern” when inner city schools are shut down, food is scarce and healthcare is unaffordable? There is more outrage in some quarters that a mother, struggling at a job where the average wage hovers around $8 an hour, dared to leave her child in a public park to play for a few hours than there is at any of the aforementioned systemic minefields that some black parents are forced to navigate on a daily basis.

In all likelihood, Harrell’s daughter would have continued to be safe had she simply been allowed to remain at the park and soak in the fledgling freedom of childhood.

But she wasn’t simply at a park; she was, and remains, at the intersection of poverty, blackness, and gender in the United States of America—as does Debra Harrell.

And, if precedent is to be our guide, no one is safe there.

If you would like to contribute to a fund organized to support Debra Harrell, click here.



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