Toya Graham was praised for publicly beating her son at the Baltimore uprising. But this violent brand of “tough love” just perpetuates a vicious cycle fostered by the White supremacy.
Last week, much of the national conversation was focused on Black mothers who beat their sons, and police officers who shoot them. Each of these conversations depicted Black youth as troubled, dangerous, and needing to be physically disciplined into submission. The lasting message is that Black bodies only respond to violence, and even Black people’s love for their children is violent.
Americans were captivated by the actions of Toya Graham, the Baltimore mother who pulled her 16-year-old son, Michael, from an uprising by cursing him out and repeatedly hitting him on his head. For this, millions of viewers across racial lines declared her “Mother of the Year,” and a hero. Graham and her son were suddenly media darlings, appearing on CNN, The View and The Today Show, to drive home the narrative that good Black mothering requires physical force to tame the inherently violent nature of young Black “thugs,” as President Obama, the mayor of Baltimore, and others called the freedom fighters who took to the streets of Baltimore on Monday evening.
I want to clarify that I am withholding judgment of Toya Graham. It is crucial to look at what this maternal moment really means in the larger context of police and societal violence against Black communities. It is imperative to see how White racist aggression necessitates not only complicity of Black America, but a belief that we need to use physical discipline because it is a responsible “Black thing.” It is as if we are serving the interests of racist White America all while believing that that serving is unique to Black identity. Umph, umph, umph.
But I tell you, friends, you’ve been had! You’ve been bamboozled. Because the fact is, racist America is determined to beat Black communities into submission, and kill their children when necessary. But it is much more palatable when communities of color are partners in this culture of racism.
Toya Graham is a symbol of Black America’s complicity in its own destruction. How else can we explain that she is a national hero for assaulting her child before the world? It is proof of the effectiveness of dominant institutions in teaching us the same lies, fictions, and stereotypes that fill us with self hate and drive us to beat our kids like we hate them all while thinking the switch, belts, fists, slaps and profanity laced whoopings are “love.”
Black parents are taught that the only way to protect kids from the violence of White supremacy is to mimic the methods and logic of society as a whole. But they become vilified and punished for doing just that, as well. And while this culture of violence, surveillance, and abuse is perpetuated by Black parents, White America—the grand yoda of violence—which positions itself as a source of civility, argues that violence is exceptional and unique to blackness.
Many people keep insisting that Graham was beating young Michael to “save him” from the police, or prison, or an early grave. The popular outcry is that it’s better for his mother to hurt his body than for the police to do it. As if she can more appropriately assault him than others. As if her blows to the head come with a special message that he could process and understand better than if it comes from a billy-club or a cop’s fist.
The celebration is based on the horribly racist premise that Black people are born inherently violent, criminal, and dangerous, and that the only way to subdue these innate qualities is through brute force, beginning with the mother’s hand and too often ending in prison or in the ground. Why are we accepting the inevitability that our children will come to harm as normal? Why is accommodating violence with more violence no less, the only pathway to empowerment?
Can you see the glaring contradiction of criticizing the violent uprisings to protest police brutality and the murder of Freddie Gray, and praising Toya Graham for publicly smacking down her son? We see the same people invoking Martin Luther King Jr. for his teachings on nonviolence only to celebrate a public beating of a child.
“Nonviolence is a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding and ennobles the man who wields it. It is a sword that heals,” wrote Dr. King.
But what about slapping a kid across the head, or using a switch or belt across the backside? I guess we only like King when it serves “the right” narrative.
We see people praising this mom—who was caught in the ultimate Catch-22 maternal nightmare—for violently terrorizing her son who, at the vulnerable age of 16, was publicly humiliated before the world. Yet, amid these celebrations there is little recognition that Graham, like millions of others, is parenting under a racist system that makes her violence against her son seem not only right, but necessary. Is the fear and terror that she and millions of others feel inevitable?
Where are we having this celebration of Toya Graham when the criminal injustice system sees Black parenting as dangerous, un-American, and pathological? The nation surely gets quiet as cops, prosecutors and the foster care system treat the Toya’s of the world very differently.
Black parents are the most likely to be arrested, charged, and incarcerated for child abuse. And in any other situation, Graham would likely have been locked up, leaving Michael and his five siblings without a parent and likely to be funneled into the foster care system. So even as White America and representatives of the just-us system cheer Graham’s maternal smackdown, they are increasingly criminalizing other Black parents for doing the same. Toya gets to meet Anderson Cooper while untold numbers of her Black sisters are sent directly to jail with countless number of children left to heal their own wounds from a system that couldn’t care less about their pain, trauma, and future.
So—emphasizing again that we are discussing Graham as a symbol rather than criticizing her personally—we must admit that she is being celebrated for protecting the interests of White authority. As one of my Facebook friends said it, the way the media and she put Michael in the post-beating spotlight on national television was like a kid whose mother beats them and then makes them come out and say hello to company. In this moment, Toya Graham is America’s mammy desperately trying to beat her son into submission, because she believes that is the only way to keep him under control and keep him alive.
And while some have sidestepped questions about the effectiveness and the optics, others have rationalized Graham’s assault: He was bigger than his mother and she didn’t hurt him. Funny, just a few months ago, these same people were probably rightly condemning Darren Wilson’s focus on Mike Brown’s size, which was reason for his fear and justification for Brown’s killing.
It’s not just White America. Many within the Black community are singing her praises. We have gone from the Children’s Silent Parade, the Children’s Crusade, sit-ins, and the Panther’s ten-point program, from voting to marches, to parental beatings. We have gone from, “yes we can,” to yes we can beat and slap our children into safety and achieve the peace that we’ve been longing for in our communities.
So, as Dr. Phil would ask, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”
While far too many Black parents swallow the belief that beating their kids is the only way to keep them safe, research shows that it actually helps feed Black children into the foster care and prison pipelines. Black children are overrepresented in the nation’s foster care system, which has become a breeding ground for the juvenile justice and adult prison system. In some states, like California, nearly 70 percent of adult prisoners have had contact with the foster care system as a result of child abuse.
The 2013 Child Maltreatment Report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (the most recent available), reveals that of the estimated 679,000 victims of abuse and neglect nationally, African-American children had the highest rates of victimization at 14.6 per 1,000 children in the population of the same race or ethnicity. Latino and White children had lower rates of victimization at 8.5 and 8.1 per 1,000 children in the population of the same race or ethnicity.
This cycle of violence sadly leads some of our children straight to the grave. In 2013, 375 Black children died as a result of child abuse. And celebrating Graham’s assault against her son is so dangerous given that Black women under age 40 are the biggest killers of Black children via abuse. Nationally, in 2013, there were 1136 fatalities as a result of child abuse. The rate of African American child fatalities (4.52 per 100,000 African-American children) was approximately three times greater than the rates of White or Latino children 1.53 per 100,000 White children and 1.44 per 100,000 Latino children).
While people argue that “there’s a thin line between spanking and abuse,” if you ask those parents who murdered their children, they too will tell you that they “loved” their kids. They will tell you that they hit their kids to protect them but went too far in a moment of anger. And since the majority of the victims killed were under the age of 3, this evidence shows that Black folks start beating their kids while they’re still in the cradle. Is it a stretch to argue that Toya Graham dished out plenty of whoopings to her son before her famous smackdown last week? If so, then we see how well those whoopings prevented him from picking up rocks and throwing them at the police.
And the main argument for corporal punishment in Black communities is that hitting them is necessary to keep them out of jail. That belief is based on the racist idea that all Black children are born criminals, and the only possibility of redemption lies in beating the criminal out of them before they get into the system. The celebration of corporal punishment, from parents and teachers, from clergy and even political leaders, erases the realities of the criminal justice system; it ignores the racism of the war on drugs, stop-and-frisk, racial profiling, shooter bias, and every other dimension that describes America’s separate and unequal justice system.
The abuse and control and mass incarceration of Black bodies in America goes back to slavery, and is tied to the centuries-old practice of profiting from controlling Black bodies. The fact is, Black people are worth more in prison than they are free. It is absurd to think that the endless disparities in the criminal justice system persist because Black people don’t whoop their children enough.
Irrespective of the reasons—rage induced by racism, a desire to save children from the streets and a jail cell, a yearning to ward off black death, a responsibility to protect, religiosity—the abuse hurts! Not to mention: “Bad parenting” is used to justify mass incarceration, schools suspensions, splitting apart of families by child welfare professionals, and yet the abuse that purportedly protects inadvertently exacerbates the pernicious harms of racism.
Since whipping Black children does absolutely nothing to protect or save any Black child from racist police treatment or murder, not to mention a school system that sees suspension and expulsions as limited to Black youth, what is really being accomplished? Beating Black kids gives their parents the illusion that they have the power to resist White supremacy, or at least insulate their children from its dangers. Meanwhile, by celebrating Graham’s smackdown, society makes it clear that the only power they will allow Black people is the power to participate in hurting young Black bodies, feeding them to the systems set up to contain them in what Michelle Alexander calls “the New Jim Crow.” The only Black power that society sanctions is the power to assist in our own pain and genocide.
What’s so frustrating is how people respond to data on abuse, to scientific research on this topic, and to this history with hostility, outrage, and dismissal. Some of you are calling me a “black liberal racist,” “a moron with a Ph.D. purchased from Walmart,” and “a high-end coon” even as you read this. People are so prone to attacking me because pointing these things out makes them feel defensive, hopeless, terrified. Their status quo is disrupted; the foundation of their worldview and in fact our entire society is put into question.
If Black lives matter, shouldn’t those 375 dead Black children matter? If Black lives matter, shouldn’t we stop serving as the ventriloquists of White supremacy? If Black lives matter, we must not lose focus on the true enemy of progress: a system of White supremacy. Despite the message to contrary, hitting our children is not going to eliminate poverty and unemployment rates that exceed the national average; public and private floggings of our children are not going to change a system that locks up our children for marijuana use even though White kids treat every day like it’s a Woodstock music festival. In Baltimore, Black children are nine times more likely to die before the age of 1 than their White counterparts. Yet, we think “tough love” will save us.
The data shows that White supremacy is working. And you know it’s working really well when the majority of Black people genuinely believe that it is impossible to rear a Black child without beating as a form of discipline. You know that White supremacy is winning when a desperate, terrified mother who, in other circumstances might have been locked up for violating anti-child-abuse laws, is the national darling of the moment. You know something isn’t right when the same Faux News commentators and politicians that have made careers out of demonizing Black mothers, that created the “welfare mom” and the “crack baby,” are now praising a Black mother. You know something ain’t right when these same enemies of justice that peddle “single parented homes” and the “destruction of the Black family” as explanation for anything and everything are now elevating as Toya as the answer.
Every time a Black mother whoops her child, and every time anyone of any race celebrates, applauds, and elevates her for doing so, they are feeding the beast of White supremacy.
As Harriet Tubman said, “I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more if only they had known they were slaves.”
Some days, I know just how she must have felt.
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