Recently a video went viral depicting a woman named Toya Graham hitting, slapping and dragging her son from the streets of Baltimore with the goal of preventing him from participating in the civil unrest that began after the death of Freddy Gray. Mr. Gray was a young African American man who was dragged into police custody by six officers. News reports say that within an hour of his arrest he fell into a coma and was taken to the hospital where he died a week later. His name is now added to the list of countless African American boys and men who have died under questionable circumstances during interactions with law enforcement and private citizens. Gray’s death rightly sparked outrage, and in some instances convulsions of anger.
Many in the media have applauded the actions of Toya Graham who they describe as appropriately taking swift action to constrain her son’s participation in the public outcry—what some called a riot, and others a disorganized protest. Media and pundits seized on the video of Ms. Graham, announcing all could be resolved if we just “Send in the Moms”. However, this simple, dominant narrative is complicated by Ms. Graham’s stated reason for pulling her son from the streets of Baltimore: To prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” Let’s think about that statement. She feared that his public participation, his expression of justified discontent, could very well lead to his death at the hands of the police. While she may have seen her son participating in civil unrest that included instances of illegal conduct, throwing stones, etc., she believed that the likelihood of these instances being resolved professionally and without the use of deadly force with respect to African Americans, was unlikely. After the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddy Gray and many others, we would be hard pressed to deny the fact that African American parents have reasonable concerns about their sons’ safety during interactions with law enforcement, and indeed, in some instances, the broader society.
The media and pundits have played their trick of confounding the real issues of the day with a sensationalist theme: mothers taking a stand, demonstrating their strength and setting their children straight. Police officers killed yet another black male youth under questionable circumstances. Law enforcement and the media seem to view these young boys and men’s lives as disposable and lacking value. It is within this context that the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged with the purpose of reaffirming the value of African American lives. I am troubled by a media that praises the image of a young black man being beaten down, even by his mother, so that he accepts the untenable situation the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to address and refrains from expressing his version of discontent with the way society treats him. These young boys and girls and men and women have every right to be upset by the various systems that have failed them.
American society has a tendency to expect African Americans to be superhuman as they express their discontent. Indeed, the protests we are taught to remember from the 50s and 60s are of the courageous civil right leaders who were able to gain support by having their bodies bludgeoned in full view of American eyes and the world. These activists did not physically defend themselves because they knew any response would be used to justify the barbaric acts committed by their fellow white countrymen and women. These violent images also went viral and forced white Americans to confront the oppressive parts of their culture. As a benefactor of the civil rights movement, I know that one person or one version of activism did not achieve its accomplishments.
And we often forget about the other race riots that happened during the civil rights era. Those led by the white teens that went into the Woolworth Counter to torment and torture the nonviolent protesters simply seeking service. The race riots led by white adults who shouted racial epithets at the young Ruby Ridges who simply sought admission to an all white public school. We refuse to discuss the countless racially motivated killings used to terrorize the African American community. And, for the four little girls who died in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham Alabama. And, lastly we don’t discuss the immeasurable restraint the African American community has exhibited in the face of this racial terrorism, particularly after the recent shootings by white supremacist, Dylan Roof, who killed nine church members during bible study at the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. There should not be a racial sliding scale of who gets to express their dissatisfaction with the state and how that dissatisfaction is received.
With the nearly daily stories of black male killings—our contemporary version of strange fruit—there is no wonder that mothers and parents are resorting to self-help measures to protect their children, and their sons in particular. In my own research examining African American middle and upper-middle-class mothers’ parenting approaches, ensuring the physical safety of their sons is a continuous and pervasive concern. Unfortunately, I believe Ms. Graham’s actions play an unfortunate part in reinforcing the idea that African Americans, and boys and men in particular, must behave differently in order for society to recognize their humanity. I disagree with the charge to “Send in the Moms” to tame the legitimate anger of their children about the continuous disgraceful and discriminatory treatment they confront from institutions and individuals within the broader American society. This broader society includes law enforcement officers, teachers, principals, shopkeepers and members of the general public- people that the average white child is taught to view as a source of support and protection. The mothers in my research who have far more resources than Ms. Graham are similarly worried about how their sons will be treated by this broader society. These mothers out of necessity teach their children to be fearful of and deferential to law enforcement officers who are meant to protect and serve us all but do so selectively. I understand Ms. Grahams’ fear for her son, her impetus to keep him out of harms way and her desire to prevent him from becoming “another Freddy Gray.” I am also afraid of the long-term consequences of preventing him and others like him from publicly expressing their discontent.
Dawn M. Dow is an assistant professor in the sociology department of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Professor Dow earned a Ph.D. in sociology from University of California, Berkeley, a J.D. from Columbia University, School of Law and a B.A. in sociology from Bryn Mawr College. Professor Dow’s research focuses on the intersection of gender, race, and class within the context of the family, the workplace and the law. She is currently writing a book that examines the theoretical and practical implications of the structural, cultural, and economic exclusion of African-American mothers from dominant ideologies and practices of motherhood. She is a frequent presenter at academic conferences including the American Sociological Association, Eastern Sociological Society and the Pacific Sociological Association. Professor Dow’s work has been published in Sociological Perspectives and is forthcoming in the Journal of Marriage and Family.