From a Politics of Shame to a Politics of Grief
On August 9, Officer Darren Wilson fired his gun at least six times at unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown, killing him in broad daylight. Within a day, the streets of Ferguson became the epicenter of a national outcry over racial profiling and police brutality. As images of unrest in Ferguson circulated from the streets and into cyberspace, one meme has been particularly electrifying in calling attention to the ongoing problem of race in America. Typically, it has featured two frames: one taken from the Civil Rights movement, the other from recent events in Ferguson, MO. The intent is to draw the viewer’s attention to the disturbing parallels between today’s and yesterday’s racial landscapes, and most often, they feature men: men as protesters, men as police.
Where are the corresponding pictures of women?
After all, during the Civil Rights movement, women were often on the front lines to expose the blind injustice of Jim Crow America and inspire within white Americans – particularly Northern onlookers – shame by virtue of their apathy and lack of action in the face of images of water-hosed and beaten women. This was a politics of shame, and for at least a time, it worked.
Fast-forward to 2014, however, and a different kind of racialized motherhood is mobilized, one centered not on shame but on grief. On August 25th, three mothers – Leslie McSpadden, Sabryna Fulton, and Valerie Bell – embraced to publicly mourn their sons, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell. Speaking with CNN, they talked about the support they could uniquely mobilize for one another, about pushing through the pain of loss and despair, about what it means to carry on the memory of their sons in light of “character assassinations” used to justify their deaths. A day later, Oscar Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson proclaimed in a heart-wrenching open letter: “this is where we, as parents, have to be relentless in the vindication of our sons” (here).
Double Jeopardy, Double Injuries
In pursuing vindication for their sons by insisting that their lives are worthy of grief, the mothers of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell and others face a particular kind of “double jeopardy,” a term that sociologist Deborah Kinguses to call attention to how race and gender intersect to deepen the marginalization of women of color. They are judged on two counts: first, they are on the stand for their sons in the court of law and public opinion. With their sons unable to speak on their own behalf, these mothers are in constant battle to assert the dignity of their sons, to insist on their moral character, to maintain their innocence.
Here, to be a good mother means navigating the sociolegal insecurities that come along with the criminalization of young men and boys of color. It means asking, and coming to terms with, a difficult question: “Will my child be profiled as a criminal, and arrested or even killed as a result?” To be a good mother thus means having – as sociologist Dawn Dow examines in her study of middle-class African American motherhood – “the talk” with their sons about the “first impressions” their mere presence gives to onlookers and how to interact with police to avoid escalation. Indeed, it means coming to grips with the police and the criminal justice system as antithetical to one’s responsibilities as a mother. Perhaps for this reason, Charles Epp, Stephen Maynard-Mooddy, and Donald Haider-Markel’s Pulled Over, a landmark study of racial profiling, found that African American women in their 40s were more likely to agree that “the police are out to get people like me” than any other age/race demographic aside from Black men under 30 years old.
While these mothers take on the burden of proving their sons’ innocence as if it were their own, this burden is their own to the extent that they are defending not only their sons – but their identities as mothers, as well. Patricia Hill Collinsargues that “controlling images” – of the welfare mother, the mammy, the jezebel – have long dictated the terms on which African American mothers are judged as bad, immoral or incompetent mothers. Each of these mothers has had to navigate their own character assassinations. For example, Sabryna Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, has been accused by conservative media of “cashing in” on her son’s death and intimidated by George Zimmerman’s brother from filing a civil suit as the case “might not be very flattering” for her and her family.
This double jeopardy reverses the sociological imagination, rendering collective responsibility for injustice into an individual (and apparently maternal) obligation. With this double jeopardy, the deaths of their sons bring a double injury: the injury of losing one’s child combined with the injury of having failed to navigate an impossible burden.
Cults of Motherhood
In this context, the popular portrayals of today’s grieving mothers of the post-Civil Rights era – the era of so-called “colorblindness” and “post-racial America” – do not cull a politics of shame in the viewer as much as reinforce a politics of grief. This is where the ‘cult of motherhood’ meets a ‘culture of poverty’ narrative to create a discourse that allows for empathy with these women as mothers while denying their structural position as Black women. The public focus on their mourning comes dangerously close to suggesting that the failure of American society is their failure, which is perhaps why these mothers are so appealing to the likes of CNN. Too often in their coverage, their grief is mobilized not to a reveal an uncomfortable truth about American society, one implicating all citizens as members of a structurally unequal society, as much as appeal to a depoliticized maternalism.
This supports a distinct cult of motherhood – a cult of the mourning Black mother, who bears the brunt of a vast carceral apparatus and who has no one to turn to but other mothers-in-mourning when she fails at this impossible task. Indeed, there’s something neo-Moynihanian about the public portrayal of these mourning mothers and the way this cult of motherhood has been distorted in ways that individualize their pain. This portrayal reinforces what many Americans want to think about their nation’s problem of race: that there’s really no broad issue of race, but rather an issue of circumstance and perhaps bad choices.
Gendered frames become the co-conspirator of racial ideologies: the racism of a “colorblind” society becomes masked as nothing more than a mother’s failure. Whereas the politics of shame held white Americans responsible in an era of Civil Rights, today’s politics of grief reduces this issue to one implicating Black sons and their mothers. It shouldn’t take a maternal discourse to recognize, empathize with and speak truth to the profound injustice of racialized violence in America. These women should capture the American public’s attention not because they have proven themselves as mothers but because they are fellow citizens. Yet with the recognition of the value of black life tied to the cult of motherhood, Leslie McSpadden, Sabryna Fulton, Valerie Bell, Wanda Johnson and others are left with the burden of not only their sons’ deaths but also the heavy problem of race in America.
Jennifer Carlson (PhD, UC Berkeley) is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto who studies policing, gun cultures, and violence. Her book Citizen-Protectors: The Everyday Politics of Guns in an Age of Decline (2015, Oxford) examines the growing popularity of gun carry among Americans.