Credit Toya Graham with good intentions in the face of a tough parenting challenge. She’s the Baltimore single mom who snatched her 16-year-old son, Michael, by his hoodie out of a crowd of rioters last week. Graham was recorded vigorously administering a “whupping” to her kid, delighting commentators and millions who watched on the news and online.
The New York Post’s headline read: “Forget the National Guard … send in the moms.” Graham says that Oprah called with congratulations, giving her a “thumbs up.” Other sources called Graham “mom of the year.”
But this event calls for more scrutiny. In the video, Graham’s anger and frustration are evident. She hits Michael hard in the face at least three times, then several more times as Michael retreats, apparently abashed and embarrassed. A triumph of parental authority.
But if an identical scene had occurred outside a bar at 2 a.m., cops might have been called and assault charges could have been filed.
Which points out a striking anomaly in our culture: For the most part, we’ve made it illegal to hit each other. Just about the only people who can strike fellow citizens with impunity are boxers, hockey players and parents, as long as they’re hitting their own children.
This incident has an interesting racial component. Writing in the New York Times last September after the indictment of NFL player Adrian Peterson for beating his 4-year-old with a switch, Michael Eric Dyson notes that, while a great majority of Americans approve of corporal punishment, black Americans “have a distinct history with the subject.”
He cites the work of black psychiatrists William Grier and Price Cobbs, who wrote in 1968, “Beating in childrearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children should be so treated.”
This theory holds that plantation overseers used the whip to intimidate and dominate slaves and that slave parents beat their own children, sometimes in the presence of the slave owner, to keep them from rebelling against white authority, which had the power to kill black youths for the mildest offense.
Dyson says, “Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.”
Indeed, Toya Graham says in later interviews that her biggest concern was the safety of her son. She doesn’t want Michael to become another Michael Brown, Eric Garner or Freddie Gray.
I’m not completely convinced by this theory, partly because black Americans have no monopoly on disciplining their children with corporal punishment; one study out of Columbia University says that 90 percent of Americans were spanked as children.
But nearly all institutions and relationships that involve the unequal distribution of power depend heavily on violence or the threat of violence to maintain the status quo. Slavery is a good example. So are prisons. And so are the poor, black neighborhoods of Baltimore, where cases like Freddie Gray’s indicate how quickly authority can shade into violence.
Closer to home, for centuries the threat of violence has too often been in the background of traditional, patriarchal marriage. And, unfortunately, in many American families, the unequal power relationship between parents and children depends on a kind of corporal punishment that’s often just on the edge of getting out of hand.
TMZ carried an interview on the street with Toya and Michael. They seem like good people. Toya is immediately likeable, and Michael seems like a sweet, shy kid trying to negotiate his difficult 16-year-old world. The affection between parent and child is apparent.
But the approval bestowed on Graham’s public slapdown of Michael ignores the likelihood that, like many American children, he grew up with the persistent threat of violence at home, as well as in his neighborhood.
And it ignores this fact about violence, across its range of severity: eventually, it nearly always backfires.
John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Readers may send him email at firstname.lastname@example.org.