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29 April 2015

The Problem with Celebrating Baltimore's "Mother of the Year"

Video has been making the rounds, both on the internet and through more traditional news outlets, of a woman, Toya Graham, beating her teenage son after spotting him among the rioters in Baltimore. She is widely being praised as a "hero" and "Mother of the Year" and is today making the rounds of the morning talk shows. I was disturbed last night when several news broadcasts spent what seemed like an inordinate amount of time on this story compared to their coverage of either the killing of Freddie Gray, the incident that immediately precipitated[1] the protests and riots, or the protests and riots themselves. The near-unanimous decision of the news media to set the agenda in this way is both reflective and problematic.

First, the incident and its coverage has gained traction because it fits into a worldview that many hold about why civil unrest happens. The narrative is that people of color in rundown urban places like Baltimore have personal and cultural failings that foster socioeconomic failure and chaotic, asocial circumstances. In this context, the "hero mother" offers an individual-level solution, namely that if parents cared better for their children, even intervening violently if necessary, they, their children, and their communities would fair better. In essence, it's a popular story because it does not challenge the status quo. The reality, of course, is that there are complicated social structural causes to segregation and poverty that are exacerbated by the implicit biases of authority figures (e.g. police officers), elites (e.g. elected officials), and others, both people of color living in segregated poverty and whites living in relative affluence.

Second, the ubiquity of this worldview paired with an uncritical news media means that this narrative does not get challenged. Instead, it gets perpetuated, reproduced, and strengthened every time that it is repeated. Media scholars often focus on the differences between media outlets and the way that tribal allegiances can create echo chambers, but in this case, we see what appears to be widespread uniformity in coverage.

Finally, I think that it is important that we recognize that Ms. Graham's behavior amounted to abuse, not "discipline." Regardless of the circumstances, repeatedly striking one's child in the head is unacceptable. Moreover, it arguably legitimizes and valorizes violence in a situation that is paradoxically being condemned for being violent.

I want to be clear that the purpose of this post is not to judge Toya Graham. To the contrary, it is clear that she is a woman in an impossible situation. She is being doubly victimized by the media and a society that is intent on using her as a weapon to thwart effective conversation. The real problem is with "us," not "them."

[1] The causes of the unrest are of course much more complicated that this single incident. In the same way that WWI was not about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the current situation in Baltimore is not about the killing of Freddie Gray.

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