The shocking Cobb County, Georgia, prosecution of Raquel Nelson, who law enforcement blamed when her son was killed by a drunken hit-and-run driver, has drawn national headlines and outrage. But criminal justice watchdogs and cultural critics point out that, while Nelson's story is extreme, it's not that unusual—and it's the product of centuries worth of demonizing black women that has taken a new, insidious turn during the current recession.
"This hit and run story is such an apt metaphor for what's happening," said Nikki Jones, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "American policies have essentially been a hit and run on black women that leave them in circumstances where they're managing day to day and then getting punished for their very victimhood."
Nelson's 4-year-old son A.J. was killed in front of her eyes last April. Nelson and her two kids had just gotten off at a bus stop across the street from their apartment in Marietta and the nearest crosswalk was more than a quarter mile away. So they, like other passengers that evening, jaywalked across the four-lane street. At the street's divider, A.J. slipped out of Nelson's hand and ran into the street. Nelson was chasing after him with her 2-year-old daughter in her arms when the family was hit by a driver with two prior drunk driving and hit-and-run convictions on his record. He was again drunk that night, and later served six months in jail for his crime.
For her loss, the Cobb County solicitor general charged Nelson, who didn't even own a car, with vehicular manslaughter. When an all-white jury found her guilty in July, news of Nelson's conviction and the possible three-year prison sentence she faced led to a national outcry and an online campaign for leniency. At her sentencing a judge gave her community service instead of jail time, and in a rare move, offered Nelson a new trial. Last week, Nelson accepted.
To culture watchers like Jones, Nelson's case typifies the experiences of black women, who are the targets of a potent and centuries-long cultural hostility. In this country, poor black women are routinely criminalized for their vulnerabilities.
"It's a hard time to be a poor black mother," Jones said. "Structurally, the support systems for them have been severely eroded and there are just more ways to punish people for being bad parents than there were in the past, because the criminal justice system is more punitive."
In the last 20 years, women of color have become the fastest growing segment of the prison population, driven in large part by new classes of crimes that have been created or relabeled, said University of Hawaii criminologist Meda Chesney-Lind. Where 20 years ago crimes like the sale and possession of tiny amounts of drugs, or drug use during pregnancy, were not even considered crimes, today they are fueling a massive uptick in incarceration rates. The addition of mandatory minimum prison sentencing over the years eliminated judges' discretion and contributed to these racially disparate increases. And Nelson's story illustrates another mechanism of the criminal justice system where racial biases can go unchecked: District attorneys commonly are publicly elected officials, and so glom onto cases that grab headlines and spark the ire of their voting base.
"The child welfare and criminal justice systems both are punitive institutions that target poor black women for punishment for harms to their children that are really caused by social inequality," said Dorothy Roberts, a legal scholar on race, gender and child welfare policy at Northwestern University.
The animus toward poor black mothers in particular, Roberts said, is part of a long historical tradition of stereotypes that focus on their supposed twin evils: hyper-sexuality and inadequate motherhood.
Roberts pointed to the Jezebel image that was popular in the days of slavery—the image of a promiscuous woman with an insatiable sexual appetite whose irrepressibility justified both her enslavement and white men's sexual violence against her. That gave way to the creation of a contradictory "mammy" stereotype after Emancipation, of a black woman who was an asexual caretaker and therefore not a threat to white people. The popular image of black women in turn morphed into the masculinized image of the black matriarch in the 1960s who dominated her household and in so doing destroyed her family.
Ronald Reagan's 1980s ushered in the welfare queen trope. "Black women were supposedly having babies just to collect welfare checks and then squandering the money," Roberts said. "It had nothing to do with love."
By the late 1980s and 1990s, the stereotype of the black pregnant crack addict and her "crack baby" became the new dominant stereotype of black women. All of these images were used to fuel policy that targeted and criminalized black women and justified taking black women’s children away from them.
"It's just a long history of negative stereotypes of black women that have changed over time to suit the political circumstances, but that focus on our irresponsible childrearing and mothering," Roberts said. "The thread that joins them is the idea of total sexual immorality and irresponsible reproductive responsibility on the part of black women, who become a burden on the state and also have no maternal bond with their own children."
Roberts said that this particular trend of black mom-blaming is on the rise because social inequality is. People are hungry for an explanation for the unprecedented inequality in the country, and it's far easier to blame individuals than it is to indict the policies and culture that have structured poor people's lives. Indeed, as the recession has unfolded, headlines have been filled with examples.
In January, Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar was charged with falsifying records when she used her father’s home address to get her daughters into a better school in a wealthier neighboring school district. She served 10 days in jail, and even though the theft charges were dismissed after a similar national outcry, the felony on her record has threatened her career in special education.
In April, Norwalk, Connecticut officials prosecuted Tanya McDowell for doing something similar; she's pleaded not guilty. "I just want to know: When does it become a crime to seek a better education for your child?" McDowell said at the time, the Norwalk Patch reported.
In 2009, South Carolina officials took Jerri Gray's obese son Alexander Draper away from her and put him in foster care because, they argued, the teen's health was in danger and he was no longer safe with his mother. Gray lost custody of her son, and then was charged with criminal neglect. Two years later, her charges are still pending, her attorney says, and Draper lives with his aunt. Last week, the latest in a series of studies showed how difficult it would be for a low-income family to buy groceries that meet the USDA's standard for nutritious eating.
McDowell, Williams-Bolar, Nelson and Gray are all single parents, all black mothers struggling in tough circumstances to raise their families. Where poor black mothers are concerned, compassion's in short supply, but there's plenty of blame to hand over.
"What we ought to do is look at the choices that other people have made that have shaped the conditions that poor black women are trying to negotiate," added Jones. "Why is it so difficult to get your kid into a good school? Why is it so difficult to make enough money so that you can buy better food, and why is the cheapest food what it is in the poorest neighborhoods?"
Many of the mothers have raised the same questions themselves.
"I was always working two jobs so we wouldn't end up living in ghettos," Gray, who lost custody of her son because of his health issues, told NPR last month. Gray said that local authorities didn't understand how difficult it was to take care of her son's health needs on her income. In the past two years, Draper's lost more than 200 pounds, an encouraging change, but Gray's family's been irreparably broken.
"Even though good has come out of this as far as him losing weight, he told me just last week, 'Mommy, I want to be back with you so bad.' They've done damage by pulling us apart," Gray told NPR.
"They've pretty well ripped a family apart," Gray's attorney Grant Varner told Colorlines. "The damage that's been done to this family at this point far exceeds the toll of any physical damage done by his weight."
Varner said Gray intends to keep fighting for custody of her son.
Jones says the public's anger should be directed in exactly the opposite direction.
"There needs to be a public shaming of the people who would try to punish women for these sorts of things," she said. "Every time this happens there should be a public outcry to say: we should know better than that. We can do better than that."