The Racism in Defining a “Good Mother”

Actress Felicity Huffman made a plea for leniency as she faced sentencing for paying $15,000 to rig the SAT scores of her daughter.

She said she was “just trying to be a good mother” and added that she believed her cheating was “giving her daughter a fair shot” to get into the colleges she believed her daughter would want to attend. (https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/09/us/felicity-huffman-letter-to-judge/index.html).

She doesn’t want to go to jail. She probably doesn’t believe she deserves to go to jail, because by her own admission she was “just trying to be a good mother.”

Black mothers have, however, gone to jail not for paying to rig their children’s’ SAT scores but for sending their children to better school districts. Kelley Williams Bolar spent 10 days in jail, was placed on 3 years’ probation and was ordered to pay $30,000 in back tuition for sending her child to a better school in Ohio, (https://abcnews.go.com/US/ohio-mom-jailed-sending-kids-school-district/story?id=12763654), and in Connecticut, Tanya McDowell was sentenced to 5 years in jail for sending her son to a better school in a district which was not in neighborhood in which she lived. Reportedly, her jail sentence included some time for drug offenses. (https://www.yahoo.com/lifestyle/mom-went-prison-enrolling-her-191400017.html) At the time she registered her son in the district, McDowell was homeless. After her arrest for sending her six-year-old son in the Norwalk school district, she was arrested on drug charges and also picked up a charge of grand larceny; she received a 12-year suspended sentence on the drug charges.

While the “good character” of Huffman is being touted, it is notable that these black mothers were demonized and criminalized for wanting to be “good mothers,” as Huffman said she wanted to do. While Huffman wanted to make sure her daughter got into a “good college,” and wanted a “fair chance,” both Bolar and McDowell wanted the same thing, but on a different level. The elementary schools in the districts in which they lived were not good; a “fair chance” for them included being in a school where they learned the basics which would make them competitive in applying for colleges years later. “Fair” for Huffman and the other wealthy parents who may have spent all of their parental years paying their way and the way of their children into places they’ve wanted to be is far different from what is “fair” for black, brown, and poor people whose children too often are forced to attend schools which offer sub-standard education.

It is regrettable that this country does not see the worth of black, brown, and poor people, and equally as regrettable that in this country the crimes committed by wealthy people are considered less problematic than the crimes committed by poor people. Historically in this country, poverty has been viewed by the wealthy white people in control as proof of the genetic inferiority of certain groups of people. According to proponents of the American eugenics movement, crime was viewed as a “group phenomenon” and an “inherited family trait,” according to Edwin Black in his book, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America’s Campaign to Create a Master Race.” In that same book, Black noted that “when robber barons stole and cheated their way into great wealth, they were lionized as noble leaders of the day, celebrated with namesake foundations and honored by leather-bound genealogies often adorned with coats of arms. It was the petty criminals, not the gilded ones, whom polite society perceived as the great genetic menace.”

Black, brown and poor mothers wanting their children to get the best education possible is not viewed as their being good mothers but serve as yet another way to label them as criminals and a bane to society. The short-sightedness of this worldview is troubling, but it is as baked into the white American mindset as is the belief that being wealthy and white is an automatic indication of one’s superiority.

It will be interesting to see what “time” Huffman gets. It is doubtful that it will be significant, which will be the most troubling part of this story overall, and proof of what Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, has noted: “It is better to be rich and guilty than poor and innocent.”

A candid observation …

 

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