On Monday, a Baltimore City resident, Toya Graham, 42, was caught on video slapping and berating her 16-year-old son, Michael, in an attempt to drag him off of the streets as tensions with police escalated. The tense atmosphere in West Baltimore was a manifestation of perceived injustices over the suspicious April 12 arrest and injury — and eventual death — of 25-year-old Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore City Police Department.
The video of Graham assaulting her son quickly became a viral sensation, receiving wall-to-wall coverage. Media pundits lauded her actions, suggesting, enthusiastically, that more parents behave in a similar manner. A Fox News opinion piece even termed Graham “hero of the Baltimore riots.”
Baltimore City Police commissioner Anthony Batts echoed these sentiments during an April 27th press conference. "…you saw in one scene, you had one mother who grabbed their child who had a hood on his head and she started smacking him on the head because she was so embarrassed," he told the assembled reporters. "I wish I had more parents that took charge of their kids out there tonight."
The characterization of Graham as a hero is deeply problematic in part because of its conflation of heroism with the actions of a parent terrified of what could happen to her child when placed at the mercy of authorities — the mayor, police, public officials, pundits — already comfortable branding large swaths of black/brown people as “thugs.” (Graham said as much when she told CBS News on April 28th: “That’s my only son, and at the end of the day, I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray.”) Not wanting one's child to become the next Freddie Gray has nothing do to with superhero status, and everything to do with understanding what it is to be young, black, and male in the United States.
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Leaving aside the debate on physical punishment and black children, the laudatory coverage of Graham implies that she is one of the few parents willing to discipline her child. But there is an endless supply of Grahams in black communities across the country, parents who, in common parlance, “don't play,” i.e. don't accept misbehavior from their children. Graham is not an anomaly. (I grew up in Baltimore City. I saw black parents in my neighborhood yank up kids out of the street on a regular basis.) In fact, the major issue in black, inner city communities isn't the lack of caring parents like Graham; it's that despite the actions of millions of parents like her, infrastructures and state institutions — from schools to law enforcement to legislatures — have failed them at every step along the way.
This is why calls for “more heroes like Graham” bother me so much. As I watched the tape of Graham's intervention, over and over and over, I didn't feel like I was watching a superhero, but a parent, and a desperate, scared one at that. (That sense of desperation registers in almost every quote she's given to the media, like this one: “There are some days I'll shield him in the house just so he won't go outside. And I know I can't do that for the rest of my life. He's 16 years old, you know.”) Graham's anointment as a "hero" unfairly shifts the burden from absent, broken or ineffective institutions to the shoulders of individual parents; it is also a reflection of America's lazy crutch of using singular, strong black figures as a Band-Aid solution, instead of, once again, developing and deploying infrastructures to assist entire communities.
Declaring desperate, scared parents "heroes" takes attention away from what cities like West Baltimore, Ferguson, and countless other communities in between really need: Responsible policing, better school structures, responsive legislators, and a broader understanding that people like Toya Graham are parents who care, and that there are lots of them. Ultimately, the heroes who can save these imperiled neighborhoods are the politicians and policymakers, the business and community leaders, the Clark Kents willing to build community programs and fix policies to ensure people that people like Toya Graham don't have to go out into the streets and slap their kids around in front of the world. But even then, “heroes” is probably the wrong descriptor. Those people will just be doing their jobs.
Miriti Murungi is a Senior Digital Producer/Social Media Editor for Fusion. He is possibly responsible for the nonsensical ramblings at @NutmegRadio. Also dabbles in yacht rock and used to wear a tie. *tips hat*