About a week ago I published a piece on what I believe is the essential wrongfulness of corporal punishment. Since then I’ve had several discussions with well-meaning and thoughtful people of color who to tend to agree with me in principle, but who also think I’m failing to appreciate some very important nuances involved. Bluntly, it’s been about how we judge- and are judging particularly in the wake of the Adrian Peterson case- black folk for the kind of parenting that has been deemed sad but also necessary for generations.
I’ve heard that I cannot possibly relate to the experience of a black person in this country, whether now or 300 years ago. This is true. I’ve heard that beating children was often done out of love and desperation until shockingly recently, because deeply loving parents of black boys in particular would rather instill fear in them than bury them, because that fear- of a white woman, a white sheriff, and a host of other things- was not present. I’ve heard that there is a still a basis for some of those fears even today. These things are also true.
Underneath it all, I’ve perceived this tone from several people of color, assuming I can put it fairly into my own words: It should not be the added prerogative of a (still) white-controlled society and criminal justice system to decide that black folk are even more criminally liable than they were before, this time for parenting as they have seen necessary for generations- particularly when it was that oppressive white society that created the need for such discipline in the first place.
In plain speech, how the hell is it just or correct that the centuries-old terrorism of white people over black people now gets to be used against them when they beat their children out of the love and fear that said terrorism created?
I really can’t argue with that. But I have to.
First, although the criminal justice system I used to actively participate in was then and is still deeply flawed, it’s the only one we have. Every decision maker in the system- cops, prosecutors, judges, probation officers, etc, need to be aware of the institutional racism and bias we can’t even fully recognize in ourselves. Although this certainly doesn’t apply to people of color in the system itself (black jurists and investigators, etc) as much as it does to people like me, it can apply to some extent. Bias is universal. We all need to be kept in check one way or another.
I don’t believe that all forms of corporal punishment should be outlawed in any event. I just think it’s wrong and unnecessary in any form. But the laws in place in every state I know of (the National Center for the Prosecution of Child Abuse has some excellent compilations of state statutes) are fairly reasonable where the line between discipline and abuse is concerned. When crossed, it should be addressed by the civil child protection system and the criminal law.
Secondly, to confront child abuse is to understand that culture and tradition, however justified or necessary, can be used as a cruel cover. Simply put, there are people of every imaginable ethnic background who beat children not out of fear, but because they are lazy parents, or worse, because they are acting cruelly as a result of a variety of reasons, from misplaced rage to pure amusement, and using cultural support as a convenient excuse.
To the extent that anyone is unfairly using the once necessary and unfortunate but largely love-based traditions of black families against them (legally or otherwise), I agree there is a problem. The devil is in the details, but those circumstances can and should be considered when we respond to what we call child abuse. We’ve found enough reasons to jail black men in particular. I can appreciate why it seems so deeply offensive for people who look like me to suggest yet another reason for doing so.
But first and foremost, the infliction of physical pain on every child should be stopped and condemned if not made categorically illegal. History and truth matter. But children matter more.