Sara Almohamadi | Breaking a Community’s Backbone

By Sara Almohamadi

For a previous seminar, Abolition Democracy 4/13 on the Abolition of Slavery, Stephanie Jones-Rogers wrote “slavery was a system created and sustained by a series of robberies. Such acts were committed not just by individuals but also by the government, at the state and federal level. Yes, the theft of people, their liberty, and their labor. But also the theft of African-descended people’s right to love and experience pleasure.”[1] During the seminar, Jones-Rogers spoke about how white women enslaved and separated Black mothers from their children so these women could serve as wetnurses for their white infants.[2]

Today, the practice of separation and deprivation of familial love continues through family policing, which targets Black families, with the Black mother as its main victim. Modern carceral institutions, such as the prison and foster care systems perpetuate the same injustice, in the name of ridding society of its ills. By looking at how the carceral system punishes the Black mother, this essay argues that such punishment, in turn, deprives Black communities of the ability to accumulate communal, financial and emotional wealth.

Punishing Motherhood

When Black women’s fertility was no longer lucrative, it grew to be seen as a burden, both on the economy and on the state’s ‘white social fabric.’[3] It should come as little surprise then that pregnant incarcerated women would be handcuffed and shackled during delivery and have their new-borns almost instantly placed in foster care. In her article on “Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers,” Dorothy Roberts takes us through the parallels between the prison system and the foster care system, to show how the two are connected both ideologically and practically. Roberts shows that the child protective services is an “integral part of the U.S. carceral regime,” which operates in a punitive and racist manner.[4] She argues that both systems are particularly burdensome to poor Black mothers: “about one-third of women in prison are black…about one-third of children in foster care are black.”[5] Both systems work together to punish Black communities, and preserves racial, gender, and class inequality.[6]

Black mothers represent a disproportionate share of the prison population. This is part of a larger racially motivated scheme that works to exclude those who are a “burden” on the economy.[7] Similarly, the racial disparity in the child welfare system places the blame on the mother for her children’s poor conditions, rather than tackle the roots of the poverty.[8] Like the prison system, the foster care system’s punitive nature could be seen as yet another “response to an unmanageable political economy.”[9]

In her seminal book Shattered Bonds, Dorothy Roberts highlights how Black parents are more prone to suffer from state intervention in the form of child protection because they are the most heavily stricken by poverty and institutional discrimination, and therefore more likely to be blamed for the effects on their children. Black mothers, who are in most cases the primary caretakers, are terrorized on a regular basis. Roberts reports,

One mother from a poverty-stricken town near St. Louis described to me how her caseworker was pressuring her to pay an electricity bill. “I don’t care what you got to do, if you don’t have the receipt in my office soon, I will be out there to take your kids,” he told her. “That’s how he talks to me every time I call,” the mother says.[10]

Women who depend on public assistance to care for their children are increasingly treated as criminals. They are often accused of welfare fraud punishable by prison.[11] Instead of addressing the structural issues that led to their family’s economic deprivation, such as poverty and racial injustice, the state responds with child removal rather than providing services and financial support to break the cycle of terror.

Over-policing the Black family in general, and the Black mother in particular, is justified by stereotypes of “black maternal unfitness.” [12] But where does the idea of an “unfit” or “bad” mother come from? To answer this question, we might need to ask, who’s allowed and encouraged to reproduce? Which family model is the state advocating for? And which communities are enabled to thrive? The neoliberal state benefits from the reproductive capacities of citizens who are employed in necessary jobs, pay taxes, and with surplus income to fuel the consumer-driven economy.[13]  According to leading reproductive justice advocate Loretta Ross, politicians and policy makers continue to define Black mothers as “unfit” because they do not reproduce within the confines of a “middle-class white [emphasis added] nuclear-family structure.”[14] A mother who does not live up to the increasingly unattainable middle-class standard is a “bad” mother, and her motherhood and fertility should be curtailed and demonized.

Breaking the Mother, Breaking the Community

In her work, Roberts shows how breaking the mother in turn breaks the community. Incarcerating mothers tends to strain familial ties the most because mothers are usually the primary caretakers of their children. Moreover, the increased incarceration of mothers who are first-time offenders, mostly for drug related problems, inflicts incalculable damage to communities, not only because mothers maintain invaluable relations with their children and neighbours, but also because locking up Black mothers “transfers racial disadvantage to the next generation.”[15] Similarly, the child welfare system causes serious group-based harms: by reinforcing disparaging stereotypes about Black family unfitness and need for white supervision, by destroying a sense of family autonomy and self-determination among many Black Americans, and by weakening Blacks’ collective ability to overcome institutionalized discrimination.[16]

The prison system is a mechanism of wealth extraction both through the direct exploitation of prison labour and by “appropriating Black social wealth.” Angela Davis describes social wealth extraction as “the wherewithal of Black Americans to sustain their communities: schools, churches, home ownership, etc.”[17] Similarly the child welfare system has created what Josh Gupta-Kagan calls America’s hidden foster care system, through which, parents are mostly forcefully compelled to transfer custody to kinship caregivers. Such cases are largely “unregulated” because the agencies file no petition of abuse to the court. This infringes on the family’s integrity because it leaves many families with only a “few meaningful due process checks.”[18] In addition, due to the ‘shadow’ nature of the hidden foster care system, financial support awarded to kinship caregivers is very limited.

Prisonizing the Home

Family policing ‘prisonizes’ the home,[19] leaves many children unmothered, unfathered and uncared for by society. The racial disparity in the foster care system designates some communities as unworthy—unworthy of forming lasting family bonds, unworthy of forming strong communal ties to overcome discrimination, and unworthy of accumulating emotional and financial wealth. It seems that the foster care system operates to conceal the system’s failure to provide assured livelihoods for these children within their familial homes, in the same way that prisons operate to conceal systemic failures, Angela Davis’ writes, “rather than seriously address the problems with which so many communities are afflicted – poverty, homelessness, lack of healthcare, lack of education – our system throws people who suffer from these problems into prison. It has become the institution par excellence in the aftermath of the disestablishment of the welfare state.”[20]

Notes

[1] Stephanie Jones-Rogers, Slavery’s Abolition: Dark and Bittersweet – Abolition 13/13 Blogs.law.columbia.edu (2020), https://blogs.law.columbia.edu/abolition1313/stephanie-jones-rogers-slaverys-abolition-dark-and-bittersweet/ (last visited Nov 24, 2020)

[2] Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, Abolition Democracy 4/13: The Abolition of Slavery (2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxgrp3ZxbBg&feature=emb_logo (last visited Nov 24, 2020).

[3] In Black Reconstruction in America, W.E.B DuBois recalls that “a breeding woman is worth from one-sixth to one-fourth more than one that does not breed.” W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 at 44 (1985 [1935]); See also, Dorothy Roberts, Killing The Black Body (1 ed. 1997)

[4] Dorothy Roberts, Abolishing Policing Also Means Abolishing Family Regulation, The Imprint, https://imprintnews.org/child-welfare-2/abolishing-policing-also-means-abolishing-family-regulation/44480 (last visited Mar 1, 2021)

[5] Dorothy E. Roberts, Prison, Foster Care, and the Systemic Punishment of Black Mothers, at 1477. 59 UCLA Law Review (2012) [Hereinafter, Roberts]

[6] Id.

[7] Roberts, supra note 5, at 1479

[8] Id. at 1484

[9] Angela Y. Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture at 112-113 (Seven Stories Press, 1 ed.) (2005) [Hereinafter, Abolition Democracy]

[10] Dorothy E Roberts, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare at 81 (Basic Civitas Books, 1 ed.) (2002) [Hereinafter, Shattered Bonds]

[11] Roberts, supra note 5, at 1480.

[12] Id. at 1486

[13] Loretta Ross & Rickie Solinger, Reproductive Justice at 171 (1 ed. 2017). [Hereinafter, Reproductive Justice]

[14] Id. at 183.

[15] Roberts, supra note 5, at 1481

[16] Shattered Bonds supra note 11 at ix.

[17] Abolition Democracy supra note 7 at 11.

[18] Josh Gupta-Kagan, America’s Hidden Foster Care System at 841, 72 Stanford Law Review (2020)

[19] Maya Schenwar & Victoria Law, Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms at 140. (The New Press 1 ed.) (2020)

[20] Abolition Democracy supra note 7.

Fonda Shen