Dreams From My Mother

We need to create policies for the families we have, not the families we wish we had.

President Barack Obama participates in a roundtable discussion with young people at an event at Lehman College launching the My Brothers Keeper Alliance.
President Obama participates in a roundtable discussion to launch the My Brothers Keeper Alliance at Lehman College in New York on May 4, 2015.

Photo by Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Of all the reactions to the viral video of a woman pummeling and verbally abusing her teenage son during the Baltimore uprisings, one stood out above the rest: an essay in the New York Times that used the video as fodder for explaining “What Black Moms Know” and why we are superior parents. According to the essay’s author, public corporal punishment and not reading books are among the helpful life strategies we picked up during slavery. The essay itself went viral; meanwhile, the New York Post hailed the Baltimore mom as “Mother of the Year.”

This black mom reacted differently. The video brought back a moment of motherly shame of my own.

I was flying cross-country with my then-3-year-old, battling canceled connections because of snow, bulky carry-on luggage, TSA workers confiscating my hair products—and my preschooler. What seemed like seconds before our connecting flight, she decided to park herself in the middle of the shiny airport floor. I was screaming at her to get up, so of course she dug in more. Then a kindly woman—holding her own toddler’s hand—approached my daughter and murmured something kind and soothing in her ear. She got up.

As she did, I looked around and saw myself through the eyes of the people marching past us to make their own flights, carefully avoiding eye contact with me—the lunatic who thought screaming at a 3-year-old would move things along.

I became that mom.

I have intense feelings of empathy for the Baltimore mother in the video and the generations of toxic stresses that pushed her over the edge. Still, the open celebration of slavery-style discipline adds perhaps the most troubling chapter in a stockpile of narratives about black mothers. Mammy. Ronald Reagan’s Welfare Queen. The turns-out-to-be mythical Crack Mother. These stereotypes have guided urban policy for the past half-century—except for the part where the Good Samaritan intervenes to help out.

In our urban policy, the Good Samaritan seems more focused on the daddies, whether in the now-50-year-old Moynihan Report or now in President Obama’s new My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, a nonprofit to improve educational and job opportunities for boys and young men of color—boys like the one being beaten in the viral video. What these well-meaning initiatives have always risked forgetting, though, is that that boy’s fate is inextricably linked to the fate of his mother, and to the fates of his female peers who will grow up to mother the next generation of black boys.

In 1965, amid the fires of the civil rights movement, then-Assistant Labor Secretary Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote “The Negro Family: A Case for National Action,” which famously warned that the black community had been “forced into a matriarchal structure,” a “tangle of pathology” which “seriously retards the progress of the group as a whole, and imposes a crushing burden on the Negro male and, in consequence, on a great many Negro women as well.” Black girls were hogging all the spots on the honor roll, Moynihan noted; black women held more white-collar jobs than black men.

Fifty years later America as a whole has slightly more (28 percent) single-parent households than were in the black community at the time of the Moynihan report. All girls are hogging space on the honor roll. Women are making gains in the workplace and challenging patriarchal institutions, including the family.

That’s not a “tangle of pathology.” It’s part of a larger paradigm shift in American life when it comes to gender; black women just had a head start. Now that black mothers lead 53 percent of their families, one might assume they would get at least half the policy focus and investment.

Now that the single-earner-household economy is no more, we should shift the policy focus to fill gaps in areas such as child care and transportation that allow households to function. We need workplace rules that allow for a single parent to support his or her family. This fundamental imbalance goes beyond urban or black families—it’s tearing away at the American middle class as a whole. 

Instead, the most ambitious urban policy on the table is My Brother’s Keeper, which is marshaling federal-government resources as well as private philanthropy. If you sense a whiff of patriarchal fetish, it’s especially ironic since both Moynihan and Obama, two of the most influential progressive voices of their generations, were raised by heroic single mothers. You’d think that their mothers’ struggles might have inspired them to find policy supports for families like the ones they grew up in and that have increasingly become the norm. Instead, with My Brother’s Keeper we are getting the policy equivalent of Dreams From My Father—a laser-beam focus on turning the next generation of boys into the father Obama wishes he’d had. But we need to figure out policies that support the families we have, not the one that progressives and conservatives alike wish we did.

In defending the My Brother’s Keeper initiative from questions about gender equity, once again, black girls’ academic achievements are seen as problematic. Washington, D.C.’s attorney general, Karl Racine, recently faced questions about whether the city’s $15 million plan for an all-boys prep school complied with Title IX requirements. In a remarkable letter, he pointed out that black girls were the largest demographic in the city’s most diverse magnet high school; he also pointed out that the city was investing in black girls through teen pregnancy programs—as if boys aren’t also teen parents or girls can somehow impregnate themselves. All-boys prep schools are a great idea, but as Georgetown legal scholar Paul D. Butler argues, we should require equal investment for girls.

If we want to do something about the structural, systemic challenges we see in Baltimore and many other inner cities, narratives and policies that marginalize black women only reinforce the racial caste system that brought us there. We can’t unsee what we saw on the viral video, and so many other desperate moments we watched in Baltimore. But no policy will be effective unless it comes to grips with our history and our present-day circumstances—including the girls and women in the picture.