The NFL’s reaction to two of its players’ off-the-field misconduct has sparked some important national debates about domestic violence and, most recently, child abuse. And because these players—Ray Rice, caught on video beating his wife, and Adrian Petersen, accused of beating his son—are black, it has also prompted us to examine how these issues intersect with race.
Let’s take the corporal punishment of children. Spanking kids as a form of discipline is not unique to black American culture. That’s an obvious statement, but it still needs saying. However, there is a certain justification for spanking that is a reaction to the specific experience of being black in a racist American society.
In his New York Times op-ed on the subject, Michael Eric Dyson writes:
Adrian Peterson’s brutal behavior toward his 4-year-old son is, in truth, the violent amplification of the belief of many blacks that beatings made them better people, a sad and bleak justification for the continuation of the practice in younger generations. After Mr. Peterson’s indictment, the comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted: “A father’s belt hurts a lot less then a cops bullet!”
The idea here is that a child who is properly disciplined is less likely to incur the wrath of an armed police officer. Brittney Cooper expands on this type of thinking in her piece at Salon:
The loving intent and sincerity of our disciplinary strategies does not preclude them from being imbricated in these larger state-based ideas about how to compel black bodies to act in ways that are seen as non-menacing, unobtrusive and basically invisible. Many hope that by enacting these micro-level violences on black bodies, we can protect our children from macro and deadly forms of violence later.
But she also adds:
The thing is, though: Beating, whupping or spanking your children will not protect them from state violence. It won’t keep them out of prison. Ruling homes and children with an iron fist will not restore the dignity and respect that the outside world fails to confer on adult black people.
Corporal punishment is an extension of respectability politics, the idea that with the correct behavior one can avoid the harshest aspects of American racism. This line of thinking has not and will not ever protect any black person from state-based racist violence, but it continues to hold weight as legitimate counterpoint to dismantling racism. It speaks to a collective idea that the problem is not a country beholden to racist policies but rather a deficiency among black people and within black culture.
But how much discipline would have been required so that the black women allegedly sexually assaulted by Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw never would have been targeted? How many switches should Rekia Boyd have fetched to have been able to dodge Chicago’s Officer Dante Servin’s bullets? How many whippings did Marlene Pinnock need to endure in her fifty-one years so she could avoid California Highway Patrol Officer Daniel Andrew’s fists?
We continue to place the responsibility of correcting racism and avoiding racist violence on those who are victimized by it, and our black children continue to the pay the biggest price, at home and in the streets. It may engender helplessness to believe that you cannot protect your child from harm, but it’s no more helpful to inflict that harm yourself under the belief that spankings at home will shield them from racism outside.