The child abuse allegations against Vikings running back Adrian Peterson have resulted in a fascinatingly convoluted tangent to the discussion of domestic violence surrounding the NFL, one in which, for example, things like the acceptable level of violence against children must be factored in. Another of those fascinating complexities came up during Friday night’s Real Time with Bill Maher, where the recently-hot topic of black culture and physical discipline came up.
Maher made the observation that the proliferation of black faces in stories of violent NFL players (off the field) leaves white America with the impression that “Violence is a black thing,” and suggested (by misquoting President Obama) that violence in black communities is born out of a violent historical context (Obama was actually talking about the “poverty and dysfunction” that resulted from things like slavery, not some sort of cycle of learned violence).
“I think racism has moved to the place, in America, where if you don’t see context, that makes you a racist,” Maher said. The great Wendell Pierce, star of Showtime’s Ray Donovan, delivered a great rundown of the context that Maher was referring to, but pointed out that “for every one, two, or three that may have been in the news because of violence, there are another two thousand that deport themselves as gentlemen, as husbands, as fathers, and as great professionals.”
He also identified the true context for that perception:
“When you see me in a certain situation, you think violence. If they see you in a certain situation, people don’t see violence, so the image of the black man being violent has been perpetuated for a long time.”
This is a theme that has been especially dominant in the news the past few months, as this view of black people as de facto threats has been apparent in high-profile killings.
In response to Pierce, Salon‘s Joan Walsh declared that “Domestic violence is not a black thing,” to which Maher replied “Of course not,” but then asked “What about kid-spanking, and kid-beating? That seems like something, I mean we all know every black comedian ever has done, even Bill Cosby did a routine about ‘the beatings start tonight.'”
Pierce responded, first, by making a distinction between discipline and abuse (which the law’s tolerance of violence makes difficult), and said “It’s not a black thing, white people beat their kids too, I’ve seen ’em at the Walmart.”
“I don’t think they do it as much,” Maher replied, “because of the reasons you said before, and because it’s an economic thing. Rich white people are the last ones to hit their kids.”
Walsh added “That’s entitlement, that’s white entitlement, and the tragic thing is that black parents have resorted to violence in order to keep their kids in line because they can’t be entitled, because being entitled would be being dead, in some cases.”
“Get beat by your parents so you don’t get it from the cops,” Maher added.
Pierce seemed to agree with this, and it’s an idea that has been bandied about this week by many black commentators whom I respect. Goldie Taylor, on MSNBC , talked about slave parents trying to forestall beatings by overseers through strict physical discipline, and Chauncey DeVega made a similar observation in characteristically efficient style:
Race can and will be read into the Peterson incident because the “black family” is an object of fascination for the White Gaze. Research also suggests that black families are more likely to use corporal punishment and to be more strict in their child-rearing practices. This is likely both a combination of economic class and cultural/racial life experiences (white supremacy adultifies black children, thus the consequences for the latter’s misbehavior have historically been far more extreme than those experienced by a white child).
While I wouldn’t presume to discount these self-assessments of black culture, I do think that the conclusion, that those cultural factors make it more likely for black parents to beat their kids than white parents, is horseshit, and accepting that premise is dangerous. The least reliable reason for this is my own personal experience, but it’s illustrative.
I spent exactly half of my childhood in a poor all-black neighborhood, the other half in an all-white working class neighborhood, and the topic of parental beatings was a hot one in both cases. Pretty much everyone was getting hit, and everyone knew the importance of never telling a grownup, because they wouldn’t do anything, and you’d get beat worse for telling.
In the black neighborhood, the conversations consisted of one-upmanship about the severity of the beatings we took. One kid actually claimed that his grandmother picked up the stove, the entire stove, and beat him with it. The white kids all knew when other kids were getting it, because we could often hear it from the street, but they never talked about what happened to them, only about beatings that happened to other kids. They really internalized that secrecy thing. The same white privilege that Walsh and Maher see as protecting white kids (most of whom are not rich) actually privileged these parents to beat their kids with impunity.
Personal experience is not evidence, though, and the statistics on child abuse don’t appear to be my friend here. The abuse rate of black children is nearly twice that of white children, and research also shows that there’s little or no racial bias among third parties who report child abuse. That disparity is much greater than the disparity in favorability toward corporal punishment, where religion appears to be the common denominator. The only thing left for a good liberal to do, then, is to provide the sort of context that’s being offered this week.
One bit of go-to context is poverty, which research has shown to be a reliable predictor of child abuse. If you look at it that way, then it seems like maybe black culture is counteracting that effect, because black people are three times more likely to live in poverty, and less than twice as likely to abuse their children.
Instead of just accepting the premise that there’s something about black culture that makes them more likely to beat their kids, though, what if there’s something about white culture that makes whites less likely to get caught beating their kids? There is an entire universe of wiggle room in these statistics when you factor in research that suggests that 90% of child abuse goes unreported, and that even among those with a legal obligation to report child abuse, 50% of cases go unreported. Research also suggests that while race isn’t a factor in deciding whether to report, one of the strongest factors is “positive behavior of the victim and positive psychology of the perpetrator.”
This circles back to the point Pierce made, because it illustrates who would have a easier time of convincing the (overwhelmingly white) authorities that there’s nothing more to see here, a black man or a white man? Furthermore, if we can agree that black people are grossly over-policed (which seems to be a settled conclusion these days), then wouldn’t that also result in disproportionate reporting of child abuse?
Child abuse needs to be stopped, black or white, and this idea that white people won’t abuse their kids because they’re rich and entitled is dangerous. Violence against children is not about discipline or culture or poverty, it is about power. Extraordinary proof should be required before we decide that those with the most power are least likely to exert it.