Monday, December 17, 2012

Parenting in the USA

Like everyone else, I have cried many tears since Friday.  The thought of 20 small children, ages 6 and 7, being gunned down boggles the mind and hurts the heart.  But my sobs have not kept me from noticing a refrain that deserves scrutiny: “as a parent.” 

 “As a parent,” countless people can sympathize with the grief-stricken community of Newtown, Connecticut.  Therefore, while mass shootings are nothing new, many feel certain that the outcry this time will be intense and sustained enough to propel the nation toward gun control because most victims were small children. The prediction is likely correct, but what does that tell us about empathy and being a parent in the United States?

For most Americans, being a good parent means protecting your child.  It means offering your child the best you can provide, without regard for whether other parents have the same opportunities.  In this context, it makes sense for a homeless mother, who sent her child to school in a neighborhood where they did not live, to be “charged with first-degree larceny for stealing $15,686 in education funds from the Norwalk, Connecticut school district” (April2011).  It is a very American mentality: “I got mine. I don’t have time to care about whether you got yours.” This attitude permeates parenting as much as anything else. This is how we end up with cities across the nation in which some schools do not have enough books while others have an abundance of everything. 

So, when we hear our leaders insist that they are responding “as a parent,” we should consider what that has ALWAYS meant. One of the unspoken prerequisites for our leaders is that they be heterosexual and married with children. Candidates with these characteristics are viewed as stable and responsible, and their morals are not automatically questioned.  Thus, it has mostly been heterosexual married parents who have made the decisions that created our current policies.

Also, many of those now shedding tears for the Sandy Hook victims quickly grew tired when Trayvon Martin’s parents had to beg for a simple arrest…for 46 days after George Zimmerman killed their son.  Likewise, many of those who are heartbroken “as parents” about the Newtown shooting rolled their eyes just a few weeks ago when Jordan Davis was killed in a parking lot for the volume of his music, drawing comparisons to Martin’s murder.  Most readers will object to my even mentioning these dead teenagers, insisting that Friday’s violence was different because small children were targeted. A parent’s pain is a parent’s pain, though, right?  No parent should have to bury their child. We all understand that, right?

As the heartrending funerals begin in Connecticut, many note that counseling services should be a matter of course for the community, that the surviving children and their families are traumatized and in need of coordinated support.  However, as a nation, we do not think in those terms when we hear about the gun violence plaguing inner cities.  We do not work to ensure that youngsters exposed to that trauma will receive help. Instead, our policies dictate that impoverished communities can count on less investment in education and healthcare, but they will receive more than their share of surveillance, juvenile detention, and incarceration.

In short, gun violence in Newtown inspires an outpouring of support and empathy for victims and understanding for the perpetrator, who has inspired a national conversation on mental illness. Meanwhile, for those who are black and brown and/or poor, gun violence helps justify the school-to-prison pipeline.  And when the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations try to call attention to the injustice, they get nothing like the media coverage and overall emotional investment that we see when victims are white and middle class.

And let’s not lie to ourselves and suggest that our empathy has nothing to do with the fact that the victimized neighborhood is predominantly white and middle class.  The reason so many Americans identify with Newtown residents is that, “as parents,” they are doing exactly what Sandy Hook parents did.  They are moving to suburban areas with “the best schools” in order to shield their children from interaction with “others.”

Our neighborhoods and schools are not segregated by accident.  Let’s not pretend that the best schools “just happen” to be mostly white, and low-performing schools “just happen” to be mostly black and brown. Parents’ decisions about where to live—when they possess the means to make that decision—have everything to do with avoiding schools with too many “undesirables”…and even the poorest among us have received an impeccable education regarding who that is.

Americans are good at playing innocent, though.  We just can’t understand how tragedies like this happen. “Who would visit this kind of violence on children?,” we ask desperately. 

Meanwhile, our society does violence to children everyday, and all of us are complicit. Not only do we allow corporations to make untold profits by bombarding youngsters with violence via toys and video games, but we also turn our backs on countless children. Because we have allowed food deserts to form all over the nation, malnutrition is not just a problem in so-called “Third World” countries.  In fact, as Chris Williams reports, “The number of federally licensed firearm dealers (129,817)” in the United States far exceeds “the amount of grocery chain stores (36,569).”

Likewise, we sentence innocent black and brown children to live (and die) in toxic environments.  A 1992 study of 1, 177 cases handled by the Environmental Protection Agency revealed that “polluters of sites near the greatest white populations received penalties 500 percent higher than penalties imposed on polluters in minority areas—an average of $335, 566 for white areas contrasted with $55, 318 for minority areas” (Lipsitz 9).  Indeed, “nationwide, 60 percent of African Americans and Latinos live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites” (Lipsitz 9).  As long as white middle-class children are protected, there is apparently no need for widespread action.

What is most disappointing about American responses to the realities we have created is that we pretend that our politics matter only some of the time.  But, politics refers to how societies make decisions about where to funnel resources, including emotional resources.  Everything social, everything about human interaction, is political.  This elementary school shooting does not become politicized because people discuss the social issues it lays bare. What the United States values is simply being exposed, and make no mistake, values and politics always go together.

When we do violence to children everyday but are willing to acknowledge the damage only when particular kinds of children are hurt, that is a reflection of our politics—of where we think resources and energy should go.

What would happen if being a parent motivated people to want to change institutions and policies so that (for example) all children receive a quality education, not just those whose guardians can afford your zip code?

If parenting meant that you want to make life better for every child, not just your own, different decisions would be made.  Then, it might really mean something when people say that they empathize “as a parent.” Without that shift in values/politics, the Sandy Hook tragedy will simply encourage parents with material means to seclude themselves and their children even more, looking for a safety that they are not invested in others having.

Since its inception, this country has operated on the premise that we are not all brothers and sisters, that we can disregard the welfare of others and it won’t negatively impact our own.  We still seem to believe that.  However, as the incomparable James Baldwin explained long ago, “you can’t deny your brothers without paying a terrible price for it. And, even then, they are still your brothers.”  

So, as a nation, we should ask ourselves: As long as we refuse to make the United States safe for all the children here, why would we think it would be safe for our own? Putting the question another way, because I ask it as an American with not only tears in my eyes but also blood on my conscience: When the United States sends drones to deliver terror and death to families in other parts of the world, why would we expect peace at home?