Like all mythology, that of the criminally bad Black mother spread through storytelling—lurid tales told with bitter resentment. Haven’t you heard the one about the jaywalking mother whose son was hit by a drunk driver? Surely you know all about the homeless mother who left her two children in the car during a job interview. And now there’s the McDonald’s mother who abandoned her daughter at the playground.
But what do these stories leave out? Our welfare system is designed to put everyone to work regardless of circumstance. Unfortunately, the low-wage jobs attainable for most mothers lead to a parental quagmire. Between low paychecks and inflexible work schedules, how is one to arrange for adequate child care? With no apparent options, the answer is often that they simply cannot.
Such women, it’s been repeated to you, are bad mothers who deserve to be punished, and increasingly we’re doing just that. Indeed, the mythology of bad Black mothers was never just a part of our cultural folklore—it’s entrenched in our legal system.
Over the last three decades, the population of incarcerated women has grown by over 800%, and women of color have been locked up at disproportionately high rates. African American women are three times more likely than White women to be thrown in jail or prison.
The justice system doles out particularly harsh punishments for infractions that relate to motherhood. Although pregnant Black and White women take drugs at similar rates, expecting Black mothers are 10 times more likely to be reported to child welfare for drug use, according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
Mandatory minimum sentencing has slowly eliminated judicial discretion and exacerbated the racial disparities. In addition, most child maltreatment laws and definitions of neglect are very vague, leaving room for prejudice based on race, class and gender to creep in. One in nine Black children have an incarcerated parent. Who stands to gain from this?