When Raquel Nelson was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter after a drunk driver killed her 4-year-old son while the family jaywalked, national outcry helped bring some sense to her case. She faced three years in prison, but last week a judge gave her no jail time and instead offered her a new trial, which she’s since accepted. Nelson’s case is the third widely reported case this year of parents, all of them single moms of color, who’ve been aggressively prosecuted while trying to raise their children in tough circumstances.
In January, Ohio mom Kelley Williams-Bolar was found guilty of a felony when she used her father’s home address to get her daughters into a better school in a neighboring district. In April, Connecticut mother Tanya McDowell was charged with larceny for “stealing” more than $15,000 worth of education when she did a similar thing to get her son into a better kindergarten.
Colorlines spoke with Sarah Haley, an assistant professor of African American Studies and Women’s Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, to help make sense of this trend of prosecuting moms. Haley put the recent spate of outrageous cases in a broader political and historical context. Here’s what she had to say.
On what these cases say about U.S. political culture:
Our political culture is so much formed by the prison industrial complex. The cases of mothers being accused of stealing education by enrolling students in a different school and the jaywalking case, which is really outrageous, those are extremes of a broader and longstanding pattern of black women not being legible as mothers, or as sympathetic subjects before the law.
I would caution us not to think of these cases as being isolated incidents. While really extreme, they are not something distinct from a more widespread prosecution of black women for drugs or for defending themselves against domestic violence or rape. At this point these are more common crimes, and we need to see them along the same continuum as these more outrageous cases.
On the supposed colorblindness of the U.S. criminal justice system:
Western legal doctrine is supposed to be about clear lines, objectivity and universality. The law is supposed to be universally applied, supposed to be objective. But these cases really demonstrate that’s not true and particularly not true for the people in the fastest growing prison population, which is women of color, so it’s becoming more disproportionately untrue.
I was a paralegal before I was a professor, and in the federal court system it’s supposed to be all equal because there are these mandatory sentencing guidelines. So it’s supposed to be all about the crime, not about the person. Except there are exceptions to the mandatory sentencing laws. One of those is for extraordinary family circumstances, and routinely black women and Latinas were not given lower sentences under this exception clause. Even if they were raising children alone, even if there was no one else to care for these kids, they were never given this exception. So something that’s supposed to be objective, like mandatory sentencing guidelines, never is. It really is always about the person who comes before the judge and the prosecutor.
Black women and Latinas are prosecuted very disproportionately to other women in American culture, and the reason for that is not that they are committing more crimes.
On public perceptions and longstanding historical stereotypes of black and Latina mothers:
There are mammy stereotypes that we are often familiar with, of black women and increasingly for Latinas who are legible as caregivers, as child rearers and as someone who takes care of white people’s children. But part of that stereotype is that they are seen as being neglectful of their own. We see this in representations in pop culture, but it’s also very present in the law and goes through different kinds of revision.
The welfare queen is part of that revision, where the mother who is poor becomes an aggressor, rather than a sympathetic subject, and that was a highly criminalized trope. There was the whole phenomena of the crack baby, which is another criminalized trope.
Black women are seen as harmful to their children and to society rather than as caregivers and as nurturers, except insofar as they do it as paid work, as nannies.
On other examples of aggressive prosecutions of women of color:
From my observation, it’s about the disproportionate prosecution of women of color for drug offenses, largely in cases in which the woman has less culpability of the knowledge and the actual drug transition than her male partner. That’s a big part in prosecutions for drug possession and drug sale, and because they had less knowledge of the operation, they can’t actually give information that would reduce their sentences, and that definitely happens a lot, particularly in federal cases. Everything from heavier prosecutions for theft, and for drugs, is where a lot of prosecutions of black women and Latinas come from.
Many of these “crimes,” to the extent that they are committed, are economic crimes. The crimes that women of color are convicted of are by and large class crimes, where people are trying to support their families or are attempts to protect themselves from patriarchal violence. Those are the two most common conditions under which women of color are committing crimes, and they’re being prosecuted disproportionately for trying to protect themselves and their families.
On how we ought to reshape our thinking of black and Latina mothers:
We need to be thinking in precisely the opposite way. We need to be looking at how women of color can be supported in raising their children by providing more resources. We need to be looking at the ways in which a woman who tries to send her child to a decent public school is taking a radical act toward improving society and improving her child’s life within a long historical trajectory within the African American community in particular toward public education and the building of public education in American society.