Incriminating Black Motherhood: Class & Educational Access in the US

I have always known that being very poor, which we were, had nothing to do with lovingness or familyness or character or any of that…We were quite clear that what we had didn’t have anything to do with what we were.


~ Lucille Clifton, writer & educator, 1936-2010 ~

In light of the recent college admissions scandal, I wanted to write about how poor Black mothers have been criminalized for trying to seek a good education for their children. Let me know what you think.


“Unproductives.” This was the term applied to poor, Black, single mothers by administrators of the Freedmen’s Bureau in the years following the Civil War.[1]  The ill, the elderly, and the wives of missing Black soldiers were not granted the distinction of being unproductive. Unproductives presented a unique challenge to the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was tasked with transforming former slaves into paid laborers who would not have to depend on handouts to survive. However, as the sole caretakers of their children, unproductives could not easily enter the labor market. Unable to find employers willing to hire them so that they could provide for their children, these single mothers found their parental rights under attack as the Bureau struggled to create solutions for them. Some officials labeled them as idle vagrants and proposed forced work programs, while many others advocated apprenticeship programs that essentially returned fatherless children to slavery.[2] Undergirding these programs was the sentiment that poor Black mothers were simply an unfit, undeserving group who did not contribute to society. They became criminalized for being poor mothers, and they were often punished when they acted in defense of the well-being of their children.

Surely, though, the United States has come a long way since nineteenth-century approaches to public aid. A decade into the twenty-first century, we must have moved away from such archaic characterizations of poor Black mothers and progressed from segregated, unequal housing patterns and public schools. Unfortunately, the same negative ideas about poverty, race, and gender prevail today, and Black women continue to be punished for daring to become mothers while poor. The cases of Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell demonstrate how “unproductives” are disproportionately punished and separated from their children. I posit that these cases are part of a long trend of the criminalization of Black mothers, and I also argue that these cases are evidence of persistent social inequality in the distribution and availability of public services and civil rights.

The cases of Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell are the most ostentatious examples of the use of the justice system to wage war against the poor for attempting to access public resources that, in theory, should be available to all citizens. Williams-Bolar came under fire for enrolling her two daughters, Kayla and Jada, in the Copley-Fairlawn School District in Ohio. After her divorce, Williams-Bolar had to work full-time and became concerned about the safety of her daughters, particularly after her Akron home was burglarized in 2006. She decided that it would be better for her father to help look after the children, and that autumn, she used his home address to move Kayla and Jada from struggling Akron Public Schools to the high-performing Copley-Fairlawn School District.[3] Williams-Bolar lived with her father part-time, and his tax money did support local schools. Nevertheless, she was sentenced to nine days in prison, two years of probation, eighty hours of community service, and was required to pay more than $800 in court costs and fines. Her crime was “stealing” a quality education from Copley-Fairlawn School District, whose representatives argued that the district’s resources needed to stay with their own students, and she and her father were indicted in October 2009. The same argument was given in the case of Tanya McDowell, a homeless Connecticut mother who enrolled her five-year-old son in the Norwalk School District. McDowell and her son occasionally slept at a shelter in Norwalk, but once the district discovered that her “last-known address” was in nearby Bridgeport, she was charged with larceny and sentenced to five years in prison.[4]

Though it can be argued that quality education has always been a commodity in the United States, the prosecution of Williams-Bolar and McDowell raise questions about the ever-growing chasm between public resources for the wealthy and the poor, and, more importantly, the punitive measures taken against poor individuals who attempt to traverse this divide. Though de jure racial segregation ended decades ago, de facto segregation has persisted and intensified in many public school districts through property-tax based school funding. A simple statistical comparison displays the glaring racial and economic differences between the Copley-Fairlawn and Norwalk districts and neighboring schools: These are effectively separate and unequal educational institutions. By framing quality public education as a commodity that can be stolen, these districts call upon existing biases against the poor and people of color to criminalize those who act in the interests of their children.

The cases against Williams-Bolar and McDowell were not happenstance, but part of a purposeful effort by well-off school districts to deter outsiders from using their resources. It is not uncommon for parents to use the residential addresses of close friends and relatives to enroll their children in schools near their home district. Often, school quality is the impetus behind these decisions, but the proximity to home or work, bullying, or other issues also push parents to falsify enrollment records. However, criminal prosecutions for parents who commit school residency fraud are extremely rare.[5] Furthermore, prosecutions are much more likely to be levied against poor families of color who cannot pay the required fines once they are caught. As Stephanie Reitz reports, “Norwalk school officials found 26 other children illegally enrolled during the same time, but McDowell is the only one facing criminal charges. And in the Ohio case, the Copley-Fairlawn district removed about 50 out-of-towners from its schools in the past few years but only Williams-Bolar ended up before a judge.”[6] That these districts chose two poor Black women to prosecute – one who had a spotless criminal record and another who struggled with drug use and distribution – calls forth the historical images of unproductive Black mothers who strained public resources and burdened taxpayers. This history made Williams-Bolar and McDowell easy targets, as the prosecutors knew that they would garner less public sympathy than say, the “New Haven pastor who sent his children to suburban schools under his great-aunt’s address” and who received a lenient “form of special probation” for his crime.[7]

While school districts do have a right to look after the best interests of their students and ensure that their resources are fairly used by the people who pay the taxes to provide them, criminalizing parents who “steal” from an unequal institution does nothing to alleviate educational disparities. The simple fact is that parents from high-performing school districts will never be prosecuted for this crime because they do not need to falsify addresses to “steal” a quality education for their children. Thus, these cases set a contemporary precedent for funneling poor parents into the prison system for a crime that most people commit without consequence. Instead of harkening to stereotypes of unfit Black mothers to help purge school enrollments, we should instead reconsider educational budget cuts and our overall school funding policies. As long as local property taxes are used to fund schools, wealthy neighborhoods will nearly always have better institutions than impoverished ones. And, as long as wealth gaps continue to widen across the country, public education’s inequity will continue to worsen, and more poor parents face the risk of prosecution when they attempt to beat this inequity.  

Considering Black Motherhood after Slavery

The collective tribulations of these two women and their children serve as a locus for discourses on the prison industrial complex and the illusion of twenty-first century postracialism.

The connections between unsavory treatment in the justice system and disparities in public resources are evident. But what is less obvious is the historical narrative that enables the criminalization of poor mothers of color. Though the popular disparaging terminology has shifted from “unproductives” to “welfare queens,” both stereotypes rest upon the notion that these women are drains on society and public resources. The racist and classist assumptions made about these women had very real consequences for them. Until public outcries about each case, the mischaracterizations of them as lazy, uncaring, irresponsible, fraudulent mothers resulted in criminal charges that may very well besmirch future job and housing applications.

These ubiquitous claims of laziness on the part of Black mothers and the related disparagement for their use of public resources first took root during the Reconstruction Era. Before Emancipation, Black women’s reproductive labor was invaluable to the maintenance of the system of slavery, and their economic value as both sources of labor and members of the labor pool made them the target of long-standing legal policies.[ Many of the earliest laws in the United States addressed Black women’s motherhood and used it to perpetuate slavery, such as the 1662 Virginia mandate that determined “that all children born in this country shall be held bond or free only according to the condition of the mother.”[9] Black mothers struggled to care for their children in an exploitative system, often forced to neglect their own offspring to care for the offspring of their owners. Simply put, for much of the country’s history, Black motherhood held a central place in its political economy and cultural development.

However, once slavery was over, the monetary value of Black women’s reproductive labor was turned on its head. Suddenly, in the confusion and devastation of the years following the Civil War, Black women and their children presented particular problems for the restructured labor market and government. As Carol Faulkner notes, abolitionist-feminists of the period urged the Freedmen’s Bureau to assist mothers, children, and other vulnerable segments of the population with social programs that would eventually help them become self-supporting citizens.[10] Instead, Bureau administrators adopted a free labor ideology that centralized employment contracts and political involvement, neither of which had direct, immediate benefits for Black mothers who could not vote and who had trouble finding work while simultaneously caring for their children.

“Dependency” was the buzz-word of the day, and a deep connection between state support and citizenship was forged as the government took a more active role in administering schools, housing, banking, and food programs for freedpeople and families of veterans. “Most Americans…associated dependence with an ineligibility for the privileges of citizenship,” Faulkner explains. “Northerners feared that Southern Blacks would turn to Northern whites and the federal government for support and guidance, thus remaining wards of the nation rather than becoming self-supporting laborers.”[11] In these first decades of freedom, as African American families sought to reconnect with lost family members and build durable communities, notions of marriage, work, and respectability were openly defied. Impoverished freedwomen, especially those who created families outside the nuclear model, posed the greatest challenge to these social norms. In turn, anti-abolitionists reacted with cries of dependency in an attempt to discredit the valid needs and citizenship of Black mothers. Age-old debates about poverty were reinvigorated: Did Black mothers struggle because of lingering effects of slavery, or were they inherently lazy and licentious and therefore unworthy of public aid?

Indeed, poor African American mothers did require significant aid. Having devoted their lives to working for others without pay, in freedom they needed and deserved some compensation in order to establish themselves in postbellum America. Many of them wanted to stay home to care for their own families or work for themselves, but since their attempts at autonomy challenged race, gender, and class hierarchies, they were called lazy unproductives and saddled with a stereotype of dependency. Where they were once given status (if it could be called that) for their reproductive labor, they were now chided for having children and creating more “wards of the nation.” Thus, daring to cherish their children in the midst of such animosity was just as much a political act during Reconstruction and Jim Crow as it was during slavery. Systematic discrimination toward the poor is nothing new in United States history. Historical antipathy towards Black mothers facilitates their unfair treatment by the justice system, making them prime scapegoats for continued systematic inequalities. It is crucial to recognize how historical stereotypes of Black female unproductives and Jezebels influence twenty-first century public resources and criminal cases. The danger of separating these women’s stories from this history allows for a deceptively incomplete interpretation of these cases, thus forcing individuals to account for the consequences of poverty and obscuring the role of systematic discrimination in creating poverty.

The cases of Kelley Williams-Bolar and Tanya McDowell are proof of brazen legal tactics that seek to reaffirm connections between poor character and poverty. Their experiences with the justice system are undeniable reminders of the palpable rupture between morality and legality with respect to women, people of color, and the poor. Yes, falsifying school records is legally wrong, but when these wrongs occur because of systematic disparities in public resources, it is not moral to imprison offenders and separate them from their children without addressing over-arching factors. If America truly seeks to live up to its ideals, the criminalization of Black mothers (and by extension, their family members, other people of color, and poor communities at large) must cease, and historical disparities in public resources must be honestly examined and ameliorated. 


Be sure to follow me on Facebook at @ValChanelle7!

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