“Bad Dads” and the Policing of Black Parenthood

Abby Johnson, White Parents, "Bad Dads" and the Policing of Black Parenthood
Abby Johnson, notable anti-abortion advocate and recent RNC speaker, said it would be “smart” for a police officer to racially profile her Black adopted son. What does this tell us about the tricky politics of interracial families in the U.S.? (EpiskopatNews / Flickr)

Abby Johnson, notable anti-abortion advocate and recent RNC speaker, came under fire this week after a Vice article drew attention to a video in which Johnson said that it would be “smart” for a police officer to racially profile her Black adopted son.

In the video, originally posted in June and since taken down, Johnson cited “statistics” that supposedly indicated Black men were more likely to commit crimes than white men. 

“Statistically, I look at our prison population and I see there is a disproportionately high number of African American males in our prison population for crimes, particularly for violent crimes. So statistically, when a police officer sees a brown man like my Jude walking down the road—as opposed to my white nerdy kids— … these police officers know in their head … statistically my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons.

“So the fact that in his head, he would be more careful around my brown son than my white son, that doesn’t actually make me angry. That makes that police officer smart, because of statistics.”

As many pointed out, Johnson’s video shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the crime statistics she mentions. While it is true a disproportionate number of Black men are incarcerated in the U.S., study after study has pointed out this is not due to higher crime rates among Black men—but rather high rates of racial bias in policing and sentencing in the U.S.

But Johnson’s video bypassed all that evidence, and instead latched onto a troubling racist idea: Over-incarceration of Black men is the result of “bad dads.” 

“Black fathers do not get a pass, just because it is culturally different, just because Black fathers don’t want to be in the home, and culturally it has been acceptable for them to be with multiple women,” Johnson said in the video. 

Like the “welfare queen” myth, the “bad dad” stereotype is based on the stereotyping of Black people as lazy and unfit parents—and like the welfare queen, it’s a stereotype not grounded in fact: A 2013 CDC survey noted Black fathers actually tend to spend more time with their children than white fathers—whether they live with their children or not.

And like the “welfare queen” myth, the “bad dad” stereotype is also rooted in state-sanctioned violence against Black people in the U.S.—often via the war on drugs and subsequent over-policing of Black communities.


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But aside from her statistical misinterpretations, Johnson’s statements raise questions about her own position as a (racist) white parent raising a Black child, and the ways in which interracial adoption can negatively affect a child.

Consider the way Johnson talks about her own son:

“Right now, Jude is an adorable, perpetually tan-looking little brown boy. But one day, he’s going to grow up and he’s going to be a tall, probably sort of large, intimidating-looking-maybe brown man. And my other boys are probably gonna look like nerdy white guys.”

Aside from raising questions about the fetishization of mixed babies, this quote shows Johnson’s lack of understanding of the ways in which her own relationship with her child is perpetuating structural violence—concerning, to say the least.

The Tragedy of Devonte Hart and White Parenthood

Abby Johnson’s comments call to mind the tragic story of Devonte Hart, a boy in the news a few years ago for being photographed crying and hugging a cop—a photograph that was later disputed when it was revealed that his two (white) mothers were abusive towards their multiple Black adopted children.

Hart’s story has a tragic ending: After years of abuse with no intervention— despite reports made to social services—one of his mothers ultimately drove her car off a cliff with him and several of his siblings in the car. His body was the only one never recovered. 

Hart was initially placed in foster care because his biological mother struggled with addiction—for which she was assigned to a court-ordered treatment program that she complied with. (Hart and his sibling were also initially placed with an aunt, whose custody they were removed from after a social worker found them unsupervised on a surprise visit.)

But the fact that foster care systems are designed to provide white parents with money and resources to raise Black children—rather than devoting those resources to helping actual Black mothers, whose children are often removed for “neglect” as a result of structural poverty—is the real systemic problem.

Rather than helping children, the system serves to perpetuate a literal “black and white” view of motherhood: the idea that Black motherhood is inherently unworthy, and that white motherhood is inherently superior—a view that, as we’ve seen, can have traumatic and violent consequences.

As the principle of intersectionality points out, race and gender are inseparable. By extension, gendered positions—i.e. motherhood—are also inseparable from race and white supremacy. This means that mothers in the U.S. who are non-white, and Black mothers in particular, can never be perceived as “good mothers”—because they are deemed unworthy just by virtue of their race.

The welfare queen stereotype is a good example of this: Poor Black women’s relationships and families are seen as “nonnormative,” because systemic barriers mean they inherently cannot emulate the standards of whiteness.

And so, because Black motherhood is inherently devalued, children like Devonte Hart and Abby Johnson’s son Jude end up being raised in conditions that are alienating at best—and deadly at worst.

The Problem of Transracial Adoptees

This is a topic that transracial adoptees have spoken on extensively—even if white parents are not physically abusive, there are a host of problems associated with adopting a child of a different race than you.

Some transracial adoptees describe feelings of alienation and depression, of feeling like there is something wrong with them because they do not look like their birth families, or the predominantly white communities that may surround them. Cast as simultaneously not white and not “other” enough, mixed and adopted children fall through the cracks of identity.

Racial dynamics within families can come through subtle ways, ones you’d never anticipate unless you’d experienced it yourself—within relationships, in misunderstandings and miscommunications, but in interactions with the external world as well. These can range from innocuous (the other day a complete stranger asked why my mother’s hair was blonde, while mine was brown) to more harmful—with strangers assuming that the darker-skinned parent is a domestic helper, or even more dire, that they are kidnapping the child.  

All this goes to show that when our society expects families to look entirely alike, so many people fall through the cracks—mixed people, adoptees, found families… All of us are actively hurt by biologically essentialist assumptions about what family looks like.

We need to interrogate these assumptions—not in the least, because the systems that control the creation of the American family are political. The foster care system is political—the premise of giving money to an adoptive family, rather than the birth family. The entire system of transnational adoption and its accompanying industries is political—just look at its colonial legacy. Even the idea of who is and isn’t able to reproduce in the U.S. is governed by politics—remember the state-sanctioned forced sterilization of women of color?

There are so many examples of the United States expressing a vested interest in regulating what its population looks like—that’s why interracial marriage was still illegal in many states until 1967, why Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen” is a mother, and why reproductive rights are conditional. Because this country is built on the enforced prioritization of whiteness, in every social sector. The family is no exception.

An idea that’s gained currency in recent years says moving towards a more interracial, ambiguously-brown-mixed America will be the cure for racism. But stories like that of Abby Johnson’s son, Devonte Hart and so many others prove that the melting pot narrative is a false promise—or at least one that we need to interrogate rather than accepting as a universal good.

Racism and colorism are embedded in our constructions of family, and until we acknowledge that as fact, and include it in our fight against racism, children like Abby Johnson’s son and Devonte Hart will keep being harmed by racist parents who are at best clueless and at worst actively violent towards them. 


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About

Oliver Haug is an editorial intern with Ms. Magazine and a recent graduate of Smith college. Their writing has previously appeared in Autostraddle and the New York Times' newsletter "The Edit." You can read more of their work at oliverhaug.contently.com, and follow them on twitter here.