When I told my grandma that I was among a crowd of protesters pepper-sprayed while covering the demonstration-turned-riot at Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall on Monday, her response was blunt.
“Well, that should've been your answer to take yo' ass home,” she said.
Had she been with me that day, she might very well have reacted like Toya Graham. You might know Graham as the Internet celebrity “hero mom” or through the hashtag #MomOfTheYear or from the front page of the New York Post.
Every story needs a hero, and the media and white America has found a star in Graham, the African-American mom who slapped and pulled her teenage son out of the protest Monday afternoon. But is all this praise coming from a friendly place? History, and a closer look at what's going on, suggests not.
On a very basic level, the worship of Graham is built on a misunderstanding of her motivation. Many in the media have presumed she was furious at son Michael Singleton for taking part in a riot, and dished out the blows that police and pundits think young black men need to get them back in line. But that's not what she says drove her.
Young black men, like Graham’s son, are 21 times more likely than young white men to be shot dead by police. Graham was scared for her child.
“That’s my only son and I don’t want him to be a Freddie Gray," Graham told CBS. "Two wrongs don't make a right, and at the end of the day I just wanted to make sure I had gotten my son home."
My own grandmother isn’t much different from Graham. She wasn't concerned that I was on the streets rioting. She knew that I was there as a journalist covering the situation, and she supports the calls for justice in the face of police brutality. Nana prefers peaceful protests over rioting, like Graham -- and they both understand the anger and frustration of a community that turns to rioting because they feel like there’s no other way their voices will be heard. And they both fear for the lives of the black children they love. That's why she didn't want me to be a part of it -- she didn't want me to become another hashtag.
Knowing that Graham's primary motivation was to keep her son safe from police violence, would so many white observers have been as sympathetic to the beating she laid out? “Let’s be honest: many white folks are reflexive critics of the greater frequency of corporal punishment in the black community. Witness the media horror at Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson beating his young son,” wrote Joan Walsh in Salon. “If Graham beat her child like that in the aisles of CVS, you can be sure somebody would call CPS."
Indeed, American media have long condemned black parents for hitting their children. And the fact that police can be a mortal threat to black men and boys is no mystery to anybody paying attention to the news, so Graham's fear should have been widely seen for what it was. Yet beating this child, on this day, struck a different chord in the white community. Why?
Danielle Williams, a local resident involved in the protests, caught her own wave of Internet fame by torching an MSNBC anchor for the media's failure to focus on Baltimore before the violence. Reached by HuffPost, Williams said she thinks the mainstream media and white America are living vicariously through Graham “because she’s doing something that they wish that they could do to us and to our children.”
Because White America is living vicariously through her https://t.co/NB3MwEI3Tx
— Melech E. M. Thomas (@MelechT) April 29, 2015
Child Protective Services in Baltimore is strict, according to Williams. In any other scenario, she suggested, Graham’s disciplinary method would have brought officials to her door.
“If that had happened in any other context, [Graham] would be in a lot of trouble -- especially for the words that she was using and the manner in which she chose to discipline her son,” Williams said.
The media were joined by black male authority figures in celebrating Graham's discipline of her son -- part of a ritual in which black men who've made it subtly condemn those who haven't, even when they appear to praise them.
Consider Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts. "I wish I had more parents who took charge of their kids tonight,” he told reporters on Monday. “Take control of your kids."
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), a former Black Panther, took to the House floor with a picture of Graham in hand, praising the “love whopping” she gave her son:
Beside me today is an image that many people across the nation have seen and are talking about. The image of a strong mother giving her son what I would call a "love whopping" to snatch him back from the grips of senseless street violence plaguing Baltimore. As this picture demonstrates, Madame Speaker, mothers can and must be the mobilizing force to take back our streets. Mothers feel the pain of the loss of a child unlike any other. The primal scream of a mother at the death and sudden departure of her child is unlike any other outcry known to mankind.
Rush then asked America’s mothers to wear yellow on Mother’s Day “in a symbolic show of solidarity to create a ‘Mothers in Yellow’ movement to end violence that plagues this nation’s communities and neighborhoods.”
Really? That's the answer?
The police commissioner, for one, seems to be forgetting a key point as he celebrates the hero mom: She was protecting her son from him.