Responses to the arrest of Debra Harrell, a single, black mother who allowed her 9-year-old daughter to play unsupervised in a park, are largely individual. Stories have focused on Harrell herself, obviously, so that we can understand her situation: unable to afford child care, she allowed her daughter to play in a park so that she could work her shift at McDonalds. She was then arrested, and her daughter was taken into protective custody.
People are rightly outraged at the injustice against Harrell, and have focused on how viciously U.S. society distorts children’s safety through the corrupted lenses of race and class. Jonathan Chait in New York decries Harrell’s arrest and tells of letting his kids play in a park unsupervised, with no consequences (he is white). In her lovely article ‘What Black Latchkey Families Stand to Lose,” Stacia Brown also shares her opinion and personal experience, to make clear exactly what is at stake when people report women like Debra Harrell.
We need these stories because they help to bridge the chasms of lived experience in U.S. culture. We will never resolve issues of race and class if people do not fully hear each other.
And I’ve got my own personal response filtered, of course, through my identity as a single, white mom. Like Chait, I, too, recently let my daughter play hide-and-go-seek in a park with another kid. Adults were watching from across the street, but later that day, my daughter told me that, while she was hiding under a bush, a cop walked by and asked if she was okay because he didn’t see anyone else around. She said she was fine, and that was the end of that. He didn’t ask where her parents were or come looking for me.
There you go, anecdotal evidence at its best. It’s not the same situation as Harrell’s, but for me, it confirms the double standard: a cop perceived my daughter, who is younger than Harrell’s, as sufficiently supervised, and his perception was at least partly informed by race.
The public outrage about Harrell’s arrest has spurred a crowdfunding campaign to help her to regain custody of her daughter (Harrell is reportedly out of jail now). This is a great idea because it will help Harrell with her immediate legal fees.
What interests me, though, is how virtually all the responses, rhetoric, and action I’ve seen (like here, here, and here) are limited to the individual realm. I found one article on Vox focused on the overall problem of childcare in the U.S. But mostly it’s, “Was Harrell right or wrong? What’s my experience with this issue? What can we do for Harrell?”
Again, these are necessary and valuable, but it’s also as if we can’t bear to raise the dire need for collective change, so we limit ourselves to the personal in both responses and solutions. Why? Do we feel too hopeless to advocate (again!) for reasonable, affordable childcare solutions for working moms, especially when we see things like yesterday’s Senate filibuster blocking the Hobby Lobby legislation fix?
Is it too tedious to repeat the obvious––like sending another email about how it’s time (right now!) to get big money out of politics? Is it too risky to repeat a larger truth that everyone already knows?
Individual stories and solutions are valuable but limited and, in a weird way, show how we’ve internalized the relentless privatization that makes the U.S. so hard on everybody, especially on working families. It will never be possible to crowdfund enough money for all the moms who are criminalized for living in poverty.
So I’ll be the uncool one and just say it: we need a collective, public response. We need to force this issue and demand legislation that supports working mothers.