Earlier this month, Atlanta megachurch pastor Creflo Dollar was arrested after his 15-year-old daughter called 911 to say that he had choked and slapped her. He was held in jail for a few hours.
After being released, he called his daughter a liar from the pulpit of his 30,000-member church. Many have defended him; others have suggested that his actions were inappropriate, even if his daughter had “disrespected” his authority by arguing about a party that he had ruled off-limits.
This debate — over whether Dollar was appropriately disciplining his daughter or abusing her, and whether physical violence is needed to rear a child properly — is an old one in the black community. The fact that this debate is still happening shows what little progress black Americans have made in peacefully teaching their children right from wrong. For some, beating children is a legacy of having been abused for centuries by a racist society.
In my travels as an activist teaching positive, nonviolent discipline in black communities, I get a lot of pushback from parents and faith communities. Many say they must hit their children so that they don’t get into trouble outside the home by falling prey to gang violence or getting shot by police. They also say that the consequences for a black child who steps out of line are more dangerous than for a white child. Black parents often tell me that they must toughen their children to prepare them for the harsh realities of being black in America.
As African Americans dissected the Dollar drama, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP and the group’s Fayette County, Ga., branch released statements saying that they were investigating Dollar’s arrest on the grounds that he has a right to be a “responsible parent and discipline his children.”
The NAACP’s reason for being is to advocate for civil rights, making it problematic for the organization to side with a black father, or any father, accused of choking and slapping his daughter. It is especially pernicious in a culture in which, during the Jim Crow era, black parents beat their children to try to enforce lessons about racial etiquette. As historian Leon Litwack has noted, black parents knew that if these lessons weren’t learned, their children could be assaulted or lynched by white people. Vestiges of this tradition endure, as has become obvious in my conversations with black parents who think that discipline must be physically forceful to be effective, a sentiment that is echoed in the NAACP statements.
“Today, many parents in any household have vivid recollections of being firmly disciplined during childhood and can directly reflect on how that discipline made them better adults. In order to ensure fairness, the NAACP wants to make sure that first responders to alleged domestic parent/child dispute calls are skillfully trained to clearly distinguish discipline from child abuse,” the Georgia NAACP said in its news release.
Fayette County NAACP President John E. Jones said in his statement that African American parents should have the right to physically discipline their children to protect them from harm or jail.