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.
“The parents are in a dilemma whether to forgo disciplining their children or to leave it up to law enforcement. Should we be apathetic, lax or indifferent and let the courts send our unruly children to jail or should we as parents do our duty and appropriately discipline our children?” Jones asked. “These are the questions every parent is asking today. The responsibility of the NAACP is to get out front and ask these culturally sensitive questions that affect the fundamental cause of freedom, equality and justice.”
Jones fails to realize that physically punishing black children in the name of protection and love could contribute to some of the problems that this tactic is believed to prevent — gang violence, bullying, school suspensions and incarceration.
And while he argues that the NAACP should help law enforcement officials become more culturally sensitive about discipline in black communities, it is clear that the organization has forgotten important lessons from its own history.
From its inception, the NAACP made black children central to its campaigns spotlighting racial injustice. During the Jim Crow era, when black communities were besieged by discrimination and violence, including the rape and lynching of children, the organization used images of healthy, happy babies and youth to illustrate that it was focused on protecting younger generations so that they could nonviolently fight prejudice.
At the dawn of the 20th century, the NAACP’s Crisis magazine included advice about the importance of nurturing and encouraging children. In my historical research, I found that the Crisis did not directly address physical discipline in its pages but instead focused on the care of children — feeding them, educating them, instilling racial pride and “respectable” behavior, and shielding them from trouble.
Flash forward a century, and Dollar’s supporters are hauling out the old argument that beating black children will save them from prison and harm. From comedians and superstar radio personalities to preachers and YouTube videos of child beatings, black culture encourages and even celebrates the beating of children. It continues to be part of how black Americans cope with a society that devalues them.
While corporal punishment crosses socioeconomic and racial lines, the ramifications for black communities are dire. These beatings can land children in foster care (where black children are overrepresented compared with their share of the general population). Though they’re taken away from abusive family members, foster care doesn’t ensure a smooth road forward — it increases kids’ chances of landing in jail. According to a 2010 study published by the Family Court Review, the number of children in foster care has almost doubled since the 1980s, and 25 percent of children leaving the system are incarcerated within their first couple of years on their own. “Foster youth are at an elevated risk of gang involvement as they seek to fill their family void,” the study concluded.
The NAACP has only recently supported banning corporal punishment in public schools, where a disproportionate number of black children are hit by teachers and principals. Why come out against corporal punishment in one context and then defend it in another? This is why the Georgia branches’ stances on the Dollar incident, and the silence from the national headquarters on their news releases, are so troubling. And like the NAACP, the Atlanta-based Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by the venerable Rev. Joseph Lowery, is asserting that Dollar is a victim of overzealous policing and should have the right to handle family matters as he sees fit.
What about children’s rights to be disciplined without physical and mental pain? If Dollar had been accused of choking and slapping his wife instead of his daughter, would the public be just as outraged at his arrest?
W.E.B. Du Bois, one of the NAACP’s founders, knew that black children face a “sneering, cruel world.” So he recommended that black parents create a haven in their homes. In 1926, Du Bois wrote that children should be surrounded by “books and pictures and music; cleanliness, order, sympathy and understanding; information, friendship and love — there is not much evil in the world that can stand against such home surroundings.”
There is no doubt that today’s NAACP believes that the strength of the black community, and the nation, depends on addressing racial disparities affecting our children. But is endorsing familial violence helpful? Standing up for the right to discipline by force isn’t something the NAACP should be doing.
The alleged altercation between Dollar and his daughter is merely the most recent high-profile incident that challenges us as individuals, as organizations and as a society to examine whether we’re trying to help or harm black children in a hostile world. The odds are stacked against them before they are even born. If these children are to contribute to society, and if they are to lead, they must be whole and healthy, not beaten and broken down. To get there, they need their parents — and civil rights organizations — in their corner.
Stacey Patton is a reporter for the Chronicle of Higher Education and the author of the memoir “That Mean Old Yesterday.” She is the founder of Spare the Kids, an organization that advocates nonviolent discipline.