Note: This article was updated on Monday, June 12
An important new book, “Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America,” is drawing considerable attention. The author, Morgan State University journalism professor Stacey Patton, is a survivor of childhood “whuppings” that left her with lifelong physical and mental scars and a history of foster care.
Patton argues that the use of “whupping” by black parents is a legacy of slavery. She found no evidence that West African civilizations employed the type of “ritualistic physical punishment” that is practiced by some black parents today.
White slaveowners, argues Patton, introduced their slaves to the concept. Enslaved parents used the practice to train their children to be docile workers and respectful to their masters, to protect them from whippings or worse.
With the end of slavery, Patton states that “whupping was used as a survival tactic to teach black children proper racial etiquette so they would not risk being beaten or lynched by whites.” Even today, black parents justify whupping their children as the only way to prevent them from being shot or locked up.
Yet, Patton explains, the research indicates that hitting often promotes the very behaviors and negative outcomes it is supposed to prevent; ”namely, disobedience, aggression, dishonesty, antisocial behaviors, mental health problems, poor educational achievement, low-self-esteem, early puberty, risky sex, and a host of other issues.”
Patton documents that many black leaders continue to support hitting children. Our first black president expressed nostalgia for the days when any adult could publicly “whup” a black child, she notes, and received thunderous applause from the NAACP.
She excoriates black parents uploading videos to social media showing themselves “screaming at, shaming and hitting their kids.” Some of these videos are posted on Patton’s website, and they are truly chilling.
But wait, a reader might say … white people use corporal punishment too. Patton acknowledges this, but argues that the rate is higher among black parents. The evidence she cites is not very strong, in my opinion, and she acknowledges that “corporal punishment is not a black thing. Between 70 and 80 percent of all Americans hit their children.”
But Patton has chosen to focus on “how whupping children became so deeply embedded in [African-American] culture as good parenting.” And given the evidence she cites, that focus is a valid and deeply needed one.
Patton draws a direct link between corporal punishment and child abuse, but her discussion of federal data on this issue is rather weak. She reports that federal statistics “consistently show that black children are mistreated and killed by their family members at significantly higher rates than children of any other group.” But the majority of these maltreated children were found to be neglected rather than abused.
And these data don’t show actual maltreatment, only what has been reported and identified as such by child welfare systems. Some cases of maltreatment are never reported or substantiated by child welfare systems.
Patton failed to mention some better evidence for her claim that black children are abused at a higher rate than other kids. The most recent in a series of national studies which attempt to find maltreatment cases that are not reported or adjudicated estimated that African-American children were more than twice as likely as white children to suffer physical abuse.
Setting aside quibbles over data, Patton’s emphasis on protecting black children is a refreshing contrast to the “racial disproportionality” movement that has gained currency in this century. Starting in the early 2000s, a group of wealthy foundations and allies called the Alliance for Racial Equity in Child Welfare promoted the notion that a racist child welfare system is behind the disproportionate representation of African-American families in the child welfare system.
As evidence has accumulated that contradicts this view, the alliance has quietly suspended its work, and has not published anything since March 2015. [Editor’s correction: The Alliance has not suspended its work and continues to operate]. But many agencies, commentators and others continue to advocate equalizing black children’s representation in the system with that of other groups, with possible danger to black children who may be left in violent homes without support or supervision.
Patton takes a much more complex view of the role of racism. Yes, racism is behind the disparities in child welfare. But the mechanism is not as simple as racist social workers removing too many black kids from their families.
Dr. Patton’s past as an abused child, as well as her deep and critical thinking, help explain her willingness to dig deeper. Her focus is on protecting children, not on protecting parents at children’s expense. I hope her book gets the large readership it deserves.
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