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Relativizing Discipline

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eye on the news

Relativizing Discipline

When is child abuse not really child abuse? When it’s part of your heritage, apparently. November 3, 2020
The Social Order

Last month, Brooklyn assemblywoman Diana Richardson posted a 15-minute video tirade on Facebook Live defending herself after the magazine City & State put her on a list of local elected officials who have “crashed, burned and flamed out.” The publication mentioned felony assault charges brought against Richardson in 2017 for beating her 12-year-old son with a broom. In the video, as she sits in the front seat of a car, Richardson explains, “I’m Caribbean. We discipline our children.” And she criticizes City & State for bringing up the issue, saying that she is being portrayed as “an angry black woman.”

Richardson, who represents Crown Heights, East Flatbush, Wingate, and Prospect-Lefferts Gardens, was charged with assault after her then-12-year-old son walked into a police station at 1 a.m. and showed officers a contusion on his arm that he received from an altercation with his mother about his report card. The charges were dropped, but according to the New York Post, he currently resides with his father.

Richardson seems both proud of her behavior and angry with City & State for bringing it up. “If I was not elected and I tap up my son’s ass, I’ll just call it what it is. I beat him,” she yells at the camera. Then she notes: “And I grew up receiving plenty lickings and I’m doing real good right now. So don’t come to judge me and judge my family. I’m sick of it. It is disrespectful.”

A few days later, the magazine apologized for writing about the beating and removed the story from its website, explaining that “the incident mentioned in that piece was not related to [Richardson’s] work as an elected leader.” The editor of the magazine was fired.

City & State thus sets a remarkably low standard for news coverage. An elected official who assaults someone is immune from criticism so long as the assault is “not related to her work as an elected leader?” It’s hard to imagine that City & State will adopt this policy for other legislators. More likely, the magazine backed down because Richardson accused it of stereotyping, and it didn’t want to be accused of racism. What’s odd, though, is that Richardson herself engages in this kind of generalization. She implies that Caribbean mothers regularly beat their children, and that it’s part of their ethnic tradition.

It’s true that different families take different approaches to disciplining kids, and these norms often have cultural roots. But we have laws on the books spelling out what’s acceptable in punishing children and what’s beyond the pale—and beating them with broomsticks falls into the second category. Is Richardson suggesting that a different standard be applied for Caribbean children?

Sadly, this suggestion is not such a far cry from reality. A few years ago, I interviewed a black employee at the Department of Children and Family Services in Los Angeles County. She said that child-welfare workers were pressured to show cultural sensitivity. She told me a story about how one of her African-American colleagues wanted to place a child who had been removed from his parents with extended family, but the family member failed to pass a criminal background check. Her colleague said: “So Grandma has got domestic violence on her record. What’s wrong with that? I’ve had a little domestic violence, too.”

Such attitudes are the logical byproduct of our accelerating slide toward cultural relativism. We have developed different standards for judging educational achievement and academic performance—“worship of the written word” and “perfectionism” are characteristics of “white supremacy culture,” according to the New York City Department of Education. And we have adopted different standards for judging family structure—the National Museum of African American History has deemed the nuclear family an artifact of “white culture,” rather than a social unit that has brought stability and safety to children of all races. So it’s no wonder that some parents, like Diana Richardson, want to apply different standards for how they treat their children, too. But the rest of us don’t have to give her a pass.

Photo takasuu/iStock

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