This is what racism looks like

“I did this for them, so there it is. I did this for them.”
Ohio mother Kelley Williams-Bolar on her motivations for sending her children to a school in a neighboring district, where she thought they would receive a better education in a safer environment.

I can’t seem to get this story out of my head since it’s been making its round on the interwebs this week.

For those who haven’t heard, a woman in Ohio was convicted of lying about where she lived in order to get her daughters into a better school district. Her sentence? 10 days in county jail, three years of probation, community service, and payment of up to $30,000 in back tuition she could be required to pay the school. I’m surprised they didn’t hit her with life in prison and tattoo “Thug Life” on her upper stomach.

While this story may seem at first like a simple case of firm justice, Jezebel and others have done a great job of reminding us of the racial elements of this story, including the fact that the school district Williams-Bolar was busted for sending her children to was richer and whiter than the one in her actual district. From Jezebel:

Copley Township, which shares the Copley-Fairlawn District with Fairlawn Township, is 86.4% white and 8.6% black. Just 3.3% of its families live below the poverty line. Akron, as of the 2000 census, was 67.22% white and 28.48% black, and 14% of its families lived in poverty. Clearly this isn’t just a case of one woman “cheating” — it’s about race and class, and how these play into education in America. Writes Elon James White on Salon, “we can’t possibly ignore the racial aspect of this situation. A poor BLACK woman on public assistance is being jailed for sending her kids to the rich white school.”

This story really hits home for me because my OWN mother did this for me for a time. When I was in elementary school, my mom and my step-father got divorced, and we went to go live with my grandparents in a neighboring district for a few months while we looked for a new home. For the sake of consistency, because she didn’t want to uproot me from my friends, teachers, and all that I knew, my mother took the 30 minute drive every morning and evening to keep me in the school where she knew I belonged. I didn’t realize at the time how high the stakes were, and courageous she needed to be to do so, but I did know I was grateful to not have to leave behind the only life that I knew.

Looking back, I feel even more impressed and awed by my mother’s commitment, resolve, and maternal love. But I am also equally horrified for Kelley Williams-Bolar, whose same maternal instincts came with a steep price. You see, my mother is white, and she didn’t have to go to jail for her crime of fiercely loving her only child. It’s times like these that I’m reminded of how particularly, dangerously misleading claims of moral and ethical objectivity in our social systems really are. I don’t see how applying laws inconsistently, issuing harsher punishments based on race, class, and context, and sending someone to jail for actions others get away scot-free in the name of “setting an example” can possibly equal justice.

Lastly, I’d like to add that, as appalling as this particular story is, it does not represent the first instance of a “loving mother” being sent to jail. I understand that this situation is egregious, and we can all relate to Williams-Bolar’s situation and her love for her family, but I also think we should be casting a critical eye towards the prison industrial complex as a whole which regularly issues jail time to women who love and care for their children. Williams-Bolar’s case is certainly compelling, but let’s not be so distracted by her perfect victimhood that we forget the injustices sustained against women of color on a daily basis in the name of “justice.”

Brooklyn, NY

Lori Adelman started blogging with Feministing in 2008, and now runs partnerships and strategy as a co-Executive Director. She is also the Director of Youth Engagement at Women Deliver, where she promotes meaningful youth engagement in international development efforts, including through running the award-winning Women Deliver Young Leaders Program. Lori was formerly the Director of Global Communications at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, and has also worked at the United Nations Foundation on the Secretary-General's flagship Every Woman Every Child initiative, and at the International Women’s Health Coalition and Human Rights Watch. As a leading voice on women’s rights issues, Lori frequently consults, speaks and publishes on feminism, activism and movement-building. A graduate of Harvard University, Lori has been named to The Root 100 list of the most influential African Americans in the United States, and to Forbes Magazine‘s list of the “30 Under 30” successful mediamakers. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Lori Adelman is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Partnerships.

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