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 is Executive Director of Partnerships at Feministing, where she enjoys creating and curating content on gender, race, class, technology, and the media. Lori is also an advocacy and communications professional specializing in sexual and reproductive rights and health, and currently works in the Global Division of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. A graduate of Harvard University, she lives in Brooklyn.

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

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  • Holly

    As I read this story, I figured the accusations of racism were against the mother, who obviously didn’t want her kids going to that integrated Akron school when they could be better off in the nice, white schools at Copley (I have a friend who lived in Copley for the sole purpose of getting her kids into that school, so I know it’s considered quite good). Then it was revealed that the mother is African-American, and that the accusations of racism are, presumably, against those who arrested her for being a “good mother.”

    Just thought it was sort of interesting to ponder–would we have the same respect for her if she were white and trying to get her kids out of that crime-ridden city school so they could be with their own kind in the ‘burbs? Frankly, I live in one of those pasty-white (whiter than Copley by far) Ohio towns, and I would give just about anything to live somewhere with some diversity, so my kids could see what the real world looks like. Mrs. Williams-Bolar, if you’re interested in buying my house in the ‘burbs, you are welcome to it.

    • honeybee

      That’s exactly what I assumed! And I was going to be very interested to read the rest of analysis and comments in such a case especially if stats did indeed prove kids at school X were on average doing better and getting a better education. I honestly don’t know if it would be considered racist or not to move your kid under such circumstances.

    • Lauren Wheeler

      I am currently trying to wrap my head around the amazing amount of oblivious privilege typing this comment must have required. How nice for you that you can poo-poo the suburbs and the education that comes with them; this woman obviously couldn’t, and I’m just going to go out on a limb and assume that this mother knows what’s best for her children and that a public school in the projects isn’t it.

      I was lucky. We were poor-to-working-class my whole when I was a child, but my mother made sure that, for the most part, I was able to attend good schools–even if they were an hour away–and she never had to risk incarceration to make it happen.

      But I also didn’t grow up in the suburbs, so maybe I can’t take for granted their benefits. What I can say is that until all public schools are actually funded equally, it’s just a myth that institutional racism in public education is dead.

  • nazza

    If she’d had a son who played football for the high school, it would have been arranged for her to move there. Shows you where our priorities are.

  • Nick

    Additional information (I’ll try to update with sourcing in the evening, but this is at work, from memory):

    *Other parents in the same situation, in the same district, were not prosecuted. They settled with the district. The district, in contrast, hired a PI to spy on Williams, and build a case against her.

    *The prosecutor insisted on a felony conviction, which bars Williams from becoming a teacher – she’s in her 4th year of college with that goal (as a non-traditional student).

    *The charges carried up to 10 years in prison, along with heavy fines. The judge tried to get the prosecutor to offer a misdemeanor (and was refused), gave her a very light sentence for the charge convicted (though still outrageous for the actual offense), and has offered to write the state licensing board in hopes of obtaining a waiver for Williams to get a teaching license despite the felony.

    *The jury convicted despite documents showing that Williams actually lived at an address in the district, for at least part of the time period in question.

    *The prosecutor is also going after Williams’ father on felony charges.

    There have been a number of diaries on this over at the Great Orange Satan (dailykos), and while they are littered with some pretty nauseating, “She broke the letter of the law and deserves what she got,” comments they are on balance pretty good. They also include a lot of links to additional coverage from primary news sources.

    • TD

      *Other parents in the same situation, in the same district, were not prosecuted. They settled with the district.

      Them settling with the district is an entirely different beast then them not being prosecuted.

      *The charges carried up to 10 years in prison, along with heavy fines. The judge tried to get the prosecutor to offer a misdemeanor (and was refused), gave her a very light sentence for the charge convicted (though still outrageous for the actual offense)

      Lying on legal documents is generally frowned upon even if there are no damages. 10 days in jail (probably served on weekends) is a slap on the wrist for falsifying documents.

      • MKE

        In other words, “She broke the letter of the law and deserves what she got.” Oh irony.

        • TD

          She willfully violated both the letter and the spirit of the law. The whole point of the law is to prevent people from doing exactly what she did.

          As a result she has to pay back the money, she will spend five weekends in jail, and then she has to keep from committing a crime for three years for probation and then another three so she will be eligible to have her record expunged, removing that felony conviction from any consideration for employment.

          A few weekends in jail and six years of “don’t do it again”. Is a pretty light sentence.

          I don’t see how it is unreasonable for society to expect that people do not intentionally falsify legal documents. Or that prosecuting them for doing so is somehow beyond the pale. It is in fact quite necessary that when someone affirms in a legal document that something is true that they aren’t lying outright.

  • jss

    This is really sickening.

    Who thought it was a good idea to make sending your children to the PUBLIC school of your choosing a crime in the first place? What is this law called, the Keep Your Kids In Your Ghetto Act? The Protection of Class Differences At All Ages Act?

    It’s just so gross. Once upon a time, people used to kid themselves about how upward mobility existed in the States, how poor people were poor because they failed to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Now they’ve completely given up the act and are openly and shamelessly keeping poor people poor through laws like this.

  • nan moyer

    I went to Akron Public schools and my kids went to Copley schools. I am so amazed that no one has bothered to mention that Copley is a “township”? Akron is not. As a resident of Copley, i PAID taxes to fund alot of the different educational projects in Copley. Fees ARE paid by the residents of Copley for the education they vote on for their kids. Residents of Akron do not pay. When I went to public school in Akron, 1960’s-1970’s, Akron was a melting pot of nationalities, I think its very unfair and actually a form of reversed discrimination that everyone with “white skin” is considered “white”. we were Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Croatian,…..not “white”. For whatever reasons Akron is now predominately African American I have my own opinions but they live there, they make up there own school population, fix it if they don’t like it. As for Copley, we make ours, everyone wants to go there because we pay for good material and contribute financially whatever way we can for our kids. black or white. my daughter dated an African American boy who went to school with there at Copley, his parents lived there, we are not prejudice and his parents paid too.prejudice is not the subject here, getting things for free by lying is.

    • Amanda

      It’s easy for you to claim Akron residents should “fix it if they don’t like it” at their schools, yet Akron has a significantly higher percentage of families living in poverty than Copley Township. The purpose of paying school taxes isn’t so you can provide education for your own child, otherwise ONLY parents would have to pay taxes, which is obviously not the case. I went to private school and my parents still paid public school taxes. That’s life. Being a taxpayer means your opinion on educational offerings matters; it doesn’t mean you should get to pick and choose which students deserve a good education. In addition you comment that parents at Copley “pay for good material and contribute financially in whatever way we can.” So you clearly believe only students with rich parents deserve to attend a PUBLIC SCHOOL. But you’re not prejudiced…. nuh, uh.

      • TD

        The purpose of paying school taxes isn’t so you can provide education for your own child, otherwise ONLY parents would have to pay taxes, which is obviously not the case.

        The purpose of forming government is to provide common services to those within your jurisdiction. Local governments will inherently only serve those within their borders, much the same way as state governments will only provide tuition breaks in state schools to state residents. No state in the union funds the schools of other states and they have much larger tax bases. Why should we expect small townships to fund their neighboring towns education and what prevents towns from cheating on such an arrangement?

    • Jessica

      Does the Copley school district receive federal or state funds in any way, in addition to being considered a public school? If so, then it shouldn’t matter if a parent wants to travel further to get her kids a better education. It’s good of you to do your civic duty and pay your taxes, but unfortunately, a lot of people can’t, and it’s too easy to make generalized statements about why, but you and I don’t know this woman’s whole story about why she was in the situation that she was in. I’m not disagreeing that what this woman did was wrong, but honestly, do you really believe that a quality education provided in a safe environment should be a privilege as opposed to the status quo? Do you really believe that this woman’s reason for committing fraud is really so heinous a crime, and would you still feel the same way if you knew the family to be white? Do you really think it’s acceptable to have such a messed up system for parsing out certain resources in a patently unfair manner that deliberately disadvantages some kids because of how much money their parents make and where they happen to live? Seriously, is it really ok to punish children by denying them things that really should be basic rights because their parents do not live according to some ideal?

      • TD

        Town taxes pay for a huge portion of public schooling, so yes, it does matter if you are a resident of the town in question. Just as I don’t get the in state tuition rate for attending SUNY if I’m a resident of Idaho.

        Do you really believe that this woman’s reason for committing fraud is really so heinous a crime, and would you still feel the same way if you knew the family to be white?

        In my business I face far worse even in a plea bargain if I fail to follow all of the legal requirements, even if I do it without mens rea and no damages result, and I certainly wouldn’t get a news story bemoaning my plight.

        So no I feel no sympathy towards a person who actively committed fraud with intent to take advantage of a system, caused damages, and got a mere 10 days in jail.

        • Jessica

          I’m not disagreeing that this woman committed fraud, which is against the law. What I have a problem with is the idea that a quality education in a safe environment is considered a privilege for those who have the money. It should be one of those things that all kids have access to, regardless of what income bracket their parents are in or what town, city or village they live in. We’re not talking about college tuition, which is another issue, but basic k-12 education that kids are supposed to be getting anyway. It’s really a simple concept: how dare we expect people coming from underprivileged backgrounds to better themselves while we deny them access to the means of bettering themselves, or make the process as difficult as possible. Instead of arguing about what crimes this mother, and others committ, in an attempt to give their kids something better, why don’t you instead look at the system that isn’t working. I’m not one of those people that assumes poor people are all poor by choice, nor do I believe that they are seeking hand outs. It’s that whole Jesus thing about giving a man a fish versus teaching him to fish. The residents of Copley pay more in taxes because they can generally afford to over the residents of Akron, and there’s this gated community notion that their tax dollars should be spent a certain way, when the whole point of taxes is to pay for things for the common good. And you and I will not agree, I think, because I do have sympathy for someone that committed a crime for noble reasons because the SYSTEM is the problem to begin with. Doesn’t make any sense to focus on the symptoms while the problem festers.

          • TD

            So long as schools are managed and paid for on a town level there should absolutely be a requirement that students actually live in the town. Even towns with comparatively good tax bases cannot afford to take all comers. Nor should we encourage people who can live in either community to choose to live in the less expensive community while sending their children to another school, to do so only provides even more incentive for those families to vote against their local school district and to make matters worse.

            What motivation does anyone ever have to vote for increased funding of the school district if their children can simply attend the district next door when things get too bad.

    • MKE

      I second Amanda and Jessica’s awesome comments. I also want to mention that in the future, I’d suggest that you stop using the “my-daughter-dated-a-black-guy-and-I-didn’t-hate-him” line to prove that you’re not racist. And I mean that sincerely — no snark intended.

  • Liz

    Ahhh this stuff makes me crazy. I tutored high school girls from Philadelphia for a while and it was so frustrating to hear them talk about how bad their schools were! The homework that they struggled with would be such a joke to most kids in suburban, mostly-upper-class high schools. There’s no funding for good teachers in Philadelphia and the students really suffer. In contrast, the Philadelphia suburbs, which are of a markedly different socio-economic level, have great public schools and turn out high-achieving students. Zoning ordinances in the richest suburbs prevent contractors from building houses smaller than a certain size, locking out families who can’t afford mcmansions. Kids do better in diverse educational environments!

    Also… wasn’t this issue sort of the subject of a Disney Channel TV movie about two twin girls who went on to play professional basketball? I believe it had a happy ending.

    • davenj

      I actually teach in Philly, and a lot of the problems you see aren’t just coming from the teachers.

      Schools are learning environments, and inherently are influenced by the people who are there. Children from poorer backgrounds tend to have more behavioral problems, less access to educational resources at home, and poorer academic skills, such as literacy.

      Your students didn’t just have trouble with their homework because of their schools. They also had problems because when they got home they received an education that pales in comparison to the education that better-off, more educated parents can give their kids.

      The extra hours of education outside of the school environment accumulate over time, and the gap grows and grows. I can’t fix years of economic and social inequality in a 50 minute class five days a week. It can’t be done.

    • TD

      There’s no funding for good teachers in Philadelphia and the students really suffer.

      Inner city schools from what I’ve seen typically pay better, private schools on the other end of the spectrum typically pay the least.

      Most teachers will take a significant pay hit if they can work in a school where the parents are interested in their children’s education. In some cases you cannot pay a teacher enough to work in a particular district.

  • Kae Oz

    The consequences for this poor woman are probably still coming. A felony on your record, no matter how undeserved or ridiculous, is not joke. She will not be able to get a job as a teacher now, and I can only hope she doesn’t get fired from her current position.

    Is there a fund to help her with the costs for all this crap? Maybe a good lawyer and an appeal?

    • Lori

      Hi Kae, thanks for commenting. Jos has brought to my attention this petition
      on asking Governor Kasich to pardon Williams-Bolar. If I find other initiatives, I’ll post them here as well.

  • Jenny Gonzalez-Blitz

    This is also what classism looks like, I’d like to add.

    I commend this mother for wanting to put her kids in the school that would give them the best education. Though honestly, I’d love to see our society work towards making schools in all neighborhoods comparable in quality.

  • Steven Olson

    Like some of the earlier posters, I assumed the racism would be from the mother at the beginning of the article. From the post, I don’t see enough evidence to claim any racism. If, however the points made by Nick are true, I would agree that there was a lot of racism involved there. The jail time seems pretty ridiculous.

    I find myself half agreeing with nan moyer and half with Jessica. If the school receives federal or state funding it is hard to deny entrance based on the fact that the township residents are paying taxes to support it. On the other hand, public education is being provided in Akron as well, so no basic rights for education are actually being violated either, which is where I think Jessica’s argument fails. I think having distinct school boundaries for attendance is used because it is logistically easy and probably less expensive to administer (admittedly, I have no data, this is just a guess….I just assume there has to be some logical reason for doing it). I was lucky to grow up in a city that got rid of formal school boundaries. In the popular schools, preference was given to kids living in within the district, but is open to kids living outside of the district. However, unlike in a lot of places, there was no school bus service to schools.

    I also have to agree that if the quality of education in Akron is that much lower than Copley, it needs to be fixed. If one is to commend a mother for doing what she can to get her child a better education, what about all of the children who’s parts can’t, or don’t try to cheat the system (right or wrong as the system may be). They are being disadvantaged too. So, although I agree with that sentiment, its for different reasons than nan moyer

  • Franzia Kafka

    At the same time, I’m fairly sure conservatives would only take this story as an example of “why we need more school voucher programs,” and other such B.S. We don’t need school vouchers. We need to stop chronically underfunding schools in poor neighborhoods and allowing de facto racial segregation.

  • Matt

    I would be somewhat reluctant to make this a race issue, or at least one mentioned before class (at least with respect to the mother’s motivation). I think this case speaks to how effectively class perpetuates itself and is “passed down” to future generations, and this especially true when people are geographically separated by class (which this mother intended to partially circumvent). Class in geography shapes not just school funding (although that by itself is enough to perpetuate class to an extent) but also school environments (students from poorer families tend to have more problems and will compete for more resources), businesses, and communities. To the extent that such institutions drive people to live in certain areas on the basis of race is racism and contributes to these problems for racial minorities (just as people may be discriminated against for their religion or personal expression), but discrimination on the basis of economic class is much more legal and accepted. It’s enough to keep a disproportionately poor racial group disproportionately poor.

    “Class segregation” isn’t a household term, but I think it strikes at the heart of the problem.