Toward the end of last year’s presidential election, the following footage, released by Mother Jones journalists, of Mitt Romney speaking in a closed meeting about America’s poor made headlines and hurt his campaign significantly. Watch the clip and consider his comments in light of the article you read this week by Adair, “Branded with Infamy,” especially considering the “patrolling images” (or negative stereotypes) we are given of the working poor and those on welfare in the U.S.
“EDUCATION THEFT”: POLICING EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES
In 2011, Kelly Williams-Bolar, a young, Black mother of two daughters living in Akron, OH, was jailed and convicted of a felony for sending her daughters to a well-to-do private school in her father’s better neighborhood. The court’s decision ultimately jeopardized her job as a teacher’s aid and her future career as an educator. Watch ABC’s news coverage of the story:
However, this isn’t an isolated incident; it may be the beginning of a new trend. Last year, another woman, Tanya McDowell of Bridgeport, CT, was sentenced to 5 years in prison for “education theft.” (Again, compare this to the lenient sentence the two Steubenville rapists received, and the differing impacts on the lives of those young men vs. single mothers like Williams-Bolar and McDowell.)
The Feminist Wire asks: “…when does American Dream seeking, innovation, motherly ‘instinct,’ and creative problem solving get celebrated and when does it get criminalized? Which mother’s children deserve the best, and which mothers are demonized for asserting their children’s worth?”
To begin to answer this question, we first need to determine what these two women have in common. Let’s go back to Adair:
“…systems of power produve and patrol poverty through the reproduction of both social and bodily markers” (233).
In other words, Adair, like the French Philosopher Michel Foucault whom she cites, understand that the body of a citizen becomes “written on,” or like a text that we all read meanings onto; and some bodies, like those of the poor and of minorites (like the students whose race marks them in Precious Knowledge) become texts we read, in particular, as warning signs. This, Foucault asserts, is how such systems of power disciplines the rest of us to behave or think in certain ways. Consider, in particular, the image of the welfare queen (see Adair, p. 234 and p.240).
THE WELFARE QUEEN IN PRECIOUS
Take, as one example, the following scene between two of the main characters from the film Precious (based on the novel Push by Sapphire). In the film, the actress Mo’Nique plays Precious’s mother, and Precious is played by Gabourney Sidibe. In this scene, Precious’s mother angrily confronts her teenage daughter after a white social worker has come to their apartment to investigate their living conditions and the welfare of Precious’s two children (both conceived because her father has raped her). Listen to the rhetoric of the accusations Precious’s mother heaves at her in this scene, particualrly the invocation of “sacrifice”; then consider Adair’s breakdown of how we “read” the bodies of women we imagine to be welfare queens below.
Warning: the following clip contains cursing, abusive language, and domestic violence.
So here’s Adair analyzing how our culture “reads” the body of the welfare queen:
The welfare queen’s body is portrayed as “the embodiment of dependency, disorder, disarray, and otherness. Her broken and scarred body becomes proof of her inner pathology and chaos, suggesting the need for further punishment and discipline. In contemporary narratives welfare women are imagined to be dangerous because they refuse to sacrifice their desires and fail to participate in legally sanctioned heterosexual relationships; theirs is read, as a result, as a selfish, ‘unnatural,’ and immature sexuality” (240).