Kelly Williams-Bolar, a single mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 12, is serving day 9 of a 10-day suspended sentence in an Akron, OH jail for –wait for it – “records falsification” after modifying documents so that her daughters could attend school in a better school district than the ones near the subsidized housing where they currently live. To add insult to great, great injury, Ms. Williams-Bolar has been denied, by virtue of her felony conviction, the right to complete her teaching degree in special education that she is merely a few credits shy of reaching as a college senior at a local university. Are you enraged yet?
We have an effed up funding structure in this country in which public schools are largely funded through property taxes. This is one of those structural policies that is based solidly on our hierarchical race and class structure, while giving the appearance of being totally race-neutral. Yet again, a fundamental right in our country has been tied to property rights in such a way that poor Black and Brown folks have highly restricted access, because of both our historical and current relationship to property. And it is not merely about class. Let us not forget the decades and decades of housing discrimination, which forced Black people to live in segregated neighborhoods, with lower property values, or the fact that it is still the case, that large numbers of Blacks in previously white neighborhoods are perceived to be a drag on property values. Finally, histories of white flight and gentrification led to stellar schools in the suburbs, while gutting the economic base of urban communities.
We are living in a moment with a resurgence of the most rhetorically and physically violent kinds of right-wing politics that we’ve seen since the Reagan-era. Right wing extremists, Tea Partyers included, are self-soothing themselves like the immature human beings they are with fairytale narratives of personal responsibility. And the Reagan-era and its creation of the infamous “welfare queen” stereotype [yes the term didn’t even exist before the 1970s, and it referred to one Black woman in Chicago who had defrauded the system to the tune of $150,000–in other words an extreme and rare case] is a cautionary tale about how poor Black women become particularly severe casualties of these kinds of conservative temper tantrums.
For Kelly Williams-Bolar is the model of personal responsibility. She made the negotiation that many folks –including rich white parents—make all the time. She desired what was best for her children. And therein lies the first fallacy – as a welfare queen, which she must obviously be as a single mother living in the government sponsored housing, clearly she couldn’t care about her children. Second, Williams-Bolar was actively positioning herself for a career that would allow her to make a better life for her children by obtaining a college degree, teaching special needs children—the other throwaways of our effed up system, no less. If she hadn’t been locked up, she might have been just the type of person that President Obama invited to attend the SOTU earlier this week, as a model of the American dream-in-progress.
Instead, she is being punished by a system designed for her to fail. Conservative irrational guardians of the legal system and its supposed sanctity have actually told themselves that the letter of the law outweighs the quality of the three human lives at stake in its enforcement. But when you don’t see Black people, and specifically Black women as human, and in fact, when you are only capable of seeing them as criminals who drain the system, then you will feel justified in doing anything to lock them in the coffins you have built for them, even if it means you have to bury them alive in the process.
The school system hired a private investigator to spy on Ms. Williams-Bolar and her two children as she walked them to the bus stop a few blocks from her home each morning; the act of surveillance itself suggests that Black parenting is criminal. Yet, what kind of neighborhood must they have lived in if this mom had to accompany her two teen/tweenaged daughters to the bus stop each day? Rather than spying on them, perhaps we could have a conversation about their obvious lack of safety. And I wonder how much this little “spy service” cost taxpayers. Moreover, it reminds me of Patricia Hill Collins work on the politics of surveillance and containment. Black women are always being watched in the spaces that we live and work, making us and our practices highly visible, while our conditions and motivations, remain largely invisible. Any attempts for us to buck limiting trends or ideologies, are swiftly contained with the kind of political fervor, that lets you know just how radically insurgent and threatening the act of a Black mother caring for and educating her children actually is.
It is no small irony that the address Williams-Bolar used is her father’s. The children’s grandfather pays taxes though he has no school aged children. Why can his grandchildren not benefit from his tax dollars? Because when you really think about it, the children at the better schools are primarily beneficiaries of decades and decades of unearned privileges, racial and economic, passed down to them by their grandparents. So in a new-school remix of the grandfather clause, the system denies the Black grandfather the right to bequeath a generational legacy of access to economic and educational opportunity. He, too, was prosecuted.
The prosecutors are also considering additional charges in order to receive restitution for the approximate $30,500 in tuition costs that the girls benefited from in their time at the “illegal” school.” I wonder how much “tuition” costs at the school in Williams-Bolar’s neighborhood.
Times like this I feel like the end is near. My sentiments about this moment are best summed up in the chilling Reagan-era words from Melle Mel’s 1982 classic, The Message.
“Don’t push me, Cuz I’m close to the edge.
I’m trying not to lose my head
Uh huh huh huh huh
It’s like a jungle sometimes
It makes me wonder
How I keep from going under…”