by Mara Caelin
Amidst renewed calls for gun control in the wake of the Parkland shooting, high school students are creating and sustaining a national conversation about gun control. Meanwhile, the teenagers and young people of color who have been at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement have been reminding us that they have been talking about guns for the past five years and receiving significantly less support from celebrities and the media. Recent articles in the Chicago Tribune and Teen Vogue articulate the sense of injustice that many Black Lives Matter activists have felt on the basis of these contrasting receptions to youth activism. Even the Parkland students themselves have spoken out about this clear disparity. These young activists deftly turn our attention to the ways in which black student movements’ struggle with ageism is compounded by racism.
Similarly, the American relationship between students and the imagined communities of adult protectors, particularly parents’ organizations, has always been racially charged. One need not dig too deeply into the history of school integration to find examples of white parents’ attempts to “protect” their children from the influx of black children. The Mothers’ League of Central High School, for example, was one of the primary segregationist groups responsible for petitioning the Arkansas governor and filing motions for injunctions to prevent the integration of the Little Rock Nine. And while motherhood has certainly been used for political capital by women of color—perhaps most famously by Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till, a black teenager lynched in 1955—capitalizing on white motherhood’s particular moral appeal to mostly white, male lawmakers has been a central strategy of a wide variety of grassroots movements in recent American history. This motley legacy of movements includes, but is not limited to, segregationist movements, Anita Bryant’s “Save Our Children” campaign against gay rights, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and modern gun control debates.
As the white mother of a toddler, making it easy to mentally project into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, I attended a meeting for one such grassroots organization. Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America was formed in the aftermath of the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 to campaign for “common-sense gun reform” bills and public office candidates at every level of government. As I walked into the back of the Northern Virginia coffee shop where the meetup was held, I was struck by the heterogeneity of the assembled audience. While I’m sure the organization, which has many branches across the country, has many members of color, none were present on that day. We were all white women (and accompanying children), all capable of buying the coffee shop’s six-dollar lattes (if grudgingly), and, at 27, I was very possibly the youngest adult in the room. As the meeting lead began speaking about the organization, she made clear that a central tenet of their platform was to respect the second amendment; she was a gun owner herself. In addition to the combination of the makeup of the crowd and the maternal title of the organization, this signified to me, as a potential member, that moderate respectability politics and a strong appeal to white suburbanites is the main currency of this organization. To solidify that impression, the lead mentioned several times that Moms Demand Action is modeled, at least in part, after MADD.
It is hard to deny the political potency of this model of maternal appeal. For example, MADD claims credit for saving 330,000 lives through its extensive and effective lobbying efforts between 1980 and 2015. But to claim an inheritance from MADD is to also lay claim to their particular white suburban praxis, where the theoretically race-neutral title of “mother” works to mobilize women around the deaths of white children. MADD’s political approach to decreasing drunk driving tellingly differs from the approaches historically advocated by communities of color. According to Nicholas Freudenberg’s recent book Lethal But Legal, African American communities often focused their efforts on regulation of alcohol marketing to youth. Instead, many of MADD’s legislative victories, such as lowering the legal blood alcohol level for driving in all fifty states, fundamentally rely on the increased policing of drivers, a proposition which is decidedly safer for the white middle class drivers that comprise the majority of MADD than it is for people of color for whom a traffic stop is more often lethal.
Claiming this sort of inheritance puts organizations like Moms Demand Action in uneasy coalition with other organizations whose gun control platforms deals specifically with the effect that racism has on gun violence. As a prospective member of the group, I shared with the other women in that room both the broad goal of decreasing gun-violence and the narrower goal of unseating the local Barbara Comstock, Republican representative of Virginia’s 10th district and top 10 lifetime NRA donation recipient. But gazing around at a room of white women, I became uneasy—not because I suspected the women of having racist intentions or because I felt out of place, but because it is a bad idea to lobby for policy on an issue without input from the population the issue most directly impacts. And by claiming their work as the work of “mothers,” organizations like Mothers Demand Action and MADD adorn themselves with a sheen of colorblind universality that obscure the realities of systemic racism that they may not have fully considered when crafting their platforms.
In the weeks since I attended the meetup, Moms Demand Action has provided several encouraging examples of intersectional thinking. For example, they came out against Idaho’s new “Stand Your Ground” law, the same kind of law that was used to acquit Trayvon Martin’s murderer in Florida. Although the Idaho bill still passed, this sort of political force—this white maternal privilege—is undeniably powerful in our political climate. From a pragmatic point of view, it may be the best means of achieving specific goals like ousting Representative Comstock or banning bump stocks. I do not mean to suggest that this is a power that should not be used, but part of its utility must always be to amplify voices of women and youth of color. And in the very rare cases where there are none to be amplified, it is the responsibility of every mother—especially the white, latte-drinking ones—to think critically about the impacts of their agenda on all children.
Mara Caelin is a media analyst, mother, and progressive activist. She holds an M.A. in American Studies from George Washington University and lives and works in Northern Virginia with her partner and 11-month old baby. She can be contacted here.
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