05/01/2015 11:31 am ET Updated Jun 30, 2015

I Need a Hero Mom

Toya Graham has become a national symbol. But what does she symbolize?

The moment her first slaps landed on the shoulders and face of her son, Michael Singleton, the adulation began. It has only swelled over the course of the last few days, with praise and interview requests increasing for the mother who beat her son back home. Hailed as the "mom of the year," she's become a media symbol of tough love and unrelenting maternal standards.

As her hashtag reveals, the "hero mom" has been the hero that many need.

The widespread acclaim for Toya Graham is similar to what surrounded the "hug shared around the world" last December. Following the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, amidst protest and demonstration nationwide, the most widely popular image was 12 yr-old Devonte Hart hugging police sergeant Bret Barnum at a Ferguson rally in Portland on November 25. It didn't take long for the back-story to make the news, followed by interviews with his mothers and coordinated appearances on daytime television. The "officer hugging the boy" was the snapshot that many needed.

Amidst crisis that threatens to unsettle and disrupt, heroes reassure and reinforce the ideals of those who conceive them. Many of us reflexively look for them because they allow us to see what we want to see, especially if framed in a snapshot or cropped in a clip. In the case of the "hero mom," and the "officer hugging a young boy," the hero serves to reinforce the status quo from which many of us benefit. If I stay focused on symbolic reconciliation or tough maternal love, I can ignore all those voices demanding something more. I can overlook this pivotal moment of evaluation for our country. I can crop out the history of racism, division and inequality in favor of the assurance that all will be well and the world can continue to function as it is, if only more black children would reach out and hug and more black parents would take control of their kids.

That's what makes Toya Graham such a fitting hero for those who would blame the unrest and disparity we see in Baltimore and its sister cities unequivocally on individuals rather than structures. At least one pundit has identified what he terms "the collapse of the black family" as the source of racial tension in our country, and at least one politician has pinned the crisis in Baltimore on "the lack of fathers." Even Baltimore's police chief cited Graham as the representation of all those parents he wished "would take charge of their kids." If only more parents would be like the hero mom, we wouldn't have these problems in our cities -- or so goes the underlying narrative that has fueled some of her widespread popularity.

But in her words, Toya Graham represents a number of other mothers who were working Monday night and couldn't get to their kids, reminding us of the grave challenges of economic disparity and the struggle for a living wage that asks mothers and fathers in poor communities to work multiple jobs at all hours of the day.

She's not merely a symbol of tough love, but even more of desperate love that feels a last resort in certain communities. "Do you know what they will do to you?" she wrote in her initial facebook post describing the incident.

It's not only embarrassment we see as she strikes her son, but even more the chronic fear of so many African American parents, who have had to desperately talk to their young men about how to assimilate in society and how to behave around authority lest their black bodies be perceived a threat. "She didn't want me to get in trouble by no law," her son, Michael Singelton, said. "She didn't want me to be like another Freddie Gray or anybody else that got killed by the police."

Over the last few days, Toya Graham has been the hero many need, reinforcing the narrative that the crisis in Baltimore is about individual responsibility rather than structural violence and systemic injustice. But we need her much more in the days ahead, not as a model of family, but as a mirror for a society that would ask parents of young black men to beat them back home rather than leave them out where they might be as vulnerable as Freddie Gray.

More than a symbolic mom of the year, she's the symbol of what our society has said to African American mothers for so many years: protect your children, for we won't.