When I got pregnant with my son, I was a newly unemployed graduate student who was relying on my loan reimbursement to make ends meet. After I decided that I would, in fact, continue with my pregnancy, a nurse at my doctor’s office was surprised to hear that I hadn’t signed up for WIC ― a federally funded supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants, and Children.
While I felt perfectly fine obtaining free prenatal care ― because everyone should have access to health care and I wanted to do right by my unborn baby ― getting anything that even resembled food stamps, no matter how much I actually needed it at the time, felt like I was branding the word STEREOTYPE across my forehead for all to see. After all, young, pregnant Black women still have to fend off the surprisingly resilient, and supremely ugly “welfare queen” label, no matter how capable, resilient or educated we may be.
Ultimately though, I relented, because feeding my unborn son something other than canned black bean soup and rice felt more necessary than preserving my pride. So on a brisk spring morning, I headed to a social services office in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, and prepared to wait, all day if necessary.
Though long, exhausting, annoying and a little soul-crushing, my day was far different than that of 23-year-old Jazmine Headley, whose violent arrest at a Brooklyn Human Resources Administration building recently made national news.
Jazmine Headley’s arrest only further highlights how many Americans look down on those in poverty.
Like me, Headley braved the frustratingly slow and oftentimes dehumanizing process at a Human Resources Administration building in Boerum Hill to get help. Instead of receiving the child care assistance she was seeking, however, Headley had her 1-year-old son viciously yanked from her arms by a group of NYPD officers and was carted off to Rikers Island, one of the worst jails in the nation. Her apparent crime? Opting to sit on the floor of the crowded office rather than stand for hours.
After video of the incident went viral, Nyashia Ferguson, who recorded the clip and posted it to Facebook, said she’s often seen and experienced mistreatment while attempting to secure aid.
“They’re always rude,” Ferguson told The New York Times. She said security guards at the HRA office “think that people that are poor don’t have nothing, so you can treat them any kind of way.”
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson said the brutal encounter was indicative of how little many think of the poor.
“In two minutes and 26 seconds of video, we saw how our system criminalizes poverty, disproportionately punishes petty behavior and irresponsibly separates parents from children without considering the lasting damage that will occur to these parents and children,” Johnson said.
Unfortunately, this country has a long history of separating Black women and their children, especially when they’re poor.
When poor Black mothers try to give their children a leg up, they're regularly slapped down.
In the antebellum South, where Black women weren’t even considered human beings to many, children were regularly ripped away from their mothers, just like Headley’s son. While slavery has been outlawed, the criminalization of the poor has ensured that Black mothers are still being torn away from their children at alarming rates, even for infractions that should not warrant jail time.
In 2011, Tonya McDowell was arrested and charged with first-degree larceny and conspiracy to commit first-degree larceny after using someone else’s address to enroll her 6-year-old son in school in Norwalk, Connecticut, and “stealing” $15,686 worth of education.
That same year, Akron, Ohio, mom Kelley Williams-Bolar was convicted on two felony counts for allegedly falsifying documents to send her daughters to a better school in a nearby town. While pundits and politicians continually talk about education being the antidote to poverty and the racial wealth gap ― spoiler alert, it’s not ― when poor Black mothers try to give their children a leg up, it’s regularly slapped down, either by white parents who don’t want poor kids of color “diversifying” their elite schools, or by the system that refuses to fix the schools that have continued to fail poor communities for generations.
And we haven’t even touched on the Black women caught in the criminal justice system, waiting for trial in jail because they’re too broke to make bail. Even worst, most of the women behind bars ― around 80 percent ― are mothers.
America has always lionized those who are able to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and pole vault into the 1 percent, never mind that, for most people, this is impossible. But far too many people shower praise on those who manage to successfully climb out of poverty while simultaneously burning the ladders that may help another person reach the same level of success.
And if you’re Black and, God forbid, a woman, many don’t think you deserve shit, especially anything resembling a hand up.
Headley’s arrest, and subsequent release, only further highlights how many Americans look down on those in poverty. While many of us saw a violent and unnecessary use of force by police, too many others ― including an alarming number of Black folks ― wondered why Headley had had a child at all, especially if she needed help providing for him.
But as journalist Vann R. Newkirck II recently tweeted, “No Black Americans commenting on whether poor folks should be ‘allowed’ to have kids would be here if somebody poor hadn’t made that decision about them or their forebears.”
The list of things poor people “should not do” is amazingly long. Get a traffic ticket. Go to the ER. Eat seafood or buy steak. Attend college for free. Buy Jordans. Have smartphone. Earn a living wage. Receive free birth control. Have children. Ask for help.
Poor folk, particularly poor Black women and their children, deserve the same dignity, choices and options as everyone else. And yes, that even includes a decadent meal and a good pair of shoes, too.
Britni Danielle is a writer and editor who’s written about pop culture, feminism, race and politics for print and online publications.