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Excerpted From: R.A. Lenhardt, Parenting While Black, 90 Fordham Law Review 2591 (May, 2022) (34 Footnotes) (Full Document)


RobinALenhardtAs a child, I delighted in stories about my mother and her four sisters. In one of my favorite narratives from 1944, my mother's three oldest sisters, not one of them older than nine at the time, were determined to take my infant mother and her twin to get vaccinated. Because they appreciated that such an obligation was serious, the older girls each put on their one good woolen dress--even though it was summertime--and then did the same for my mother and her twin. By the time the five girls reached the free clinic in Harlem, where they lived, they were sweating profusely. And the older girls were more than a little bit tired from pushing the twins' carriage. But they had successfully completed their mission. The babies were vaccinated and, in their minds, both protected and safe.

My younger self was so impressed by what my aunts had managed to do at such a young age. But, as I grew older and had children of my own, I began to hear the story, repeated by my mother and her sisters over the years, in a different register. The bravery of the girls remained. Yet, each telling made it clear that the girls were also afraid. What concerned them was not the walk through their beloved Harlem. Rather, what concerned them was how they--five poor, little Black girls--would be received when they got to the clinic. They had no parent with them.

In the end, the medical staff at the clinic were impressed by my aunts and their determination to get medical care for their sisters. But, as a law professor who writes at the intersection of race and family, I know that the story could have had a very different outcome. My grandfather, to be generous, was an infrequent presence in the home, and my grandmother worked days and sometimes nights as a domestic for a wealthy white family uptown. So, it wasn't only that her daughters were brave and wanted to care for their younger sisters. The reality was that, in some ways, the oldest girls were the babies' best option to get the medical care they needed. And my aunts and my grandmother knew it. My grandmother was engaged in what I call “parenting while Black.”

This Symposium on The Law of Parents and Parenting could not be more important in this moment. Changes in law and policy--not to mention developments such as the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating effects on families--raise important questions about how to define parental rights and how to best support parents and children during these challenging times. The Symposium also presented important questions about issues of race, gender, sexuality, and class in our modern context. Even more salient in this space are issues of race. Here, as in other contexts, Black families, like my grandmother's and so many others, are the “canaries in the mine.” Their experiences provide us with important insight into the signs of danger facing Black and Brown families. To that extent, the concerns of families, like my grandmother's, should be at the center of our discussion around families and the challenges they face in this moment.

This Essay intervenes in the conversation hosted by the Fordham Law Review by focusing on issues of race, which, as I have indicated elsewhere, remain underexplored in family law scholarship. More specifically, it endeavors to give greater context to the term “parenting while Black,” which I utilized in the narrative that launched this iniquity. In the wake of George Floyd's death at the hands of police in 2020, people of all walks of life are all too familiar with the phrase “driving, or even walking, while Black.” These phrases reference the scores of Black and Brown people killed or badly injured at the hands of white law enforcement officers, often when the need for such action was plainly unwarranted. In deploying the term “parenting while Black,” I mean to invoke not only the criminal justice context, but also all the systems that inform the functioning and well-being of families of color. Enumerating such systems provides us with a deeper appreciation of the obstacles that parents of color must navigate in trying to provide for their children.

To that end, this Essay also points to the strategies and programs that might be utilized in trying to improve the well-being of Black and Brown families. This focus does not mean to suggest that there is no overlap between the challenges that Black and non-Black parents face in rearing their children. That cannot be squared with what we know about modern families. At the same time, if we are to ensure that all families and their members can flourish, we must begin to grapple in earnest with race and the race-based structural barriers that severely hinder Black families and their members. In other words, the lives of poor Black parents must be front and center in our discourse in this space.

Part I begins by examining Black parental rights during slavery and the Jim Crow era. Many will no doubt think even a short dive into history is not necessary to address current problems. But, as this part will make plain, that history provides essential context to the past and our current moment. Part II then considers the modern context and the plethora of systems that work to undermine the rights of parents of color. Next, Part III asks what it could mean to center the parental rights of Black parents in discussions of parental rights in a way that lifts, rather than overlooks, how differently situated Black and other families of color are from most families in our current system. Finally, the Essay ends with a few words on what an effort to reimagine parental rights would look like for parents of color and their children.

[. . .]

I started this Essay with a story about my family, so it only seems fit to end that way as well. No one then, or perhaps even now, would describe my grandmother or her amazing gaggle of girls as the “canary in the mine.” And yet, in so many ways, they showed themselves to be just that. Efforts big or small to disrupt barriers that make it possible for families of color to not merely survive, but to flourish, are exactly what we need in this moment. They provide us with critical insights into systems and practices that undermine family functioning, as well as those that that lift them up.

Professor of Law, Georgetown University Law Center; Co-founder and Co-director, Racial Justice Institute, Georgetown University.

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