U.S. and World Politics

Black Mothers Face Jail

By Margaret Kimberley

America is Number One in figuring out ways to put Black people behind bars. Two mothers face criminal charges for trying to enroll their children in suburban public schools—a punitive legal theory tailor-made for Black women. “Black people are always fodder for ‘get tough’ policies, meeting the needs of a racist nation always ready to make them the poster children for severe punishment.” Public education, meet The New Jim Crow.

Only in America, the country with more people behind bars than any other on earth, would mothers face jail time for sending their children to school. Two black women, Kelley Williams-Bolar of Akron, Ohio, and Tanya McDowell of Norwalk, Connecticut, now face imprisonment for that very reason.

Both used addresses of friends or relatives to enroll their children in school districts better than those in which they resided. The practice is not at all uncommon, happening thousands of times throughout the country, but our awful system has used this phenomenon to find a new way to criminalize black people.

Ms. Williams-Bolar was arrested and charged with felony theft when she used her father’s address to enroll her children in the Copley-Fairlawn school district instead of the Akron district where she lives. She believed she had gone through the proper processes, and withdrew her kids when informed that she had not. Nevertheless, a judge sentenced her to ten years in prison, suspending all but ten days. Williams-Bolar, a teacher’s aide, was studying to become a teacher herself but cannot do so now because of the felony conviction.

Tanya McDowell is a homeless woman living in Norwalk, Connecticut. She too is facing felony charges because she used her baby sitter’s address as her own. Her school district discovered 26 non-resident children enrolled in its schools but only McDowell was charged with a crime.

Not content to have 50 percent of the prison population made up of black people, our judicial system has created a new crime, which by its very nature will only ensnare people of color. Who else has to lie to get their children into a better school district and after having been discovered, are unable to pay the cost of the child’s education? The answer is a simple one. Black people fit that description and it is they who will suffer from this new effort to find more victims for the criminal justice system.

It is only in the United States that incarcerated women are shackled while giving birth. Such barbarity is tolerated because a majority of those women are black. If more women giving birth behind bars were white, the practice would be rejected out of hand, instead of being defended and encouraged.

Black people are always fodder for “get tough” policies, meeting the needs of a racist nation always ready to make them the poster children for severe punishment. Prosecutors eagerly await opportunities to make names for themselves and further their own political ambitions with high profile cases, especially when the face of the prosecuted is a black one. Now black mothers who take actions in order to improve their children’s lives, are facing jail terms and fines they are unable to pay.

The lack of any coordinated expression of outrage is yet another reason this phenomenon has taken place. Because movement politics is all but dead, more and more draconian laws will be implemented with impunity. Governors and mayors and prosecutors can create as many Williams-Bolars and McDowells as they like and not fear retribution at the ballot box.

When asked about these cases, education secretary Arne Duncan made the case for wreaking further havoc on the public school system. He called it “morally unacceptable” that families are faced with sub-par schools and continued his relentless promotion of charter schools. He said nothing about the creation of this new crime, which will bring thousands more people under the thumb of the criminal justice system.

There is nothing “post racial” about the United States. It is a country that never gives up seeking ways to make its black citizens suffer as much as possible. Black neighborhoods are targeted for foreclosure fraud, and black people have been told in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and other cities that they have to leave their communities and hand them over to hipsters or yuppies or whatever the term of the moment for white people happens to be.

The issues of displacement and the selective prosecution of these mothers are in fact intertwined. What better way to tell black people in no uncertain terms that they must get out and stay out, than to find new ways of putting them in jail.

If there is no punishment over these and future cases, then these prosecutions are but one more nail in the coffin for black life in America. If indeed this era is post racial, then the old racist world looks better and better with time.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley can be reached via e-Mail at

—Black Agenda Report, May 17, 2011