Finally, after years of egregious police brutality and hundreds of cases involving paralyzed and dead citizens (as documented by out-of-court settlements), Baltimore erupted in rioting. As the white media struggled to understand why, rather than why it took them so long or what can be done about the Baltimore PD, they seized upon an African American as their hero. Toya Graham, captured on video berating her son and preventing him from joining in the riots, was praised as “the mother of the year.”
This is part of a long pattern. In the midst of ethnic tension, the white media has routinely seized upon and praised an individual of the non-white community as a positive example, a good citizen, a model black, brown, or red person.
In 1816, the Pawnee leader Petalesharo released a captive Comanche girl that was about to be put to death. The story made its way to the East Coast and essentially went viral among the white media. Petalesharo was invited to Washington DC and New York City, where he was praised in the newspapers, given a medal, and his portrait painted (of course in whiteface). A poem was written about him. He is but one of many “good Indians”, models for compliant behavior.
In the mid-1800s, as Indian Removal became official government policy and quickly devolved into calls for extermination, Pocahontas was eulogized as a “good Indian”. Though she lived in the early 1600s, she was resurrected, and largely re-shaped and re-created, over two hundred years later. She was said to be “foremost in the train of those wandering children of the forest who have at different times—few, indeed, and far between—been snatched from the fangs of a barbarous idolatry, to become lambs in the fold of the Divine Shepherd.” In reality, she had been kidnapped by the white settlers of Jamestown and held for ransom. Her conversion and marriage to John Rolfe (and not John Smith, whom she detested for betraying her father) both occurred while she was imprisoned. In fact, she already had a Powhatan husband and son at the time of her capture. She died while still in captivity. Nevertheless, even today she is cast as an emblem of reconciliation rather than deceit and conflict. For more on Pocahontas, see this blog post.
Likewise, the media has taken some license in their portrayal of Toya Graham’s motives. They claim her primary reason for pulling her son away from the rioters was that she was “embarrassed” by his behavior. In later interviews, it becomes clear that she feared for his life and didn’t want him “to become another Freddie Gray.” In short, she was afraid the Baltimore police would beat him to death. (Would the media have praised her if she didn’t want her son to go to Iraq? Surely the Baltimore PD threaten more Americans than Saddam Hussein ever did.) Graham’s rationale implies deeper questions within her home and perhaps within every African American home in Baltimore and other communities with similar conflicts with the police. How should she deal with the problem posed by chronic police brutality? Should she or her children take a stand? If so, should they respond violently or non-violently? Openly or anonymously? Is she willing to sacrifice her only son for the cause? These are difficult questions that consider practical strategy, personal morals, and the cost one is willing to pay for the cause. Much has already been written on the presumptiveness of the white media, which knows little of raising a family in this kind of environment, to pass judgement on these questions. What is clear, however, is that the white media has a history, during ethnic conflict, of raising up a member of the ethnic minority, re-casting them, and using their story to promote submission to white authority. The media, of course, is not the only guilty party. It takes a large part of society to make the story go viral.