On Saturday, a 3-year-old boy fell an estimated 15 feet into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. A gorilla named Harambe who lived in the habitat acted aggressively toward his young intruder, ultimately dragging the boy by his feet through the water multiple times. Because Harambe was agitated and his actions unpredictable, zoo officials made the decision to shoot and kill him, in order to save the boy’s life.
More than 400,000 people have now signed a petition on Change.org, calling for the young boy’s parents, Michelle Gregg and Deonne Dickerson, to “be held accountable for lack of supervision and negligence that caused Harambe to lose his life.” The petition further states that the boy’s parents should be investigated by the authorities, because the parents alleged negligence at the zoo is potentially “reflective of the child’s home situation.”
The cascading outrage toward the boy’s mother and her alleged neglectful parenting is hypocritical and disingenuous, but the public conversation about this story is also racist and sexist.
Eyewitness accounts indicate that the mother was vigilant in watching her child, but that almost in a split second, he crawled away quickly through some brush and fell over an otherwise open enclosure. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare that your child can be with you one moment but nowhere to be found in another. But more than 400,000 people didn’t have that reaction: Instead, they’re calling for child protective services to show up at the home of Gregg, a response that, in a world where black mothers are stereotyped as having a bunch of unruly children that they don’t take care of, amounts to the kind of dog-whistle politics around welfare policy and black mothering that typically makes black communities cringe.
It’s one of the ways that race shows up in conversations that don’t seem to be about race at all. Rutgers political theorist Shatema Threadcraft has argued that African American parents are subjected to “targeted racial bias in child removal policy and concentrated child welfare agency involvement in African American neighborhoods.” The ways in which these policies and the agencies that enforce them interact with black communities effectively “place burdens on black parents not experienced by other parents in the wider society.” In other words, demonizing a black mother and acting as though good parents don’t have terrifying mishaps with their children every day reinforces stereotypes of neglectful and careless black mothers. Such stereotyping justifies forms of structural racism that disproportionately result in black children being removed from their homes and placed into foster care.
The outrage stands in stark contrast to the treatment of white mothers in similar circumstances. Where, for instance, was the outrage in spring 2015 when Michelle Schwab, an Ohio mother, dangled her 2-year-old son over a cheetah cage at the Cleveland zoo? The boy fell and broke his leg, and she was arrested, charged, and ultimately given probation. But you didn’t see memes or petitions calling her a “bitch,” comparing her to a gorilla, or speaking to how her negligence about her child endangered the cheetahs in the cage needlessly. In fact the story was largely off the radar, with almost no national coverage of the incident. This mother made a poor choice that actively endangered her child, received a light punishment, and escaped public outrage and censure.
Additionally, there has been a move to further demonize black parents by dredging up the criminal record of Gregg’s son’s father, who was also at the zoo that day. We live in a society with a mass incarceration problem. Many, many black fathers have prior criminal records. But the fact this little boy’s father was at the zoo with him on this day challenges stereotypes about hypercriminal, absentee black dads who don’t care about their children. Of course, in a wholly sexist move, no one has called for the child’s father to be prosecuted or written posts about how he ought to be blamed. Among black and white commenters on social media, the vast majority of the ire has been directed toward the mother, a move that reflects a convergence of sexist policing and shaming of black mothers in society at large.
Thus the public conversation about this incident has played on every negative stereotype that exists about black families - that black mothers are neglectful, that black fathers are absent, and that black children, particularly black boys, are aggressive and unruly.
These stereotypes are part of a larger societal narrative that devalues black life in general. This becomes most apparent when we look at who become the objects of societal empathy. Social scientists have an extensive body of research about the racial empathy gap and the fact that white people typically do not think black people experience high levels of pain. In this moment, there has been a marked outpouring of empathy for the slain gorilla and a concomitant outrage at this black family for causing his death.
Moreover, the clear empathy for the plight of Harambe the gorilla, and the clarity and swiftness with which many white Americans arrived at the conclusion that the animal’s life should have been preserved is nothing if not ironic. The public discourse moved immediately to humanize him, to figure out how the tragedy occurred, and to demand that someone pay for the “crime” of killing Harambe. On Twitter, the #JusticeForHarambe hashtag trended for several days, almost as if in mockery of various hashtags that used to call for justice for black people slain by police. Many tweeting with the hashtag show incredible levels of disdain for Gregg, even as black commenters continue to point out the disparate responses to the unfortunate killing of this animal versus the paltry responses to the frequent killings of unarmed black people. Some social media commenters are using this moment to ask us to rethink the conditions of animals in captivity, a conversation I think is long overdue. We should abolish zoos. But what is notably absent from the Twitter conversation is serious concern for the boy’s safety. (And to be clear, the outsize outrage evinced by those who signed the petition - and the thinly veiled racial comments about whether the child’s “home situation” is safe and demanding that the authorities show up and rip their lives apart - is actually not evidence of care for this child. It is evidence of the racist ways in which black mothers are treated by the broader American public.)
This is infuriating and unacceptable. The depths of white outrage over the killing of this animal are matched only by the shallowness of white empathy for the harrowing ordeal that this family experienced. It feels as though every life is worthy of moral outrage and defense as long as it isn’t black.
Black people in the U.S. have always been in the unenviable position of having to argue that we deserve to be treated better than animals. Our history as chattel has made such arguments necessary. The moral clarity that white Americans have about the value of animal lives simply does not exist when it comes to the value of black lives. When people insist that this isn’t about race, I look at where they place their outrage and empathy. Show me your outrage, and I will show you which lives you value.
Follow Brittney on Twitter.