Although the video of this young girl’s spontaneous dance party has been viewed by millions, energetic outbursts by young children on the subway are more typically followed by a parent threatening or abusing the child if he or she doesn’t sit still.
I witnessed one such scene on a nearly empty E train the other day. I’ve observed scenes like this regularly since I began riding the subway daily as a teenager. More often, I noticed public child abuse at the hands of women of color, leading me to assume this cultural phenomenon was somehow connected to race.
As a graduate student, I read scholarly articles linking child abuse with stress due to lack of education and poverty. Many scholars cast this behavior as irrational, deviant, and impulsive—contrary to social utility and civil behavior. Under this view, the apparent racial disparity in public child abuse is attributable to the fact that socioeconomic disadvantage is correlated with race in America.
In The World Until Yesterday, however, Jared Diamond presents a theory (in the “physical punishment” section) much more unsettling to someone–like myself–with a lifelong visceral hatred of child abuse. Diamond’s study of hunter-gatherer, herder, agriculturalist, and industrial societies led him to conclude that at least one factor in the prevalence and severity of child abuse is the potential consequences of a child’s actions. A child who might accidentally open the community’s sheep pen, Diamond believes, will likely be subject to more and harsher abuse than a child who might only stomp on a few crops, or a child born to hunter-gatherers with comparatively little accumulated wealth.
Applying Diamond’s utilitarian theory of child abuse to our age of racial mass incarceration, public displays of child abuse would seem less irrational and deviant, and more rational means of survival for communities that are disproportionately targeted for stops, arrests, convictions, and police brutality. In this light, the extreme racial disparities of criminal law enforcement in America can be seen as traumatizing not only the adolescent and adult victims of racist policing tactics, but all children of color whose parents choose to condition them–via controlled, domestic violence–to avoid arrest, or fatal police encounters, to the detriment of childhood joy.