Child Abuse Isn’t Just the Poor’s Problem

Three million times a year, we beat our kids so badly that someone calls the cops about it. There’s really no way to know how often Americans pound the stuffing out of their children, since these ritual assaults are as mundane as doing the laundry. What’s remarkable about child abuse is that it’s in the news at all–normally, anything that affects children is a rock-bottom priority.

In the last month, we’ve read about 6-year-old Elisa Izquierdo, who was murdered by her mom on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The killing seemed anticlimactic after years of enduring such abuse as having her head used to mop her apartment floor. Then there was Tazar Carter, a 15-year-old boy sold to Detroit crack dealer-pimps by his mom. By far the most spectacular story involved 0-year-old Elijah Evans, whose father’s girlfriend brought him into the wonderful world of Chicago suburbia by amateur C-section–while stabbing his mother to death.

Now that baseball is dead, America’s national pastime is assigning blame. Who could have prevented these tragedies? In New York, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani graciously accepted partial responsibility for Elisa’s death. New Yorkers now sleep better knowing that their city’s leader is roaming the projects, checking up on parents to make certain they’re not forcing their kids to eat their own excrement. Newt Gingrich blamed the unorthodox birth in Chicago upon “a welfare system which subsidized people for doing nothing,” the criminal justice system and lousy schools. Now class, turn to page 76 in your textbook. Today we’re going to learn that carving into pregnant women isn’t cool.

The common factor in media and political reaction to these horror stories is their link of child abuse to poor minorities living in inner-city squalor. Even liberals promote this alleged causal relationship. They blame Republican cuts in welfare programs for a recent spate of parents who chuck their kids out of high-rises after they’ve cried one too many times, as if welfare were a substitute for good parenting.

If child abuse directly results from lower-class dysfunction, all that remains for liberals and conservatives to discuss is how best to eliminate poverty. But who knows whether drug use, child abuse and indolence aren’t just as common among the middle-class and rich?

When I was an undergraduate at Columbia in the ‘80s, I met many kids from successful, white suburban families who’d been brutalized as children. They’d been whipped, burned, raped, molested, and traumatized by means comparable to the most heinous tabloid stories datelined in South-Central or Bed-Stuy. About half of the students I lived with in the dorms did coke at least once a week and pot twice as often. Sometimes I’d be invited to their parents’ expensive houses in the surrounding suburbs, only to be appalled at the filth and squalor inside these outwardly-tidy homes.

In their post-college years, many of these Ivy League-educated white men–who enjoyed every possible advantage in the American rat race–wallowed in indolence and sloth worthy of the most debauched slum-dweller. But rancid behavior among America’s élite goes unnoticed and unreported. Unlike the poor, whose collective butts belong to the state by virtue of their monthly tax-funded checks, no social workers check up on the children of the bourgeois. Cops don’t randomly search rich kids in the streets. When things go too far in a wealthy white household and little Jenny “falls” off a chair and hemorrhages to death, there’s a nice funeral and a tiny obit buried behind the sports section. Laziness among the best and the brightest is called “slacking,” not a drain on the economy. Journalists don’t ask any questions, sociologists don’t count any statistics, and politicians don’t wring their hands about the hopeless problems of the permanent overclass.

It’s not pleasant to think about, but we live in a society that values violence and rewards abuse. Kids getting hit by parents who think of them as personal property is only the first act in this lifelong drama. We’re taught from the first day of school that bullies earn fear and respect. The message is the same in the projects and in the boardroom–intimidation begets prestige.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a country won by slaughtering Native Americans is still wallowing in ultraviolence less than a century later. Nonetheless, we can’t go on like this forever. It’s easier to wage class warfare against the poor than to try to phase out our national jock mentality. But initial steps should be to recognize that social pathology doesn’t just belong to the poor, and kids don’t belong to their parents.

(Ted Rall, a syndicated editorial cartoonist, is author of All the Rules Have Changed (Rip Off Press).)