"Precious": A Tale of Three Explanations for Childhood Maltreatment

Robinson, Reginald Leamon

Precious describes a fictional child's life, in which the parents severely maltreat her. Historically, society gave parents the right to assault their children's bodies, if those assaults were not abuse but discipline. Traditionally, constitutional analysis enshrined those rights, and parents had autonomy to rear and discipline their children as they saw fit. Unfortunately, when parents abused their children and were prosecuted, few exculpatory and justificatory explanations were offered. Today, we know that parents who abuse have suffered abuse, too. Hence, Precious' parents' childhood histories help to explain her maltreatment and reveal the best framework for the etiology of her horrific suffering. This Essay proffers three explanations: Critical Race Theory's (CRT) race consciousness, Karl Marx' alienation theory, and Alice Miller's psycho-existential framework. Each approach may explain why parents maltreat their children. In brief, CRT and alienation theories operate at structural levels, well above the intergenerational transfer of actual suffering from parent to child. To be sure, structuralist theories may explain why black children like Precious suffered horrific maltreatment not by faulting the parents but by pointing to external, objective forces like white racism. CRT begins by analyzing slavery, Jim Crow, and the breakdown of the black family. Marxism likewise starts by critiquing an economic world in which capitalism's slavery exploited workers and black slaves. Yet, violent, physical assaults against children predate American Negro slavery and modern capitalism, which mean that neither of them would completely and persuasively explain childhood maltreatment. And neither approach takes us beyond believing that external, objective forces have constructed our abusive imaginations, which are enforced by the hegemonic workings of powerful whites and white structural oppression.


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Columbia Journal of Race and Law

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October 20, 2012