My analysis of tweets about Ferguson published in Ethnic and Racial Studies revealed that many people perceive deadly encounters between law enforcement and Black men as warranted because they feel these men acted like thugs. The controlling image of the thug paints Black men as hypermasculine, violent, criminal, and tough. Sociologist Dawn Dow provides findings on how Black mothers in middle-class households grapple with how this controlling image affects their sons in a 2016 Gender & Society article.
Dow argues that Black mothers considered the controlling image of the thug and gendered racism as serious obstacles to the success of their sons. They had to do emotional labor and identity work around ensuring educators, police officers, and the broader public did not perceive their sons as criminals. Dow bases these conclusions on data collected through 40 out of 60 in-depth interviews she did as part of a larger project on Black mothers in the middle class. Her most recent book Mothering While Black: Boundaries and Burdens of Middle-Class Parenthood provide this broader context.
Dow did these interviews in the San Francisco Bay Area between 2009 and 2011, determining their middle class status based on their educational level and total family income. The mothers she interviewed had children at least 10 years of age or younger. They answered questions about their families of origin, how they became mothers, their concerns as a parent, and their parenting practices.
Why Black Mothers Must Protect Their Sons From Racism and Criminalization
Overall, mothers expressed concern about the safety of their sons and how to avoid or push back against the criminalization of Black boys. These parents felt that middle-class status gave them access to additional resources, but did little to protect their sons from the way society destabilizes and diminishes Black male youth due to their race and gender. The parents felt their sons faced greater scrutiny, particularly at school or among peers, since white people perceived their sons as poor or criminals. This created a circumstance wherein teachers and educators threatened the development of Black boys and parents had to monitor other adults to ensure their child received fair treatment.
According to Dow, these parents used a politics of respectability to challenge this racialization by asserting their middle-class status. These strategies helped them subvert the pressures their sons faced to conform to Black masculinity fueled by a lack of messages or representations beyond the criminality, aggression, and low academic performance associated with the thug. Since white people expected a certain type of behavior from their sons due to social norms around interracial contact, these parents taught their sons strategies that helped them adopt a double consciousness as a source of agency and to ward off resentment. For Black mothers, these strategies looked like the management of experiences, environments, self-image, and emotions.
Dow defines experience management as “focused on seeking out opportunities for sons to engage in activities to gain fluency in different experiences – both empowering and challenging – of being African American boys and men.” The use of experience management involves controlling the types of activities that their sons do to inform them about Black middle class masculinity. These strategies afford Black sons the ability to shift between different types of communities because they use double consciousness to see themselves through the eyes of others.
Parents sought out activities that would help their sons gain essential skills for life. For example, some parents placed their sons in activities like basketball in neighborhoods that had a diversity of Black people from various backgrounds. They also connected them with Black history and culture, particularly through interactions with Black men in their families or in community leadership roles like coaches.
Environment management, according to Dow, involved “monitoring their sons regular social environment, such as their school or neighborhood, with the aim of excluding sources of discrimination.”  Parents manage their children’s daily interactions in the hope that they can prevent their exposure to certain types of encounters. Different environments call for different tactics. Managing environments aims to reduce or eliminate the challenges Black boys face when they encounter bias.
For example, living in a predominately white neighborhood might often provide access to better resources, but also requires that they teach their sons to avoid association with low-class status and criminality projected onto them by white neighbors. Living in a predominately Black neighborhood not only means few resources often times, but also prompts parents to limit their encounters across class due to greater proximity to crime.
Emotion and Image Management
The parents Dow interviewed felt their sons did have the freedom to express certain masculine behaviors. They also expressed concern that having a certain style of dress might leave their sons vulnerable to attack if others perceived them as criminals. To deal with this, parents encouraged their sons to manage their emotional expressions and physical appearance.
What This Research Teaches Us About Black Mothers Raising Black Sons
While many of the mothers Dow interviewed were married, none of them appeared to express a belief that only their husbands or father figures had a role in guiding their sons’ experiences. As a result, I think these findings help challenge the myth of the Black matriarch and the belief that Black women raising sons either as single mothers or heads of households results in the emasculation of Black men. Page 176