In the wake of enormous tragedy, it is left to each of us to analyze the coverage of stories that startle even the most hardened of media consumers. Shaquan Duley, 29, is a South Carolina resident who confessed last week to suffocating two of her toddler-aged children, 1-year-old Ja’van Duley and 2-year-old Devean Duley, then putting her car into neutral and letting it drive off-road into the nearby Edisto River, after initially claiming that she lost control of the vehicle before it entered the river. As details of the case unfold, the portrait of Duley which has emerged is villainous and one-dimensional: she is seen as little more than a young, single and poor Black mother who drowned her children as a result of an argument with her own mother.
This case follows an eerily similar precedent in South Carolina: in 1994, Susan Smith, a white middle-class mother of two boys, strapped both children into their car seats before submerging her car in John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina. Like Duley, Smith initially lied about the incident, claiming that her car had been stolen by a young Black man.
However, unlike Smith, Duley was never granted the benefit of the doubt. Orangeburg County Sheriff Larry Williams told CNN that Duley’s “clothes were dry… and there were no skid marks or other indications of an accident at the scene.” Physical evidence in Smith’s case may have suggested similar discrepancies in her story, yet in 1994, Americans were instantly sympathetic to Smith’s racially-loaded tale of carjacking. Certainly, the police were not commenting as openly about the details of the Smith case as they have with Duley.
This story has received extensive national coverage in the U.S. and much of it shames her for being unemployed. Never mind that South Carolina’s unemployment rate increased to 10.8% in July 2010, even as the nationwide unemployment rate in the U.S. during the same month. Also, please ignore the fact that Duley was employed for several years as a cashier at a Dairy-O fast-food restaurant. Duley is, after all, a Black woman, required by birth to fulfill the mythical and ever-pervasive strong Black woman stereotype and thus supersede the state’s alarming unemployment statistics.
Otherwise, she’s little more than a “welfare queen,” another stereotype of Black women which continues to plague the nation’s consciousness, even as the majority of U.S. welfare recipients are white. There have been no comparisons of Duley to the white men who killed their families after losing their jobs in the ongoing U.S. recession. Instead, Duley has been singled out as “lazy” by conservative legal pundits. You’ve got to hand it to the conservative pundits: at least they’re consistent in their used of tired and racist tropes.
It is crucial that readers also consider the ways in which Duley’s mental health is portrayed, as ableism plays a huge role in the media’s coverage of this story. Even mothers are unsympathetic to Duley’s story: Café Mom, a mothers-only online community, calls for the death penalty. Nowhere, in any of the above coverage, is the term “postpartum depression” discussed.
Admittedly, neither Duley nor her legal representatives have publicly discussed the possibility, but surely, the public at large has entertained the notion that Duley may have experienced this illness. Or are we more comfortable when a white celebrity like Brooke Shields is the face of this movement? Postpartum depression is also intimately connected to job loss and financial problems. Are only middle or upper-class women accorded sympathy for their experiences with postpartum depression? Or do we assume that as an unwed mother, Duley deserved the anguish of raising her children without a support system? Our collective silence on the topic of Duley’s mental health speaks volumes, as does our willingness to condemn her without a trial.
It seems only natural that the public reacts with shock, disgust and outrage when faced with the deaths of two young boys, particularly when their deaths occurred at the hands of their own mother. Their lives are gone, their potential extinguished, and we are left to decide the fate of Shaquan Duley. Yet the facts have not been fully presented and we are already ready to sentence a young mother to death for her confessed crimes.
As we consider the racism, classism, and able-bodied privilege which is invoked in the coverage of Duley’s actions, we are each responsible for refusing to take the stereotypes as truth. We must insist on hearing all of the facts before coming to a conclusion. We must demand a fair trial without bias or preconceived notions of Black women, unemployed women, and mothers. Justice for Shaquan Duley is justice for mothers.