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PUBLIC TALES WAG THE DOG: Telling Stories about Structural Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era1

  • Tricia Rose (a1)

This essay examines the case of Kelley Williams-Bolar—an African American single mother from Akron, Ohio—who in 2011 was arrested, charged with a felony, and jailed for sending her two daughters to a predominantly White suburban public school in Copley Township without meeting the township's residency requirements. This essay closely examines the case with particular attention paid to the important but often unacknowledged intersections of race, gender, economic privilege, spatial containment, and racialized criminalization that shaped the case. The Williams-Bolar case became a public site of contesting narratives, some obscuring these intersections, others acknowledging them. Those who supported Copley Township's prosecution of Williams-Bolar relied on a law and order mandate and fiscal responsibility that supported the dominant racial narrative while appearing to be race, gender, and class neutral. But many were critical of Williams-Bolar's arrest and the story used to justify it. Their response was a massive and heated online challenge that inspired existing and newly outraged parents and educational activists from a wide range of backgrounds, triggering petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people requesting that the Governor of Ohio pardon Williams-Bolar.

This essay places the case in the context of what I call the “invisible intersections of colorblind racism,” the racial privileges of housing and educational resource hoarding via private property taxes for suburban upper-middle-class Whites and the expanded application of the criminalization of the Black poor to Black mothers who receive state assistance by the judicial system, in political discourse and mass media narrative. Williams-Bolar's supporters used the power of social media to build community activism and to generate alternative narratives that countered the discursive and structural forces that were at work. Finally, this article considers the value and impact of alternative narratives about Williams-Bolar and her actions as generated by supporters.

Corresponding author
Professor Tricia Rose, Director of the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America, Department of Africana Studies, Brown University, 155 Angell Street, Providence, RI 02912. E-mail:
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The author would like to thank PhD candidate Micah Salkind for his excellent research assistance on this article; express appreciation for the very helpful anonymous reader reports and for the insightful and very helpful editorial assistance with this essay by the Du Bois Review special editors, especially Professor Barbara Tomlinson.

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Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
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