By Clarence Page
Tribune Content Agency
Retired NBA star Charles Barkley has exposed a hazardous culture clash in the Texas indictment of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for child abuse. If parents are going to be sent to jail for giving their children a "whipping," then "every black parent in the South is going to be in jail."
Some people were upset that Barkley, a black Alabama native, singled out black people and Southerners. But as a fellow offspring of Southern parents, I know Barkley was not gratuitously playing a race card. A variety of academic studies have found that, while spanking occurs in every major racial or ethnic group, African-Americans approve more often than others do.
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For example, an extensive study of spanking and ethnicity by Elizabeth Gershoff, a human ecology associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, found 89 percent of black parents said they had spanked their children, compared to 80 percent of Hispanic parents, 79 percent of white parents and 73 percent of Asian parents
By region, a 2013 Harris Interactive study found people are more likely to be in favor of spanking if they live in the South and Midwest than in the West or East. And that, I quickly add, is not a good thing.
Regardless of how much some of us look back with wistful nostalgia on our own spankings -- as my own Alabama cousins and I jovially recalled at a recent family reunion -- corporal punishment poses more hazards than it is worth when compared to many nonviolent alternatives.
Numerous theories have been raised as to why so many black parents approve of whipping or "whooping," as my parents said in their Alabama accents. Some researchers have associated it with the legacy left by the brutality of slavery. Slaves whipped their children, it is said, to teach them to avoid being whipped by white slavemasters, which would be so much worse.
Others point out that African-American parents are disproportionately more poor, Southern and religiously conservative, all of which are factors that correlate with support for corporal punishment, regardless of race. The biblical injunction about sparing the rod is taken quite literally by religious conservatives, surveys show.
But that excuse also is rejected by such experts as Dr. Alvin Poussaint, the black Harvard psychiatrist who advised Bill Cosby's "The Cosby Show."
"There's an overuse of beating kids -- corporal punishment," he said at a conference on black youth violence that I wrote about in 2006. "So that you have 80 percent of black parents believing you should beat them -- beat the devil out of them. And research shows the more you beat them, the angrier they get. It is not good discipline."
"Violence begets violence," Poussaint said, pointing out that disciplinary practices at home may help to explain why expulsion rates for black children in preschool have been as much as twice the rate for white and Hispanic children.
Even Peterson acknowledges that his discipline went farther than he intended, according to his attorney. Police say he whipped his 4-year-old son so hard with a switch made from a tree branch that he caused numerous cuts and bruises to the child's back, buttocks, ankles, legs and scrotum, plus defensive wounds to the child's hands.
Yet during a Sunday interview with Jim Rome on the CBS pregame show "The NFL Today," Barkley raised an argument that I know was on many people's minds. "I think there's a fine line, Jim," he said about childrearing. "I've had many welts on my legs."
Yet Barkley eventually noted that the pictures of Peterson's child were "disturbing." He also agreed with Rome that maybe we as a society "need to rethink" this issue.
Many of us are. I tried spanking our son in his preschool years, but he's too much like me. He only grew more angry and defiant. But the kid was terrified of time-outs. The prospect of spending more than 10 seconds in solitary confinement — away from friends, TV, books, computer or video games — brought instant compliance.
Every child is different, of course. Barkley is right about how "we have to really be careful trying to teach other parents how to discipline their kids." But it's still a worthy cause to pursue.
Reach Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.