The moment that pictures popped up of the parents of the child who tumbled into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo, the predictable sparks flew.
The parents, are African American. The 4-year-old toddler is African American.
The issue no longer was simply the heart-breaking tragedy of the killing of a prized and endangered animal. Nor was it simply heaving a big sigh of collective relief and much joy that a child was saved.
The issue now was the enraged finger point at the parents for being bad parents. And the equally enraged charge that the only reason there was a finger point was because they were black, and that if they were white there wouldn’t be a peep of condemnation, just joy.
Cincinnati police officials raised the stake in the debate when they announced with great fanfare that the parents could face charges presumably for child negligence or endangerment. That is yet another near textbook case of where race again, sometimes sneakily, sometimes nakedly, crops into a flashpoint issue.
Trying to make a guess on the motives of those who line up on both sides is a close run up. Topping the checklist of the attributes of a good parent of toddlers and young children is fierce vigilance, awareness and protection at all times of a child’s well-being and safety.
The paramount concern of every child welfare agency on the planet is to ensure that children stay out of harm’s way at all times. The penalty for violating that responsibility is severe; the removal of a child from an unsafe home, whatever the parent or child’s color.
In part what fanned the gorilla killing to a fever pitch and prompted the merciless finger point at Michelle Gregg, the boy’s mother, for negligence, was the almost surreal circumstance of a once-in-a-lifetime, horrific scene. That is a toddler falling into the enclosure of a prized and potentially dangerous zoo attraction in full and socking view of dozens, including the mother.
A video captured the horror in graphic and terrifying detail of the child being bandied about by the gorilla, and of course, the gunning down of the gorilla. That was a drama that even Hollywood on its best or worse days would have trouble concocting.
The other part is, of course, race. The fact that the parents are black fed into the ancient stereotype that black parents are chronic shirkers, lax, uncaring and plain lousy parents. Case after case has been cited of some incident where a white kid was in danger, including one involving a kid in a gorilla enclosure at an Illinois zoo in 1996.
Yet there were no mass calls for the parents to be drawn and quartered or the kid snatched away from them. There was certainly no petition circulated that thousands eagerly rushed to sign demanding that the parents be brought up on charges by family services.
There was no rush by Fox News and other news outlets to dig up and blare every piece of dirt some about the father’s past run-ins with the law. The fact that the father wasn’t even at the zoo was by inference more damning proof supposedly of parental indifference.
White parents in those rare times of similar tragedy were not hounded on their job, and called every vile name under the sun in countless rants on Facebook and tweets. These are ridiculous and outlandish stretches to bash the parents, but with a hyper-charged emotional issue involving a child’s safety, anything, no matter how irrational, goes.
Yet, it’s the emotionalism over the issue that makes it impossible to just wave off the contention that something went badly awry in that fateful moment when a child could easily have been injured or even killed in the grip of a massive animal.
One can rail at Cincinnati zoo officials all day for not constructing a breach-proof barrier around the gorilla enclosure to ensure the safety for the animal and the patrons, and they wouldn’t be off base with that. But even without the seeming lapse in security, the brutal reality remains that millions of people visit zoos every year. Yet it’s the rarest of rare occasions when anyone tumbles into an animal enclosure.
There are lessons to be learned by all in this tragedy about how best to ensure the safety of animals, the safety of patrons, the responsibility of parents to be just that, responsible at all times for their child’s safety, what a child protective agency should or shouldn’t do in this situation, and the never ending cautionary note about the danger of dragging race into a tragedy.
There were no winners here. A prized endangered animal is dead, a child was in and then escaped harm’s way, two parents are on the public hot seat for supposed negligence, and zoo officials must do a soul search about what, if anything, they could or should have done better to prevent the tragedy.
Racism or bad parenting, it’s both and neither.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His latest book is “How ‘President’ Trump Will Govern (Amazon Kindle).” He also is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One and the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.