On Tuesday in an Ohio courtroom, Kelly Williams-Bolar, a mother of two with no criminal record, was sentenced to 10 days in jail and placed on 3 years probation for sending her children to school in a school district in which they did not live.

She was convicted on two counts of tampering with court records after registering her two girls as living with Williams Bolar’s father when they actually lived with her. The family lived in the housing projects in Akron, Ohio, and the father’s address was in nearby Copley Township. Additionally, Williams-Bolar’s father, Edward L. Williams, was charged with a fourth-degree felony of grand theft, in which he and his daughter are charged with defrauding the school system for two years of educational services for their girls. The court determined that sending their children to the wrong school was worth $30,500 in tuition

Ms. Williams-Bolar and her children are African-American and live in housing projects in Akron. Judging from this map, Copley Township (located just to the north and west of Akron) is predominantly white.   Given both the persistence of racial segregation and the history of white people doing whatever it takes to keep their neighborhoods white, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the people of Copley would have found Ms. Williams-Bolar’s actions as threatening had she been white and/or middle class.

The court’s actions in this case seem especially egregious given that the children’s father is a resident of Copley.

Even though Ms. Williams-Bolar will only be spending 10 days in jail (although, even this seems excessive) her recent conviction has made her a felon.  As I have discussed earlier in my post entitled “Racism, Incarceration, and the Preservation of White Supremacy,” in this country, being a felon does not merely carry a stigma, it also carries real social, financial, professional, and civic penalties.   The consequences of her conviction seem particularly harsh in Ms. Williams-Bolar case.  Ms. Williams-Bolar, who had put herself through school while taking care of her children, had almost completed her teaching degree.  However, since she is now a felon for life, and, in Ohio, felons cannot receive a teaching certificate, Ms. Williams-Bolar will never be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.    As Change.org describes:

She has been robbed of the opportunity to elevate her life and the lives of her family through her own hard work. She has essentially handed a life sentence for attempting to protect her children.  In a time of overwhelming economic disadvantage for so many US citizens, are loving single mothers like Williams-Bolar truly the enemy our court system should be making examples of in this way?

The children’s father has also been charged with a felony, and, if convicted, he too will be placed into the “caste” of felon for life.

It is bad enough that our schools remain not just racially segregated, but also racially unequal, (in fact, according to Jonathan Kozol’s Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America, our schools are actually more racially segregated than they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education), but there is something especially disgraceful about a country that would assign one class of children to a life of poverty and injustice and then punish them when they try to escape.

I’m reminded of Thomas Aquinas’ teaching on property, poverty, and justice.  In the U.S., we classify what Ms. Williams-Bolar and her children’s father did as an act of theft.  To Aquinas, however, it is those who would deprive the poor of the goods they need to flourish who are the true thieves.  Because Aquinas believes that the use of external goods is owned in common rather than in private, he concludes that to “indiscriminately prevent others from using…property[1]” is to commit the sin of robbery.

Moreover, Aquinas defines theft not just as taking from someone something they own legally[1], but also as depriving them of that to which they are entitled naturally[2].   Thus, refusing to use “superfluous things in one’s possession…for the sustenance of the poor” is an act of theft as well as a violation of the natural law.  For Aquinas, because “all things are common property in cases of necessity…it does not seem to be a sin if one takes the property of another.[3]”    What is especially relevant for the case of Ms. Williams-Bolar is that Aquinas thought that, in such cases, one is even permitted to “secretly take the property of another in order to assist a neighbor in such need.[4]

Thus, in a Christian natural law framework in which the common good and fidelity to the will of God are the highest goods, private property and ownership are only means to the ends of ensuring the flourishing and well-being of the entirety of creation.  In Aquinas’ system, those who have enough are not allowed to keep the poor out; they must let them come and let them take what they need.  If those with enough refuse the poor their right, the poor are allowed to come and take it by force or stealth.   We have made an idol out of private property, forgetting that the earth belongs not to those who claim it as theirs and build walls and fences to keep others out but to God.
Certainly, if we follow Aquinas’ reasoning, we will see that, because Ms. Williams-Bolar’s children have been unjustly denied the means of their own flourishing, she was more than justified in “breaking the rules” in this case.

[1] Summa Theologica II-II 66.3

[2] Summa Theologica II-II 66.3.2; II-II 66.7

[3] Summa Theologica. II-II 66.7

[4] Summa Theologica. II-II 66.7.3

[1] Summa Theologica. II-II 66.2.2

14 thoughts

  1. Thanks for addressing this important issue. I’m originally from that part of Ohio, and several of my friends grew up going to Copley Schools. The school district is as one may suspect– mostly affluent, upper middle-class, and predominantly white. The case smacks of injustice on so many levels– racism, classism, sexism. It’s unfortunate that in discussions I’ve had with people from the area that many consider it the “right” and even “Christian” outcome for Williams-Bolar’s to punished for what she’s done, her father’s residency in the Copley school district notwithstanding. One even suggested to me that Williams-Bolar may not be so poor as she is portrayed by the media– as if the single mother in subsidized housing is one taking advantage of welfare while enjoying some sort of lavish food-stamp and government-supported lifestyle. Needless to say, I was disgusted by what I heard.

    My cousin, a single mother, had this to say about the Akron schools: ” My kids were in Akron Public Schools for a year and I had to move into another district. The classes are crowded, the school understaffed and the kids overdisciplined IMHO. They were not allowed to speak when they were at lunch. At all. Had I not had a mom and dad who loaned me the money to move, I would have been stuck there. A lot of people don’t have family that can help them financially.”

    Let’s pray for the day when justice and opportunity can be established for all.

    1. Jason, thank you so much for your “on the ground” reporting. What you say is very informative. I too am from Ohio, and so I am especially disheartened about what is happening there!

  2. It also doesn’t help that the way Ohio public schools are funded (mostly through local taxes) has been judged unconstitutional multiple times by the Ohio Supreme Court. Each time it gets sent back to the legislature to fix and they do as little as possible. The structure is what makes one school district get $14,000 per student per year and the next district over gets $6,000 (a while ago this went as low at $2500 – usually in poor rural areas).

    1. Definitely, Todd. I am from Ohio and I was in seventh grade when the ohio supreme court made that ruling and mandated the state legislature to come up with a more equitable funding plan. Instead of fixing the funding, the state gave money for buildings to the poorest schools in the state as long as those districts passed a levy of their own (it was a matching funds type thing). It has been 15 years later, and the schools are still funded by property tax!!!!!

  3. “… it is not unreasonable to wonder whether the people of Copley would have found Ms. Williams-Bolar’s actions as threatening had she been white and/or middle class.”

    Sure, but it’s tough to make a case that this is unfair treatment unless someone else (ideally, for the purposes of your argument, a resident of Copley Township) committed the same crime and received a different and less severe punishment.

    It seems what would have been truly unfair is if the punishment was in line with standing laws/historical consistency, and the judge lessened the severity of the punishment for Ms. Williams-Bolar because she was close to receiving a teaching certificate– especially since the crime she is convicted of having committed was against a school system.

    1. Hi Susan,
      I hear what you are saying, but my critique isn’t that the applicationof the law is unfair, but that the laws and the structure of society itself is what is unfair.

      And, given the fact that our society is so so racially segregated and that this is due almost entirely to the preferences and actions of white people (countless studies have shown that black people have a much higher tolerance for racial integration than white people), I would say that the burden of proof is on predominantly white areas (especially predominantly white areas that border predominantly black areas that are significantly less affluent) to demonstrate that their actions are motivated by a genuine concern for the common good rather than something more sinister.

      First of all, the fact that, in the northeast and midwest in particular, neighborhoods are racially segregated and unequal is no accident. In the decades following World War II, white neigbhorhoods vehemently and sometimes violently did all that they could to keep middle class blacks who had recently emigrated from the south out of their neighborhoods. When this failed, they moved out and formed all white neighborhoods somewhere else. The government and real estate industry heavily subsidied such white supremacy–ensuring that it would be almost impossible for a black family to get a mortgage for a house in a white neighborhood. Through a federal government backed policy called “redlining,” when a formerly all white neigbhorhood started to be integrated, it would receive a lower insurance rating, making it no longer a profitable place to sell or buy in.

      At the same time as african-americans were unable to move into middle-class neighborhoods (which meant they were denied much of the benefit of being middle class) they were also often systematically denied access to the best jobs.

      This is a very oversimplified explanation of why racial segregation persists and why predominantly african-american neighborhoods are generally much poorer than white ones.

      So, there is no reason to give the benefit of the doubt to the residents of Copley or to the residents of any predominantly white suburban area. There is nothing innocent about the fact that Ms. Williams-Bolar’s children are legally denied access not just to that school in particular but to schools of the highest quality. To say that Ms. Williams-Bolar should simply accept “her place” in our white supremacist society is to endorse our white supremacist history.

      As to your last point, who is served by preventing Ms. Williams-Bolar from getting her teaching license? Again, my critique is the law itself not its application.

  4. Andrew Sullivan just linked to this essay over on his blog: http://thisweekinblackness.com/blog/2011/01/25/curious-case-kelley-williamsbolar/#content

    “My initial reaction to this was outrage. I sat at my computer, heart pounding, eyes tearing, because when you peel all of the layers off of it a woman, who works with special education children and was attending school for her teaching degree is being vilified because she wanted something better for her children. And we can’t possibly ignore the racial aspect of this situation. A poor BLACK woman on public assistance is being jailed for sending her kids to the rich white school. I’m not arguing whether this is how it should be looked at–I’m saying thats how it is looked at. It’s now questionable whether the teaching degree she’s been working towards will be allowed because she now has a felony charge against her. A family’s life is in virtual ruins because of this situation.
    They say she was judged by a jury of her peers. Was it really? Was it a group of poor minorities trying to finally have a chance at the supposed American dream? Were these “peers” people who’s families have tried for generations to rise from the injustice and inequalities that they–literally–had nothing to do with?

    Show me these “peers.”
    By the way, America stole a lot of labor from my people. Are we going to get any of that “owed” money anytime soon? No? Didn’t think so.”

    He’s right.

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