The recent New York Times article on transracial adoption, seemed to follow the typical pattern about how transracial adoption has been covered in the media in recent years. The stories tend to follow a sort of script. First, the authors start by telling the story of a white (American) couple (either in same sex or opposite sex relationships) who adopt a black (American) child. Second, the story goes on to note how much the parents love and care for the child and want to be ethno-racially literate. Next, the stories talk about how the Multiethnic Placement Act does not allow people to be denied adoption righs solely based on race, and somewhere soon after the authors cite the now famous statement from the National Association of Black Social Workers, which likened transracial adoption to cultural genocide. Fourth, the story will cite a few African Americans who are opposed to interracial adoption or leery of it. Then the story comes back full circle to the “loving white couple” who adopt the otherwise unadoptable black child. This sort of pattern is typical of almost all discussions of interracial families whether those families are created by adoption, marriage, cohabitation, or any other sort of interracial relationship that produces children.
This structure frames the issue as
1) love vs. race consciousness–The White adoptive family is viewed as loving, kind, and pseudo-colorblind. Black people are not even discussed in a family context. Individual African Americans are interviewed to give their professional opinion about whether or not race matters. When African Americans express reservations about the idea that love conquers all, they are viewed as indirectly attacking the love and commitment of the individual white families who transracially adopt.
2) black vs. white– One thing that is rather striking is that many of these articles is that the do not talk about all of the White families who adopt Chinese, Korean, or other east Asian children. These adoptions are framed as international adoptions, which is true, but they are also interracial. By the NYT’s own admission Euro-American families adopt Black children 1% of the time. Yes folks 1%, compared to 5% who adopt Asian children. Transracial usually means Black/White.
3) white savior vs. black nationalist–In many cases, the authors present the white adoptive parents saving the black child from some combination of “drug addiction,” “incarceration,” HIV, and/or impoverished mothers. (The NYT story is actually notable for not doing this.) Those who oppose transracial adoption or express concerns about its implementation are viewed as valuing racial solidarity over the well-being of children.
For those who are unfamiliar with the term framing. It refers to how the information is presented or discussed. I think this sort of framing creates the idea that whites are progressive and blacks are not. It also portrays the whites as sympathetic people, after all it is very easy to be sympathetic to adoptive parents, who often struggle to have their own biological children and end up raising children who are not their biological kids. The black social worker who notes that many whites are unprepared to deal with the full force of racism comes off as dry and clinical, as someone who would interrupt the “only family these kids know.”
Every time I read these stories I ask myself how could this story be reframed to recognize racism. See the studies follow a “multiculturalism” model, but they do not focus on institutional or interpersonal racism. In a multiculturalism model, individuals can become more diverse, by associating with people from different backgrounds or reading about the histories and traditions of various racial groups. White adoptive parents may learn about how to do their child’s hair or what sorts of food or cultural practices are common in the adopted child’s biological parents’ culture(s). The problem with this sort of approach is that it completely ignores racism. As I said in a recent entry, race is all to frequently reduced to culture, but the link between racism and power needs to be added to any discussion of transracial adoption. This is where the mass media often misses the point. Even if everything they are saying is true, we also need to talk about some of thing things that they do not say.
One way to look at racism is to think of adoption as an industry. While adoption agencies may be full of well meaning people, adoption is a market, like it or not. In the adoption market children are the commodity, and these commodities are assign monetary values. Sociologist Amanda Lewis has studied race in the adoption industry. In a presentation I saw in 2004, Lewis noted that Black children are put into a separate category in most adoption agencies. Lewis also found that the prices quoted for adopting Black children were significantly lower than those assigned to white children. In the adoption industry, healthy white babies are in high demand and low supply. I hate using economic language to talk about children in the ways that we talk about cars, jewels, or houses, but racism assigns a higher value to white babies. While love is certainly important in the adoption process, money and power are also important. There are more whites who want to adopt white babies and have the financial means to do so. Unfortunately, in some cases white families decide to adopt black children when they are unable to find or afford a healthy white child. The number of whites willing to adopt black children as a first option is very small, and if one were to read the chart presented with the NYT article very closely, they would notice the 1% figure cited above.
The adoptions industry places a high value on whiteness, not only for the children but also for the parents. The transracial adoption debate ignores the fact that our current racial order all but forbids blacks from adopting white children, and limits many blacks from adopting black children. When articles like the NYT article talk about the Multiethnic Placement Act, it is in the context of “whites having legal access to black children.” The problem with this sort of framing is that in the greater social structural context there is no assault on “white parenting.” The Euro-American middle and upper income models of family have never been under attack, but the assault on African American parents has been strong and persistent.
How have African American parents been under attack you ask? Well we can start with slavery, where marriage was forbidden, and children and spouses were routinely sold. The ability to maintain a “nuclear” family was impossible under such conditions; moreover, the traditional West African family is much more extended family oriented than European families (even today many West African families live in extended family compounds.). Now, I understand that slavery is long over, but it has set the stage for how black families in the US have been viewed. Black men and women have been viewed as hypersexual and oversexed, a stereotype that is still pervasive. Given this sort of stereotype, African American fertility and child rearing have been closely regulated (See Dorothy Robert’s book Killing the Black Body). Often times, Black parents are viewed as people who “pro-create without regard to the consequences.” This stereotype has been used to justify involuntary and coercive sterilization, and it has been used to remove black children from their families. Black families also took a hit after the infamous 1965 Moynihan Report, where Moynihan labeled African American family a “tangle of pathology” (and of course, we also shouldn’t forget he said African American families were matriarchal, a statement never authenticated by subsequent empirical studies). The now infamous statement released by black social workers was in the wake of the Moynihan Report.
Loving black parents and families are almost invisible in these debates and in the US society at large. In fact, I always find it funny that when I talk about how Black families and parents are viewed in society, someone has to bring up the Cosby Show. The Cosby Show is fiction folks, and it is but one example of a cultural product that showing loving intimate relationships in African American families. For every fictional Cosby Show we have five Losing Isaiah’s. Just like white parents black parents love their children, and most of the people who adopt black children are black couples and other black relatives (I have heard a some speculation that a high number of black children are adopted by black/white interracial couples, but I have never seen data on this, and it definitely doesn’t constitute a majority of adoptions of black or biracial children.).
The other sort of notion that these articles present is the sort of “love conquers all” mentality, which is naive at best and dangerous at worst. Love only provides a softer place to fall. It doesn’t challenge racism, and for white families who transracially adopt love, plus multicultural education is a great start, but this only works on the individual/small group level. In fact, in the era of colorblind racism very few people would ever acknowledge “hating” any ethnic group. Racism is not about love or hate; it is really about power. Love may be great for an individual child, but love doesn’t stop racism. Only social activism will stop racism, and if they asked the transracial adoptive parents the right sorts of questions in these interviews, they may find that the parents actually agree with my contention here.
If I were to reframe the transracial adoption debate, I would start with these questions/issues. Why we don’t debate the merits of black families adopting white babies? Why is transracial adoption focused primarily on black and white? I would also talk about how racism (not cultural variation) has shaped the lives of families, starting from slavery. I wouldn’t ask if “individual whites can raise black children” or “individual blacks can raise white children.” I would talk about the structure of the adoption industry and the ways that educational opportunities and job discrimination affect the number of African Americans who can afford adoption. I would talk about how infertility is constructed as a “white problem.” My concern is less with the individuals (although I have no objection to multicultural educators teaching whites who transracially adopt), and more with the social structure. Why are the majority of adoptions intraracial? Who has opportunities to adopt and why?
Personally, I think with the right education and experiences most people can raise a child of a different race, even though these sorts of education and experiences are not easy to cultivate. There may be challenges along the way, and racism will impact interracial families, whether its internalized in the parents, the adoption agencies, the school district, the labor market, or the fertility industry. However, the best question to ask is “how does racism affect the adoption process and the structure of families?” When covering the transracial adoption debate, that’s where media outlets should start.