The Politics of Transracial and Transnational Adoption
By LAURA BRIGGS
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter One African American Children and Adoption, 1950–1975
When we talk about "transracial" adoption, what we usually turn to is the controversy over "where black children belong," which followed on the National Association of Black Social Workers' (NABSW) statement of 1972. For example, in his book Interracial Intimacies, published in 2003, Randall Kennedy makes the NABSW statement the origin point and the site of continued resistance to placing black children with white families in order to set up a positive argument about the capacity of white parents to raise black children: "The late 1960s witnessed a small but significant upturn in the number of whites adopting blacks.... Then the NABSW announced its opposition and mobilized resistance. It got results, and almost immediately: in 1973 the number of black children adopted by whites declined, to 1,091 [from a high of 2,284]. In 1974 the total fell to 747." In the present, he writes, "although the NABSW statement condemning virtually all transracial adoptions has never been formally embraced by any jurisdiction in the post–Jim Crow United States, it has been and remains influential." As the reference to Jim Crow would suggest, Kennedy goes on to argue that racial separatism in how we think about families does not lead to racial justice and that white parents can make outstanding and loving parents for black children. As an aside, though, it bears noting that the numbers alone might cast doubt on the continuing power of the NABSW statement: in 2003, when Kennedy wrote this, more than 3,310 black children were adopted by white families—a higher number than before the NABSW statement. Similarly, Margaret Howard argued in an article published in 1984 that the NABSW in 1972 had "condemned transracial adoption in terms so militant that transracial adoption fell by 39 percent in a single year." These moves are characteristic of most scholarship on transracial adoption in the post–civil rights era: the NABSW was aggressively unreasonable and attacked well-meaning white parents as incapable of raising black children, and that move was detrimental to black children who were therefore denied loving homes with white families.
In contrast, Leora Neal, executive director of the NABSW chapter in New York City wrote in 1996 that
The resolution was not based on racial hatred or bigotry, nor was it an attack on White parents. The resolution was not based on any belief that White families could not love Black children, nor did we want African-American children to languish in foster care rather than be placed in White adoptive homes. Our resolution, and the position paper that followed, was directed at the child welfare system that has systematically separated Black children from their birth families. Child welfare workers have historically undertaken little effort to rehabilitate African-American parents, to work with extended families, or to reunite children in foster care with their families.
In a position paper in 1994 titled Preserving Families of African Ancestry, the NABSW suggested that the statement of 1972 had been widely misread, "Many thought that the organization's position focused exclusively on transracial adoption. Yet, this was one component of the position statement, which instead emphasized the importance of and barriers to preserving families of African ancestry." In these NABSW accounts, questions related to white families were effectively an afterthought, and references to Jim Crow are misplaced; the goal of the statement was to keep black families together.
Who is right? Should we understand the NABSW statement as primarily an attack on white parents' skills or an effort to keep black families together in the context of coercive separation of black children from their families dating back to slavery? The plainest reading of the statement is that it is a set of criticisms of white families. It reads, in part
The National Association of Black Social Workers has taken a vehement stand against the placement of black children in white homes for any reason.... In our society, the developmental needs of Black children are significantly different from those of white children. Black children [in Black families] are taught, from an early age, highly sophisticated coping techniques to deal with racist practices perpetrated by individuals and institutions.... Only a black family can transmit the emotional and sensitive subtleties of perception and reaction essential for a black child's survival in a racist society.... We fully recognize the phenomenon of transracial adoption as an expedient for white folk, not as an altruistic humane concern for black children. The supply of white children for adoption has all but vanished and adoption agencies, having always catered to middle class whites developed an answer to their desire for parenthood by motivating them to consider black children.
This is strong language, and white parents raising children of color could surely be forgiven for believing that they were being criticized in harsh terms.
Yet if that point seems obvious, this chapter lays out a counterargument. Social workers had good reason to believe that a statement like this one—and perhaps only a statement like this one—could keep black families together. It also reads: "We affirm the inviolable position of black children in black families where they belong." In 1972 black parents—single mothers, really—were losing their children in ways that were political. My contention here is that it was so self-evident to most observers that black or mixed-race children would be better off away from their unwed mothers and with white parents—for reasons of economic advantage, schools, housing, and the supposed "tangle of pathology" that the Moynihan Report and even President Johnson had identified as haunting the black family—that in order to get any traction in an uphill argument that supported black single mothers, the NABSW had to identify defects in white families. It was not enough for the NABSW to show that African American mothers were entitled—legally and morally—to raise their own children. Just as twenty years earlier the NAACP had successfully argued that black children were psychologically and educationally harmed by segregated schools—in Brown v. Board of Education—the NABSW had to show a psychological benefit to black children to being raised in their own communities.
Although we rarely remember it this way, one of the crucial battlegrounds of the civil rights movement (and the black freedom movement in general) in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was found in issues of single motherhood and reproduction. Sterilization—and laws mandating sterilization particularly of "unwed" black mothers, as well as taking black single mothers' children away—were tactics in the fight against rebellious black folk in the South. Southern white officials got a lot of traction for their opposition to the civil rights movement out of criticizing and even breaking up fatherless black families. In fact, as we will see, this is how the contemporary foster care system was born. The NABSW and other activist groups (including the Southern Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SNCC) fought to uphold the "legitimacy," as it were, of single mothers and their families and to defend them against the myriad attacks that began to rain down on their heads: threats of jail and sterilization, and efforts to take the children of single black mothers who sought public assistance but maintained an "unsuitable home" for their children—which could mean exposed wires, lack of groceries, and all the failures to which impoverished mothers renting substandard housing and making do on woefully inadequate income are subject—but it mostly meant allowing a lover to stay the night.
Groups like the NABSW, SNCC, and the National Welfare Rights Organization may not have always used the word "feminist" to describe their politics, but on the key issues of sexual autonomy, illegitimacy, and the role of the state in paying wages for motherhood so women could raise the next generation, they were very much engaged in a battle on the same terrain as self-described feminists. Yet if feminists were largely successful in the 1960s and 1970s in taking much of the sting out of "illegitimacy," the notion of a "broken home," and making divorce easier and less stigmatized, these victories had the most force with respect to white and middle-class women. The broad cultural resistance to feminism in the United States landed most forcefully on the fertile, sexualized bodies of women of color, expressed in the lexicon of the unsuitable home and materialized as taking mothers' children and threatening them with sterilization.
This chapter argues that much of our scholarship has missed the point and the force of the NABSW statement and its astute diagnosis of the state of national politics and black mothers' grief. Race, reproduction, and the politics of unwed mothers were the shoals on which the progress of the civil rights movement foundered. The failure of the feminism of the NABSW to carve out respect for the public citizenship of black and Latina women and their mothering provided opponents of both civil rights and feminism the tool to limit the gains of civil rights to the respectable and the middle class, ensuring that the guarantees of formal racial equality won by the movement did not change the race or gender of poverty. As we know now in hindsight, the politics of disgust for (always implicitly black, and by definition, unmarried) "welfare mothers" (who also bred crime, it bears remembering) became a crucial battleground for both the Democratic and Republican Parties nationally. It also, as we will see in chapter 3, became the grounding for the twin projects of neoliberalism, which were begun in this era of the 1970s: shrinking the state and defeating a vision of the state as a guarantor of equality.
But before we pursue that story, we need to look at other, countervailing forces that served at the same time to make black children adoptable and desirable—to see why so many thoughtful and well-informed people, white and black, were distressed by the NABSW statement. The civil rights movement unleashed powerful desires to build a "beloved community" in which black children had brighter futures than those promised by the Jim Crow South and ghettoes in the North (dreams symbolized memorably in the international media in the tears running down Jesse Jackson's face the night Barack Obama was elected president). At the same time, the extent to which out-of-wedlock births and "broken homes" were stigmatized—white and black, but especially black—gave rise to a climate in which many black professionals and church folk were deeply embarrassed by the apparent epidemic of single motherhood in black communities. Just as white suburban parents were horrified by their teen daughters' pregnancies and packed them off hastily to unwed mothers' homes, many black social workers sought to make the adoption system more available to black single mothers. That it was difficult to find placements for black and mixed-race children was an obstacle they sought to overcome, to make it possible for black women and girls to engage in the same strategies available to white girls who got "in trouble" to redeem and reform themselves and have respectable families. These efforts sometimes included placing black children with white families (especially mixed-race children). Above all, though, these efforts proceeded by trying to remove obstacles for black families to adopt. Some programs, like Adopt-a-Child in New York City, redefined what constituted an acceptable adoptive family—from age to income to neighborhood—and sought to show that it was possible to do adoptions differently.
It is hard to overstate how much the 1950s and 1960s in the United States were saturated with Freudian anxieties about gender in general and mothers in particular, on the one hand, and adoption as a symbol of the new, postwar, antieugenic American order of things, on the other. In 1955 Philip Wylie's A Generation of Vipers gave U.S. culture the term "momism" to describe a smothering, overprotective mothering that bred men who were weak willed, tied to the apron strings, sniveling cowards overwhelmed by an Oedipus complex. Mothers were powerful people indeed, and as Leontine Young explained in her influential Out of Wedlock (1954), girls and women who became pregnant out of wedlock were deeply disturbed people who "may seek to use the baby to fill neurotic purposes of their own, and unless protected the child may become no more for them than a pawn in their ... struggle." Harsh as this judgment was, it turned out to be only about white unmarried mathers; Young identified black single mothers as in even worse psychological condition, for theirs was not an individual pathology but was rather part of a "social pathology." As Young wrote, "where poverty is combined with any considerable degree of social disorganization such as may be found in some of the overcrowded slum areas of large cities ... the rate of illegitimacy is unquestionably higher. In these circumstances it becomes only one of a series of social ills." Lest there be any confusion about whether she was referring to African Americans in all but name, Young goes on to clarify by reference to the broadly antiblack attacks on Aid to Dependent Children (ADC): "Some of the attacks made upon ... Aid to Dependent Children have focused upon unmarried mothers belonging to these socially disorganized groups. Unfortunately the attacks have failed to take into account the ... fact that illegitimacy here is only one symptom of general social breakdown.... Any solution to the problem of illegitimacy here must begin with the basic social and economic evils which have caused this degree of group disintegration." Elsewhere, Young refers to a "cultural pattern" that "accepts as normal an out-of-wedlock pregnancy." In this context, the insistence by those who sought to place black and mixed-race babies in adoptions that black mothers with out-of-wedlock pregnancies were pathological and in need of adoption was also, in a way, an antiracist act, a kind of affirmation that African American communities were not "socially disorganized groups" facing "social breakdown" and "group disintegration."
Excerpted from Somebody's CHILDREN by LAURA BRIGGS Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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