MAXWELL:  Adoption and race

10/16 /1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Most average black people thought that the character Webster of the 1980s’ television show of the same name was funny and adorable. These same black audiences also enjoyed the characters Arnold and Willis of the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes. The premises of these shows were similar: In Webster, a well-to-do white couple assumed custody of a black child after his parents were killed in a car wreck. In Diff’rent Strokes, a wealthy white widower adopted two brothers orphaned by the death of his black housekeeper.

The shows were exemplary models of compassion. And although the mixing of the races _ transracial adoptions _ was the sitcoms’ raison d’etre, all episodes avoided the ugly clashes of culture and race that occur in real life. Granted, the authority figures were white, but the plots unfolded in a benign, color-blind universe of parental love, wisdom and gentle discipline.

Who would object to such triumphs of love over skin color? A lot of people would, a lot do _ and they’re not all white, either.

In fact, the fiercest opponent of interracial adoptions is the National Association for Black Social Workers. As far back as 1972, this group defined the adoption of African-American children by white parents as “cultural genocide,” arguing that the practice destroys the racial identity of black children. That pronouncement has had a powerful influence on the nation’s transracial adoption laws and has framed the debate at all levels.

Only last week did the U.S. Congress change a national policy that let agencies receiving federal funds use the race of prospective parents as the sole factor in deciding who could adopt in these cases. The new legislation, called the Multiethnic Placement Act, was initiated by Democratic Sens. Howard Metzenbaum and Carol Moseley-Braun. Originally, the senators wanted the “race” factor removed altogether from the transracial adoption procedures. Such a drastic move would have been a mistake. Recognizing that the United States isn’t the color-blind fantasy land of a sitcom, cooler heads decided to let agencies “consider” the cultural, ethnic and racial background along with “the capacity of prospective foster or adoptive parents to meet the needs of the child.” Race is now only “one of a number of factors used to determine the best interests of the child.”

Essentially, this is good legislation because it earnestly attempts to balance opposing schools of thought in order to best serve children. Again, on the one side, black social workers, who oppose all interracial adoptions on principle, want to protect the racial and cultural identity of black children. On the other side are advocates of the “love should have no boundaries” position. Race is insignificant to them.

An eloquent spokesman for the latter side is Charles Fried, a Harvard Law School professor and former solicitor general in the Reagan administration. “What kind of cultural, racial or identity needs does a black baby have?” he said during a press conference after the legislation was passed. “That baby needs to be loved and taken care of. If he lands in a home where he is loved and prospers, what difference does it make that his parents are white? They (the black social workers) are so gripped by nationalist ideology that they are willing to sacrifice black children, and that’s wrong.”

Some of what Charles Fried says is correct. But he and others are misguided if they believe that race is insignificant in how children are reared. Some of the black social workers’ cynicism is justified. In the United States, race matters. It matters a lot. Racially blended families face many serious problems.

But whites who understand the significance of race, and who are otherwise qualified, should be permitted to adopt black children.

Intentionally or not, the new law vindicates the black social workers to a large degree by removing many of the barriers that kept blacks from adopting. Of the nation’s 100,000 adoptable children depending on welfare agencies to find them qualified parents, 40,000 are black.

But just as the old policies punished whites who wanted to adopt black children, the same rules, by imposing middle-class standards, also prevented working-class black parents from adopting black children.

Responding during a press conference after the Multiethnic Placement Act was approved, Zena Oglesby, executive director of the Institute for Black Parenting, said: “Someone has convinced (Metzenbaum and Moseley-Braun) that there are thousands of black kids out there who are being kept from good white homesbecause of their race and that’s a lie. In fact, the more important story is that black families are screened out of the adoption process at far higher rates, and for more racist reasons, than white families are.”

Although the new adoption law, part of the comprehensive education bill, has many detractors on both sides of the debate, it benefits everyone involved. All agree, for example, that one of the law’s best features is its mandate that all states submit a plan for bringing substantially more minority families into the adoption pipeline. These plans must clearly show that the financial circumstances and cultural traits of would-be black adoptive parents have been seriously considered.

If this legislation gets more blacks approved as adoptive parents, the need for scenarios like those of Webster and Diff’rent Strokes will decrease. But the law also guarantees that these scenarios _ “where love should have no boundaries” _ are still possible and acceptable. Such unconditional acts of love deserve a chance, provided everything else is equal.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.


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