MAXWELL:  In adoption, look beyond skin color

4/16/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Do white people or those of a different ethnic group have the ability to rear socially, culturally and psychologically healthy black children? Even more, do they deserve the right to try? These are among the questions that Lou Ann and Scott Mullen are pondering.

The Mullens, of Lexington, Texas, are suing in state court for the right to adopt brothers Matthew, 2, and Joseph, 6. The boys are black. Scott Mullen is white, and his wife is an American Indian. The couple, serving as foster parents, brought Matthew home in 1992, nine days after he was born to a crack-addicted mother who could not care for him.

A month after having nurtured the boy as their own, the Mullens asked their social worker if they could adopt Matthew, along with his older brother. Lou Ann Mullen was shocked by the social worker’s response. “I was told, “Don’t even think about it,’ ” she said in a New York Times article. ” “He’s a baby; he’s black; he’s going into a black home.’ ”

Although it jolted the Mullens, the social worker’s response is grounded in generations of public opposition, both black and white, to cross-racial adoptions in the United States. The fiercest opposition comes from the National Association of Black Social Workers, which, as far back as 1972, declared the adoption of black children by white parents “cultural genocide.”

They claim that such adoptions destroy the racial and cultural identity of black children. That declaration shaped federal transracial adoption laws until recently, when the U.S. House, as part of its overhaul of the nation’s welfare system, approved a provision disallowing agencies receiving federal dollars to deny or delay the adoption or the placement of a child in a foster home based solely on the race, color or national origin of the child or potential parents.

This debate, driven mostly by ideology and race, is unfortunate because the 40,000 black children _ 40 percent of the children nationwide on the waiting list _ needing to be adopted are the big losers in this adult mess. According to the New York Times, 43 states have laws that ask agencies to permit same-race adoptions only.

No matter what they say, members of the National Association of Black Social Workers are a major part of the problem, and they are wrong if their actions cause one black child to remain in an unfit foster home when a caring white family is ready to adopt. The importance of their work must not be discounted, but they seem to rely too heavily on emotion and anecdotal evidence. And until now, lawmakers and adoption agencies have been too quick to make rules based on pronouncements from the black social workers.

“These policies are seriously harmful to black children, requiring that black kids who could get good homes be left in foster care,” Harvard University professor Elizabeth Bartholet told the New York Times. “There is not an iota of evidence in all the empirical studies that transracial adoption does any harm at all, compared to same-race adoption. There is plenty of evidence that delay in adoption does harm.”

The bottom line is simple: A loving white family is far better for the child than merely matching skin colors and cultural backgrounds. Indeed, as the Mullens believe, love should have no boundaries.

Last fall, when Sens. Howard Metzenbaum and Carol Moseley-Braun first introduced the Multiethnic Placement Act, Harvard law school professor and former solicitor general Charles Fried spoke on behalf of white couples like the Mullens: “What kind of cultural, racial or identity needs does a black baby have? 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.”

Much of what Fried says is fine, but he would be naive to ignore the significance of race in America. Racially blended families do face problems _ some of them daunting. Some researchers argue, for example, that black children adopted by whites frequently experience “racial neutering,” a sense of feeling neither black nor white.

Here, white parents must respect black culture and all of its nuances. They must try to understand the physiological traits of the children. Other evidence suggests that such adoptees often grow into adulthood before learning to cope with situations their traditionally reared peers learned to handle as children.

Even so, whites such as the Mullens, who understand the significance of race, who have been taught to deal with the realities of cross-racial adoption and who are motivated by love, seem to be able to rear well-adjusted black children.

Do not forget that the Mullens are not tyros in this experience; they have had a racially blended family for many years. Along with their 11-year-old biological daughter, they have an 8-year-old daughter they adopted through a private agency. The girl is half white and half black. And they have two foster children, a 9-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl. Both children are black. Since 1987, moreover, court records show that the Mullens, who are apparently colorblind, have successfully provided foster care for 14 other black children.

With their exemplary record of providing a loving home to black children, why are the Mullens being forced into court to adopt Matthew and Joseph? Where is the logic? The common sense?

Are love and caring ever enough to overcome the irrationality of race in America?

And who is suffering the most in this adult-created madness? The children _ especially the thousands of black youngsters who cannot find nurturing homes. Ultimately, everyone concerned should ask: Who decides the quality and the color of love?

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