Why Doesn't White Adopt Black?

By David Nicholson
Sunday, December 24, 2006

Whenever I see a white couple with an Asian or Hispanic child, I can't help wondering whether adoption -- like the personal ads -- is one of the last areas of American life where naked expressions of racial preference are acceptable.

I know that sentiment seems ungenerous. Most of the children I see would have grown up in dire circumstances if they hadn't been adopted, and many will find me mean-spirited for gainsaying any child a chance at a happy and successful life.

All the same, I can't understand why so many white American couples go overseas to adopt, ignoring the plight of black children in the United States, such as the hundreds in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia awaiting adoption.

One person at a state agency I talked to said one word -- "Madonna" -- when I asked why more people don't adopt black children in the United States.

The well-publicized examples of Madonna and Angelina Jolie to the contrary, however, fewer children are adopted from African countries than, say, from China or Russia. Of the 27,000 children Americans adopted from overseas in fiscal 2005, only 441 came from Ethiopia, the African country with the largest number of international adoptions. Nearly 8,000 came from Russia and more than 4,500 from China, according to the National Council for Adoption.

I know, of course, that it can be difficult to adopt through local agencies. My wife and I had been licensed foster parents for nearly four years, but we still had to start at the beginning when we applied to adopt through the District's Child and Family Services agency. It's been a year. We're still waiting.

Then, too, many couples want newborns or infants, the children most in demand. Older children are often part of sibling groups that can't be broken up, or they have physical or emotional problems that can try the most committed parents.

And even if prospective parents can deal with these issues, birth parents can decide at the last minute not to terminate their parental rights, meaning adoptive parents can't be certain they'll get the child they want to include in their families.

Still, I can't help thinking there's something else going on when whites go overseas, and I suspect that something is race. Why else would the Latin American doctor displaying a newborn in the video that a friend described to me assure the prospective American parents that the child was "very white"?

As with most matters concerning race, it's hard to get people to talk about these things. But when I've discussed transracial adoption with white acquaintances, their explanations reveal the persistence of the racial chasm.

One woman who adopted a Chinese infant told me she and her husband had "thought about adopting a black boy, but we weren't sure if we could deal with it when he became a teenager."

Then there was the woman who told me how much she admired my wife and me for taking in my 14-year-old godson. As for herself, she said, "I'd rather pay later for the criminal justice and social work systems than pay personally now."

I didn't know how to respond. What can you say to people who think the truculent misbehavior of rap "heroes" such as 50 Cent or Snoop Dogg is part of a child's genetic inheritance, like the shape of his nose or his skin color?

Another acquaintance said in an e-mail conversation that he didn't think it "necessarily racist for a pair of white adoptive parents to say to themselves, 'It's hard enough just raising a kid, I don't feel prepared to take on at the same time, in my own kitchen, American original sin and the tangled issue of racial identity.' . . . I don't think you can expect most, or even many, to show that level of personal commitment."

I understand what he meant. It is hard, of course, raising any child. And black children might pose a special problem for white families, especially with attitudes from quarters such as the National Association of Black Social Workers, which, despite federal law barring consideration of race in adoption, still thinks black adoptees should go only to black families.

All the same, I can't help wondering how much racism -- in the form of an inability to see blacks as human in the same way they see themselves -- is at the heart of white couples' decision to adopt overseas.

It may not be the dictionary definition of racism, but it's one more piece of evidence of how, years after the civil rights movement, blacks and whites have failed to engage on that deeply human level that would allow more whites to say, "Yes, I'll take this child into my kitchen. And my heart."

David Nicholson is a Washington writer. His e-mail address isdnicholson6@excite.com.


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