The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We can’t ignore race in the tragic story of Devonte Hart and his white adoptive mothers

About US is a new initiative by The Washington Post to cover issues of identity in the United States. Sign up for the newsletter.

When Devonte Hart’s emotional photo went viral in 2014, white America embraced it. The image of a black kid in a fedora, giving out “free hugs” to a white officer during a police brutality protest was viewed as a sign of hope and racial reconciliation. It was, as CNN put it, “the picture we needed.”

But like many black Americans, I was skeptical. As an adopted child-abuse survivor, I identified with the pain I saw on Devonte’s face and bristled at what seemed to be a staged act of virtue, a black boy forced by his white adoptive mothers to overcome his fears and offer comfort and hope to white people.

We tend to project our experiences and feelings onto strangers. But in this case, it appears my gut suspicion that Devonte’s tears were more about helplessness than hopefulness was right.

Authorities believe that Devonte’s body may have washed out to sea last month after one of his mothers intentionally plunged the family’s SUV off a 100-foot cliff in California, with his five siblings inside. Since then, a timeline of suspected abuse has emerged stretching back a decade. The children had complained to teachers and neighbors about being hit and deprived of food. One 12-year-old daughter looked about half her age. And in the days before the family disappeared, Devonte had repeatedly prodded neighbors to contact authorities for help. He showed up at their home three times one day to get food for his siblings, they said.

I’m the descendant of a founding father and I have two black daughters — and I am racist

But even as these details came out, some continued to defend Jennifer and Sarah Hart.

Friends of the couple took to social media with angelic stories about the mothers and criticized the “rush to judgment” that they were abusive. In a long tribute written on Facebook, one friend said the couple was “the example of marriage and parenting that I looked to and wanted to emulate.”

Even people who didn’t know the Harts offered endless benefit of the doubt — the driver had a heart attack, a seizure, accidentally hit the gas instead of the brake. And the years of abuse accusations? Children exaggerate, you know.

It seems that America cannot see or hear black children’s tears unless they are framed in the context of white redemption or white saviorism. In the 2014 photo, people looked past Devonte’s pain to see what they wanted to see, what they needed to believe: an image of racial unity, forgiveness and progress that isn’t happening in America. And now, many are struggling to see two white women, who “saved” a half-dozen black children from their hard beginnings, as anything other than virtuous.

Why can’t we fix our collective lips to say that the Harts were probably horrible parents and that any good they may have done for their children was canceled out by the heinous crime they’re suspected of committing? Is it because they were white? Is it because they were lesbians? Or women? Or liberal?

There’s a dominant narrative of white innocence that contributes to the perception of white parents who adopt black children as selfless do-gooders. Black children, meanwhile, are rarely viewed as innocent victims, and when they are, it’s normally to feed the narrative of black parents as pathological.

We’ve seen black mothers arrested for enrolling their kids in better schools or home-schooling them and charged with child abuse for having their kids wait unattended while they applied for jobs. And research shows that black children are overrepresented in the nation’s foster care system in part because of racial bias and discrimination that leads caseworkers and other reporters to judge black parents more harshly than white parents (though there is debate).

Please don’t tell me I was lucky to be adopted

Certainly, unchecked child abuse is endemic in this country, particularly in the adoption system, across races. My own experience shows that black adoptive parents can be abusive, too.

But we cannot separate the dynamics of the Hart family tragedy from the realities of racism in this country. For the Harts, it seems likely that their whiteness netted them multiple passes despite all the warning signs. When a 12-year-old girl who looked as if she was 7 showed up at Bruce DeKalb’s door with missing teeth, he simply thought, “that was a little weird.”

This isn’t to demonize transracial adoption but, rather, to point out the dangers of the notion that black children must be saved and that becoming a white adoptive parent is inherently a sign of kindness and benevolence. This narrative turns black children into symbols, evidence of progressiveness used to feed the illusion that this nation isn’t racist, and that love is the express route to equality and justice.

A 2014 Huffington Post blog post about Devonte and Jennifer Hart describes the then-12-year-old boy with sweeping stereotypes: born with “drugs pumping through his veins” before growing into a violent toddler who had handled guns, drank alcohol and smoked.

His future was bleak, the author writes, “until Jen Hart and her wife Sarah entered Devonte’s life.”

The image of white saviorism leads some to wear their transracial adoption as a status symbol, in a sense saying that “I’m above racism, because I adopted black children.”

Culture clash: Asian Americans balance Christianity and culture in rituals honoring their ancestors

Sarah Ryan, who is white and lives in Chicago with her 11-year-old adopted black daughter, said the Hart family’s story mirrored others she has heard in adoption Facebook groups, including from people who described “rescuing” children from Africa.

“The most frequent area where the white savior attitude raises its head is in regard to the challenges the adopted child has either emotionally or intellectually,” Ryan said. “Those challenges then ‘require’ super-parenting and demonstrate to the world how much they, the parent, are going through to help ‘fix’ their child. The tone is very condescending, and the child’s issues are then blamed on the birth parents’ low education, poverty, poor decision making.”

Kera Bolonik, a Brooklyn-based white adoptive mother of a 6-year-old black son, said she has heard some white people describe black adoptees as “lucky.”

“I hate this, it enrages me,” she said. “I wonder how often anyone says this about white children who are adopted by white parents.”

She called it a telltale sign of the white savior complex: “Those who feel that their child is lucky to be a member of their family, raised by them, first and foremost — that’s it right there.”

Of course, not all examples of white saviorism have tragic outcomes. The Harts’ story is an extreme example but an example, nonetheless, of yet another way our society treats black children as less deserving of protection.

While white saviorism plays a role in transracial adoption, we can’t ignore that these adoptions are a humanitarian necessity because of the imbalances produced by poverty and racism, and because certain barriers make it more difficult for black people to adopt. There are no easy answers and no shortcuts to solutions. But we must start by recognizing black children as fully human and believing that their lives matter. That’s the only way to truly to save them.

More from About US:

‘I’m not black’: When a child rejects his racial identity, is home schooling the answer?

These white Americans say they’re already having frank conversations about racism with African Americans

His grandfather was a slave. Now he’s a vocal champion for Confederate monuments.