Chapter 4

Building Order: Culture and History

Micro-Macro Connection


Transracial Adoption

Loyalty and pride in one's culture are likely to be felt most powerfully in the face of a perceived threat to the integrity of the culture. Consider the issue of transracial adoption, the practice of adopting children from a different racial group.

Most transracial adoptions involve white parents and a minority childˇAfrican American, Hispanic, or Asian. Many transracial adoptions involve children from developing countries.

The assumption in transracial adoptions is that race and ethnic background are irrelevant and ought to be minimized or ignored in the interests of finding a loving home for the child. In addition, the child, who likely comes from a financially depressed and deprived background, will have better opportunities in a more "advantaged" environment. Advocates also argue that transracial adoption has the potential to transform a racially divided society into a racially integrated one.

Transracial adoption has had strong support in American society. In the late 1960s, when transracial adoptions started to become more common, adoption agencies strongly encouraged white families to adopt children from other races. Today, organizations like the National Committee for Adoption have formally stated that, because so many minority children are waiting for adoption, permanency rather than racial matching should be of paramount consideration.1 The Multi-Ethnic Placement Act of 1994 forbids federally funded agencies from considering race, culture, and ethnicity in their placement decisions, making it easier for couples to adopt children of a different racial background.

Transracial adoption has not been without its critics, however. In 1972 the National Association of Black Social Workers passed a resolution, still in effect today, against the adoption of black children by white parents.2 The group argued that transracial adoptions are harmful to black heritage and that to maintain the integrity of their culture, blacks must be loyal to its uniqueness.

They also pointed out that a black child growing up in a white family will never learn about his or her own culture and will therefore never develop a positive self-image. White parents can never provide a black child with sufficient information about what it is like to be black in a predominantly white society.

In the larger historical and political context, the fear that transracial adoption weakens racial identity and culture makes sense. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, nearly 30% of all Native American children were removed from their families and put up for adoption. Social workers had deemed thousands of parents unfit because of poverty, alcoholism, and other problems. So devastating to the Native American culture was the removal of these children that the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1978, giving tribes special preference in adopting children of Native American heritage.3

Recently, however, this law has come under attack. Cases have been reported in which tribes have contested the adoption by white parents of children who have only a minute trace of Indian ancestry. In the 1990s Congress considered an adoption bill that would limit a tribal court's jurisdiction in adoption proceedings involving children whose biological parents do not maintain "significant social, cultural or political affiliation with the tribe."4

For African Americans, the civil rights movement of the 1960s instilled an unprecedented pride in their racial identity. At a time when political power seemed to be within reach of African Americans, the possibility that some black children were being raised as white was difficult to tolerate. If it were true that black children adopted by white parents had difficulty identifying with the black culture, then they would be less likely to support black political issues. In this sense, the potential loss of cultural and racial identity could not be separated from broader political concerns.

The opposition to transracial adoption has been quite effective. From the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, when transracial adoption reached its peak, approximately 15,000 black children were adopted by white parents.5 In 1971, 1 out of every 3 black children who was adopted was placed with a white family.6 But by 1975 (the last year the government collected data on transracial adoption), adoptions of black children by white parents had disappeared almost completely.7 By 1987, 35 states had established policies against cross-racial adoption.

Have the fears of children losing their racial identities been borne out? Research on this issue has been somewhat mixed. Some studies have shown that a relatively low percentage of young black children adopted by white families have problems with racial identity.8 Several studies have found that preschool children involved in transracial adoptions are as well adjusted as children from same-race adoptions.9 Studies that have followed transracially adopted children from infancy until well beyond adolescence have found that, despite periodic racial name-calling at school and in other public situations, these individuals do not have problems identifying as black Americans, are well-adjusted for the most part, and show good to very good self-esteem.10

Beyond the level of individual adjustment, though, the broader problem of cultural heritage remains. White adoptive parents have been known to minimize or ignore the racial identity of their children, considering parenthood and family more important than race.11 In a study of 30 adolescent black children adopted by white parents, only 10 of them identified themselves as black; 6 said they were "mixed," and the rest tried to avoid a racial identity altogether by saying they were "human" or "American."12

Not only does the issue of transracial adoption provide an interesting example of cultural loyalty and protection, it also shows conflicting institutional functions. Transracial adoption is as much about cultural conceptions of what the family's role in society ought to be as it is about race. Traditionally, one of the important functions of the family has been to offer unqualified emotional support, nurturing, and protection to its members. But the family is also supposed to provide its members with cultural instruction and a sense of racial, ethnic, or religious identity.

The difficulty we face as a society is deciding which of these functions should take precedence. The difficulty we face as students of sociology is reconciling our human concern for individual children with our scientific concern for multiple points of view.

1Adamec, C., & Pierce, W. L. 1991. The encyclopedia of adoption. New York: Facts on File.

2Davis, F. J. 1991. Who is black? University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

3Egan, T. 1993. "A cultural gap may swallow a child." New York Times, October 12.

4Schmitt, E. 1996. "Adoption bill facing battle over a provision on Indians." New York Times, May 8, p. C18.

5Davis, F. J. 1991. Who is black? University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

6Ladner, J. 1978. Mixed families: Adopting across racial boundaries. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.

7Adamec, C., & Pierce, W. L. 1991. The encyclopedia of adoption. New York: Facts on File. See also Davis, F. J. 1991. Who is black? University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.

8See, for example, Feigelman, W., & Silverman, A. B. 1984. "The long-term effects of transracial adoption." Social Service Review, 58, 588-602.

9Shireman, J. F., & Johnson, P. R. 1986. "A longitudinal study of black adoptions: Single parent, transracial and traditional." Social Work, 31, 172-176. See also Zastrow, C. 1977. Outcome of black children-white parents transracial adoptions. San Francisco: R & E Research Associates.

10Simon, R., Alstein, H., & Melli, M. S. 1994. The case for transracial adoption. Washington, DC: The American University Press. See also Vroegh, K. S. 1997. "Transracial adoptees: Developmental status after 17 years." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 67, 568-575.

11Ladner, J. 1978. Mixed families: Adopting across racial boundaries. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.

12McRoy, R. G., & Zurcher, L. A. 1983. Transracial and inracial adoptees: The adolescent years. Springfield, IL: Charles Thomas.

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