Who Has the Rights to Black Children?

December 07, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- At first it sounds like a scene out of the Old South or the Old South Africa. People are assigned at birth to one racial community or another. Those called black are doomed to wait endlessly until an opening comes up in their separate world while places among the whites go wanting.

But this time we are not talking about schools or jobs or seats on a bus. We are talking about another valuable resource: families. We are talking about black or mixed-race children who need parents and white adults who want to adopt them.

What keeps many children and parents apart is not the old-fangled segregation created by whites who oppose racial mixing. It's the new-fangled segregation now supported by a small but powerful group of black Americans who support ''racial matching.''

The concept of ''matching'' parents and children came from the days when adoption carried a stigma and was often kept a secret. Parents wanted children who looked as much like them )) as possible -- red-headed or blond, Italian or English.

In the early 20th century, legal adoption occurred largely in the white world and trans-racial adoption was as rare as an integrationist at a Dixiecrat convention. It wasn't until the civil-rights movement in the '50s and '60s that white parents began adopting children of color.

But suddenly in 1972, the old policy of matching found a new source of support. The National Association of Black Social Workers began to call trans-racial adoption a ''particular form of genocide.'' Since then, it has said ''Black children should not be placed with white parents under any circumstances.'' Indeed, they and a few others have argued that it's better for black children to be in foster care or institutions than with white parents.

Well, be careful what you wish for.

Today about 40 percent of the half-million children in foster care are black. Out of 22,000 babies abandoned in hospitals, 74 percent are black. Tens of thousands of these children are waiting for adoption and the median length of time they wait is nearly three years.

The black community has made efforts that are nothing short of heroic to care for the children and the grandchildren who lose parents to drugs, AIDS and the side effects of poverty.

But black Americans are only 12.5 percent of the population. The numbers simply don't ''match.''

So this year, in some belated recognition that the matching that matters most in a child's life is with a family, Ohio's Sen. Howard Metzenbaum sponsored the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act. It was designed to eliminate the racial and ethnic bias that can keep children in a foster-care limbo.

But a funny thing happened to this bill on the way through a Senate committee. It ran into the opponents of trans-racial adoption.

The original bill said agencies should not delay placement of children in order to match them. The compromise version of the bill says they shouldn't ''unduly'' delay placement.

The original bill said a trans-racial placement is better than long-term foster care. The compromise says that adoption ''may be'' (or, implicitly, may not be) a preferable alternative.

What difference a few words make. A move that promised change instead authorizes and legitimizes the very racial matching that would keep foster children in place.

It's not hard to understand the visceral reaction of some African-Americans to trans-racial adoption.

Some hear echoes of slave days when black children were bought and sold by white families.

Others share anger about policies that help break up black families and now would award the offspring to white folks.

Still others genuinely worry about a black child's struggle for identity in a trans-racial family in a still racist world.

All things being equal, given two sets of available parents, one white, one black, I would agree to place children with parents of the same race. But all things are not always equal.

Randall Kennedy, an African-American and Harvard law professor, argues against the notion that black children ''belong'' to the black community and are ''lost'' when adopted by whites. He calls this thinking an example of both ''naked racialism'' and ''the impulse to view children as property.''

There is something equally sorry in the idea that we would allow children to languish in foster homes for months or years in order to protect and respect racial identity. Harming black children to ''save'' the black community is like destroying a village to save it.

If children belong anywhere, they belong in a family. If children need a sense of identity, they get it first of all and best of all as a son or a daughter.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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