american desire

Transracial adoption first became a controversial issue in the early 1970s. A heated public debate occurred about the transmission of Afri­can American cultural identity to Black children adopted into White middle-class families. The central question in these debates was whether or not White parents were capable of teaching their children African American culture and history, and inculcating them with the skills necessary for Blacks to survive in the racially unequal United States. Con­cerns over the transmission of identity have shaped public opinion and social policies regarding racial matching between children and parents since the 1970s. Transracial adoption became a contentious public issue after the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) released a position paper in 1972 stating their opposition to the practice, citing their concerns about racial identity and survival skills as the basis of their objections (NABSW 1972).

The Black social workers’ critique of the ways Black children were treated in the child welfare system was a contestation of state-sanctioned regulations determining which families African American children would become part of, and thus be socialized by. Their protests against transra­cial adoption were largely motivated by a concern for the futures of African American children and a desire to strengthen Black families, and were often politically grounded in Black nationalism. Policy changes re­flecting these concerns gradually occurred at the state, county, and agency levels. While standards varied in different regions, in most areas of the country adoption agencies became committed to the goal of racial matching whenever possible. Many states drew up regulations governing how long agencies could spend searching for same-race placements.


Transracial adoption receded from public debate later in the 1970s, and received very little media attention until the early 1990s when it once again became the subject of fierce public discussion. While argu­ments against this practice continued to focus on racial identity, the political context of the 1990s had changed. Whereas in the earlier debate attention was focused on the importance of racial matching between children and parents, in the current political climate the debate has led to new federal policies promoting “color-blind” adoptions by prohibiting the consideration of race in the adoptive placement of a child. The public discourse concerning this issue goes beyond the specificity of transracial adoptees’ lives. Indeed, this policy dialogue has implications for political struggles over teenage pregnancy, “ille­gitimacy,” and welfare reform.


While the current public dialogue is explicitly concerned with issues of race, the linkage of transracial adoption with welfare reform, tax credits to adoptive parents, and the termination of (birth) parental rights reveals a more implicit agenda focusing on women. In fact, the 1996 law was explicitly designed to combat “illegitimacy” among wel­fare recipients. In a political context dominated by proponents of tra­ditional “family values” as the solution to the supposed “breakdown of the family,” celebrations of adoption as a panacea to the “epidemic of illegitimacy” among “underclass” women and the misfortune of infertility among primarily middle-class heterosexual couples must be viewed critically. This political dialogue sounds disturbingly similar to early-twentieth-century eugenic prescriptions for strengthening the White race by limiting the reproductive capacities of “undesirables”— namely, Black women, immigrant women, “imbeciles,” and “im­moral” women. In the shifting political alliances and commitments of the 1990s and beyond, adoption has become a curious battleground on which the social meanings of race and identity, gender and family, work and poverty, culture and nation are being constructed, contested, and enforced.

—  Sandra Patton, Birthmarks: Transracial Adoption in Contemporary America (2000).
I don’t have a burning desire to go out and document anything. It just happens when it happens. It’s not a conscious effort, nor is it a struggle. Wouldn’t do it if it was. The idea of the suffering artist has never appealed to me. Being here is suffering enough.