Randall Kennedy, “Orphans of Separatism: The Painful Politics of Transracial Adoption,” 1994

Racial matching reinforces racialism. It strengthens the baleful notion that race is destiny. It buttresses the notion that people of different racial backgrounds really are different in some moral, unbridgeable, permanent sense. It affirms the notion that race should be a cage to which people are assigned at birth and from which people should not be allowed to wander. It belies the belief that love and understanding are boundaries and instead instructs us that our affections are and should be bounded by the color line regardless of our efforts. . . .

There is no rationale sufficiently compelling to justify preferring same-race child placements over transracial placements. One asserted reason for favoring same-race placements (at least in terms of black children) is that African-American parents can, on average, better equip African-American children with what they will need to know in order to survive and prosper in a society that remains, in significant degree, a pigmentocracy. This rationale is doubly faulty.

First, it rests upon a racial generalization, a racial stereotype, regarding the relative abilities of white and black adults in terms of raising African-American children. Typically (and the exception does not apply here), our legal system rightly prohibits authorities from making decisions on the basis of racial generalizations, even if the generalizations are accurate. Our legal system demands that people be given individualized consideration to reflect and effectuate our desire to accord to each person respect as a unique and special individual. Thus, if an employer used whiteness as a criteria to prefer white candidates for a job on the grounds that, on average, white people have more access to education than black people, the employer would be in violation of an array of state and federal laws—even if the generalization used by the employer is accurate. We demand as a society a more exacting process, one more attentive to the surprising possibilities of individuals than the settled patterns of racial groups. Thus, even if one believes that, on average, black adults are better able than white adults to raise black children effectively, it would still be problematic to disadvantage white adults, on the basis of their race, in the selection process.

Second, there is no evidence that black foster or adoptive parents, on average, do better than white foster or adoptive parents in raising black children. The empirical basis for this claim is suspect; there are no serious, controlled, systematic studies that support it. Nor is this claim self-evidently persuasive. Those who confidently assert this claim rely on the hunch, accepted by many, that black adults, as victims of racial oppression, will generally know more than others about how best to instruct black youngsters on overcoming racial bias. A counter-hunch, however, with just as much plausibility, is that white adults, as insiders to the dominant racial group in America, will know more than racial minorities about the inner world of whites and how best to maneuver with and around them in order to advance one’s interests in a white-dominated society.

To substantiate the claim that black adults will on average be better than white adults in terms of raising black children, one must stipulate a baseline conception of what constitutes correct parenting for a black child—otherwise, one will have no basis for judging who is doing better than whom. . . .

Is an appropriate sense of blackness evidenced by celebrating Kwanza, listening to rap, and seeking admission to Morehouse College? What about celebrating Christmas, listening to Mahalia Jackson, and seeking admission to Harvard? And what about believing in atheism, listening to Mozart, and seeking admission to Bard? Are any of these traits more or less appropriately black? And who should do the grading on what constitutes racial appropriateness? Louis Farrakhan? Jesse Jackson? Clarence Thomas? . . .

What parentless children need are not “white,” “black,” “yellow,” “brown,” or “red” parents but loving parents.

Yet another reason advanced in favor of moderate racial matching is that it may serve to save a child from placement in a transracial family setting in which the child will be made to feel uncomfortable by a disapproving surrounding community. It would be a regrettable concession, however, to allow bigotry to shape our law. One of the asserted justifications of segregation was that it protected blacks from the wrath of those whites who would strongly object to transracial public schooling and transracial accommodations in hotels and restaurants. When the New York Times editorializes today that “clearly, matching adoptive parents with children of the same race is a good idea,” we should recall that not very long ago it was believed in some parts of this nation that “clearly” it was a good idea to match people of the same race in separate but equal parks, hospitals, prisons, cemeteries, telephone booths, train cars, and practically every other place one can imagine—all for the asserted purpose of accommodating the underlying racial sentiments of those who opposed “racial mixing.”


Source: Randall Kennedy, “Orphans of Separatism: The Painful Politics of Transracial Adoption,” American Prospect, no. 17 (Spring 1994):40-42.

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To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
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