Sheldon Reed and Esther B. Nordlie, “Genetic Counseling: For Children of Mixed Racial Ancestry,” 1961

Source: Courtesy of American Museum of Natural History Library

An exhibit comparing white and Negro fetuses from the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, 1921. The Eugenics Record Office was the hub of eugenics research before 1940.

We have had considerable experience at the Dight Institute in working with adoption agencies in the placement of children of mixed racial ancestry. Mrs. Esther Nordlie and I have just completed a follow-up of the results of the placement of such children and will summarize the results here, as this is the first study of its kind. It is probable that genetic counselors will be increasingly occupied with this topic as interracial unions are likely to continue in the United States. The casual unions often result in children who become available for adoption. . . .

The problem of placing “pure” Negro, Indian or Mexican children is difficult only because few families of these minority groups request children for adoption. Ordinarily, no attempt would be made to place these babies in Caucasian families as the child or the adoptive parents would probably find social adjustment too difficult. However, children of mixed racial origin may “pass for white” or resemble the Caucasian adoptive parents sufficiently so that placement in a white family is feasible. Such placement is desirable for the child as the socioeconomic environment is assumed to be more favorable there. This would be true only if the racial appearance of the child would permit acceptance in the white community. Many white couples are desperately anxious to adopt children. Some are sufficiently free from racial prejudices to be able to adopt children of mixed racial ancestry, if a reasonable “match” between child and adoptive parents can be made. The critical prediction rests with the geneticist (or anthropologist) who must project the appearance of a small baby ahead to the child of five or six when entering school. . . .

One would suppose that predicting the chances for a child to “pass for white” would be quite simple. Such, however, is not the case. The main difficulty is that these traits, when present in the racial hybrid, may not be apparent in an infant but develop over the years. Hair texture and skin color are the most important traits and at the same time the most difficult to predict. The baby may have no hair; it is well known that babies with considerable Negro ancestry may look quite light at birth and darken considerably during childhood. The geneticist is thus vulnerable to mistakes in his predictions as to the future appearance of the baby. One could take the attitude that unless the geneticist can make his prediction with certainty he should not enter the picture at all. Such reasoning is absurd. The baby is in the custody of the adoption agency and the agency must make some provision for this child.


Source: Sheldon C. Reed and Esther B. Nordlie, “Genetic Counseling: For Children of Mixed Racial Ancestry,” Eugenics Quarterly 8, no. 3 (September 1961):157-158.

Page Updated: 2-24-2012
Site designed by:

To learn more about The Adoption History Project, please contact Ellen Herman
Department of History, University of Oregon
Eugene, Oregon 97403-1288
(541) 346-3699
About the Project and the Author
© Ellen Herman