Famed freakonomist Steven Levitt speaks from the heart, and experience, about the emotional and cultural complexities of adoption and race in America:
Q: What is your opinion on how international adoption affects the economy, race and class divisions, and the widening income gap within the U.S.? What do you think of the argument that children are “readily available for adoption” in the U.S., and, further, that adoption is marketed as a product with benefits?
A: I don’t think international adoption affects the economy in any meaningful way. We are talking about very small numbers of children being adopted from foreign countries into the U.S. each year –- perhaps 20,000 children total, compared to the 3 million children born each year in the U.S. Adoption does, however, profoundly affect those families that adopt. My life has been completely changed because of the two daughters I adopted from China.
You’re right that some people in the U.S. really don’t like foreign adoption. Some have argued that it is a form of subtle racism, in that parents like me will go to China to adopt, but won’t adopt a black child here in the U.S. This is a complex issue – far too complex for me to discuss in all its richness here. But let me at least explain some of the thinking underlying my own decision to adopt from abroad. The first factor was that our son Andrew had just died. We were not emotionally prepared to navigate the U.S. adoption scene, which is full of uncertainty for adoptive parents for two reasons: 1) the relative scarcity of healthy but unwanted babies being put up for adoption since the legalization of abortion; and 2) the emphasis on birth parent rights.
We did give some serious thought to adopting either a black child domestically, or adopting from Africa. It turns out that African adoption is extremely complicated, as Madonna found out the hard way. Ultimately, my own view was that the identity issues faced by a black child raised by white parents would be too difficult. Some of my academic research with Roland Fryer has made clear to me the stark choices that black teens, especially boys, have to make about “who they are.” As a parent, I was not willing to take the chance on loving and raising an adopted child, only to know that when he became a teenager he would have to face the choice of being “black” or “white,” and that either choice would be very costly for him (and also for me). That same sort of racial “all or nothing” choice is not at play for Asian youths in our society.
I am sympathetic to Levitt’s concerns about a black child’s social identity, but perpetuating these divides does not seem to me to be the path to post-racial politics. Or at least less racial politics.
Today I talked with friends who recently adopted two young siblings from Ethiopia. This debate, in their view, presumes that race and phenotypes override one’s ability to think, care and love. It also assumes that adoptive parents and families would live in a mono-racist network, rather than the children having friends from all over the world, or among mixed race couples and families.
Jeannie and I think a lot about adoption in future, and adopting from Africa seems a natural choice, if only because of our personal and professional ties. Race relations twenty years hence doesn’t really enter into the equation. Perhaps it should, but all in all, I feel uncomfortable accommodating a national racial divide that I would like to see overcome.
One does not have to travel very far outside the U.S. to see a less racial set of social identities. Simply look within 100 miles of the northern border, where almost 90 percent of my fellow Canadians live, to see a nation of greater diversity but far less racial politics and culture.
Speaking of post-racial politics, I won’t tell you where my vote is going, but I’ll give you a hint. It begins with a “B” and ends with “arack Obama”.
That is, if I could vote.