Is adopting an African child too culturally complicated?

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.

7 thoughts on “Is adopting an African child too culturally complicated?

  1. is this person serious? Ethiopians are no way like white people. blacks are very diverse. they come in all colors, and physical features.

  2. Ethiopians are Caucasians same as whiter people are; they are just darker skinned because of where they live. They are not Negroid. Their features, etc. prove this.

  3. Ethiopians are Caucasians same as whiter people are; they are just darker skinned because of where they live. They are not Negroid. There features,etc. prove this.

  4. I live in Kenya and in our apartment compound there are a few sets of European parents who are waiting to take their recently adopted Kenyan children home. As Levitt mentioned, adoption in Kenya seems complicated. These prospective parents have to stay in the country for nine months while the children get to know them and while paperwork is processed.

    When I hear the small Kenyan children staying in my apartment building speaking Italian or German, I can’t help but wonder what their lives will be like as teenagers and adults in Europe. I wonder how they will remember and think about their country of origin. Perhaps growing up African with white parents is easier in Europe (and in Canada as well) because there is not the strongly unified and defined black culture that exists in the States. On the other hand, these children may have a harder time feeling Italian or German, whereas immigrants and adopted kids in North America can easily claim the national culture as their own.

  5. That’s a reasonable point, although one might take the opposite view: that this is a rare instance where a people with a desire for self-determination are permitted a peaceful and legal referendum to decide the matter.

    In any case, I’m not sure that language and race politics are quite the same thing here. I can’t imagine anyone would object to an Anglo family adopting a French child.

  6. Also, as much as you’d like to see Canada as “a nation of greater diversity but far less racial politics and culture”, its hard to do with given the secessionist movements of Canada. Nothing like that is present here in the United States.

  7. I think when Steven Levitt mentionned the racial politics and the identity problems, it was about adopting Black American children specifically.

    Somehow I think the coming of age period would be smoother with an african child since those could embrace an indentity (ethiopian, uganda) that doesn’t collide with having white parents as much as being Black American.