Symbolic Interactionism, African American Families, and the Transracial Adoption Controversy

Article excerpt

A number of African Americans, including members of the National Association of Black Social Workers (1972, cited in McRoy, 1989, and Simon & Alstein, 1977) have taken a position of opposition to transracial adoption or, recently, of acceptance of it only as a last resort. This position has been confusing to many non-African Americans, particularly those who support transracial adoption. This article presents a theory-based explanation for the opposing position.

It has become common in the study of families to recognize and value the diversity of families and family forms. In their comprehensive review of family theories and methods, Doherty, Boss, LaRossa, Schumm, and Steinmetz (1994) discussed the effect of ethnic minority group perspectives. They pointed out that scholars of various ethnic groups and others "[call] for a revised paradigm of family science that recognizes, studies, and even celebrates the diversity of family experience, especially those of marginalized and oppressed groups" (p. 15). In embracing a postpositivist philosophy of science, these authors "also insist on the inevitable intermingling of scholars' personal and cultural values in their work" (p. 15). Within this context, a renewed interest in symbolic interactionism and phenomenology is noted, which Doherty et al. saw as coinciding with a postmodern cultural emphasis on that which is written or spoken (p. 16). The purpose of this article is therefore threefold: (1) to use that which has been written and spoken to support the reality of African American families as a distinct cultural group, (2) to use symbolic interactionism in conceptualizing an association between African American culture and the socialization of African American children, and (3) to explain opposition to transracial adoption within this framework.

Historical Background

Transracial adoption is the legal adoption of children of one race or ethnic group by a family of a different race or ethnic group. In the United States transracial adoption almost without exception has involved the adoption by white parents of children of racial or ethnic minority groups from the United States or other countries. In cases in which African American children were involved, the practice began to increase during the 1950s (Simon & Alstein, 1977), precipitated by a decrease in healthy white infants available for adoption and an increase in white parents desiring to adopt (McRoy, 1989). Between 1967 and 1972 approximately 10,000 African American children were transracially adopted, with about 2,500 placements occurring in 1971 (McRoy, 1989). Advocacy groups were established to promote and facilitate transracial adoptions (Simon & Alstein, 1992). Standards-setting groups, such as the Child Welfare League of America (1968), reversed their race- and religion-matching standards, and adoption research began to be directed at examining the motivation for transracial adoption (Hollingsworth, 1998).

In November 1972 the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) (cited in McRoy, 1989, and Simon & Alstein, 1977) passed a resolution opposing the transracial adoption of African American children. The resolution read in part:

Black children should be placed only with Black families, whether in foster care or adoption. Black children belong physically, and psychologically and culturally in black families in order that they receive the total sense of themselves and develop a sound projection of their future. Human beings are products of their environment and develop their sense of values, attitudes, and self-concepts within their own family structure. Black children in white homes are cut off from the healthy development of themselves as black people (cited in Simon & Alstein, 1977, p. 50).

Although the wording of the actual resolution became a source of controversy, much of the controversy was about some of the supporting language:

Our position is based on:

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