Should Race Figure in Adoptions? at Stake Can Be a Child's Cultural Identity, Esteem

Article excerpt

IN THE NEW FILM "Losing Isaiah," a black lawyer representing a black mother who has abandoned her infant son argues in court that the child should be taken from his white adoptive parents and returned to his birth mother, a former crack addict, because "black babies belong with black mothers."

He asks the adoptive mother, played by Jessica Lange, whether any bedtime stories she reads to her son, Isaiah, have black characters.

When she says the books contain characters of all colors, the lawyer retorts: "So who is this child to identify with? The yellow Muppet?"

There are no simple answers to his question, in the film or in the real-life dramas it is based on. Experts in child psychology and racial identity differ widely on whether black children are harmed by being adopted by white families.

Even the children in these so-called transracial adoptions don't agree on the issue.

Some emerging psychological evidence suggests that such children often experience a kind of racial neutering in which they feel no sense of belonging to any racial group. But one of the most extensive long-term studies found nothing to support fears that black children who are adopted by whites become racially confused.

"We categorically have not found that white parents can't prepare black kids culturally," said Howard Altstein, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland. Since 1972, Altstein and Rita James Simon, a professor of sociology at American University, have followed 204 families in which white parents adopted black children.

A book on the research, "The Case for Transracial Adoption," was published last year by American University Press.

"Sure, there are bumps along the way, but the transracial adoptees in our study are not angry, racially confused people," Altstein said. "They're happy and content adults."

But some adoptees who seem well-adjusted and productive feel racially incomplete and struggle to find a nexus to make them whole, said Robert T. Carter, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College of Columbia University, who is conducting research on transracial and biracial identity development.

He said he was finding, in interviews, that many adoptees still wrestle in their 20s and 30s with prejudice and other race-related experiences that many other blacks began dealing with in their adolescence and teens.

"Racial identity involves one's psychological interpretation of the meaning of his or her race and the race of others," said Carter, who has not reviewed the Altstein-Simon study. "We found that many transracial adoptees are psychologically marginal in that they don't have an identity that is grounded in the experience, values or perceptions of a particular group. They grow up denying they are a member of any particular racial group, and there is a consequence."

Racial ambivalence can occur even when white parents expose black children to their history and heritage, Carter said.

Since the 1960s and the beginnings of the civil rights movement, adoption of blacks by whites has aroused bitter debate, from the streets of Harlem to the halls of Congress.

The National Association of Black Social Workers once said such adoptions were akin to "cultural genocide."

On one side are those - including the black social workers' association - that argue that black children should not be adopted by whites unless attempts to place them with black families fail.

On the other are those who say a family's ability to provide a good home should take precedence over its race.

Somewhere in between are those who feel that any home is better than no home, a view supported by extensive evidence suggesting that delays in finding permanent homes for children who are in foster homes or orphanages can cause psychological harm and limit their chances to adapt fully in society. …