A Cynical if Comprehensible Take on Adoption and Race

If you have been following contemporary politics, President Trump’s prospective nominee for the Supreme Court, Amy Coney Barrett, has been the subject of vigorous debate, notably in the last week.  

Barrett is a mother of seven children, whose ages span 8 and 18 years, five of which are biological, the youngest having Down Syndrome. Two of the Barrett children were adopted from Haiti as infants. Laying aside the question of whether or not Republicans should confirm a Supreme Court Justice prior to a Presidential election, Amy Barrett’s personal story would seem far from controversial.  

Alas, it is 2020. 

Ibram X. Kendi, a professor at Boston University and author of the best-selling book How to be An Anti-Racist composed a Tweet thread (which you can read here) claiming that a white family’s interracial adoption did not prove they weren’t racist. Kendi noted that whites in the unspecified past adopted black children for purposes of colonization, “civilizing” those whom they believed were “savages.” Granted, there were cases where this was true, particularly among European and North American whites in the 17th through the 19th centuries. Furthermore, some adoptions were essentially kidnappings—the “spoils” of war. Needless to say, the Barrett family adoptions were not of this nature. 

Overt racism against people of color did coexist with a kind of supposedly benevolent paternalism, particularly in the 19th century. Of course, it could be argued that modern philanthropists achieve colonialist goals by economic means. The Bill Gates Foundation, for example, is invested heavily in Africa.

In his History of the Peloponnesian War, the ancient Greek historian Thucycides (460-400 B.C.) recorded a funeral speech by the general and statesman Pericles in which the leader praised the conquests of Athenian soldiers, reminding his audience that even their benevolence was a manifestation of power. He says,

In generosity we are equally singular, acquiring our friends by conferring, not receiving, favors. Yet, of course, the doer of the favor is the firmer friend of the two, in order by continued kindness to keep the recipient in his debt; while the debtor feels less keenly from the very consciousness that the return he makes will be a payment, not a free gift. Bk. II, chp. 6

Pericles’ calculated conferment of benefits on weaker nations was evidence of Athens’ strength. Of course, this remarkable speech attempted to defend Greece’s militarism, not provide an ethical framework. In fact, Athens’ subjugated peoples, who remained loyal under compulsion, broke free when the opportunity arose. Additionally, Athens lost the war. It seems improbable that Thucydides would expect his readers to sympathize with Pericles’ subsuming morality under Greek nationalism. 

It’s hard to imagine Amy and Jesse Barrett explaining their motivation for adoption in colonialist terms. Yet Ibram Kendi’s criticism is rooted in something much deeper than ethnicity. Location of power in various relationships is his chief concern. Understandably, problems arise with the very idea of adoption, for it is an inescapably unequal arrangement. An adopted child is vulnerable and in some cases, helpless. He or she is received into a family that ideally provides sufficient nurturing and care, conditions for whatever reasons—abandonment, abuse, death of parents etc.—made a natural arrangement impossible. 

In a different Tweet, Dr. Kendi criticizes what he perceives as the “white savior idea,” in which people of color are “rescued” or “saved” by persons of European ancestry. In fact, a majority of Christians in the world today aren’t white. Persons of European ancestry comprised a small minority during the church’s first five centuries. Jesus himself was a brown man from Palestine. If a white savior complex exists, it’s scope is comparatively small…and shrinking fast. 

It is unclear what Ibram Kendi would prefer concerning interracial adoptions. In the U.S., a majority of adoptions are arranged between families and children of a similar race, but a large portion orphans across the world are brown and black. Unsurprisingly, only upper or middle class families can afford to adopt internationally. Without denying that benevolent actions can have ulterior motivations, undermining interracial adoption on suspicion of racism withholds good from those who need it most. 

At this juncture we find the crux of an ongoing intellectual debate over the nature of racism. Kendi’s articulations and defense of systemic racism renders the question of Amy Coney Barrett’s individual, conscious, intentional racism irrelevant. For persons who share his perspective on this issue, interracial adoption is just another manifestation of racism. To probe into causes is fruitless, for racism as Kendi understands is embedded in American culture to such an extent that no rational or moral person could deny it.        

In a recent article from The Public Discourse, “Racism Is Real. But Is “Systemic Racism”? That Time I Was Published by Newsweek—For Two Hours” Matthew J. Frank notes the implications of employing the term “systemic” in place of systematic. He explains,

…a thing is systemic if it affects or is a feature (Garner again) “of an entire system; systemwide.” Notice that no personal agency is required, or indeed is any part, of a systemic phenomenon. And there’s the beauty of systemic-racism theory: “who’s to blame” is never answered with any particularity that will fix responsibility on known persons, for the answer is “why, everyone!”  

Frank’s analysis is sound. That something intuitively benign as interracial adoption is judged a manifestation of oppression on the basis of a single word is profound. The appropriation of Dr. Kendi’s worldview without substantial alterations will leave no sphere of our life untouched, including a crucial metaphor for Christian salvation. 

Setting aside racial dynamics, the power differential that exists in the adoption dynamic has spiritual significance in Scripture. Acceptance into a family apart from merit is a beautiful picture of God’s grace to humanity. It should not surprise us that the Apostle Paul describes salvation with the adoption metaphor in Ephesians 1:5-6 and Romans 8:23

In Ephesians, Paul connects adoption to God’s predestining us to salvation. In Romans, adoption’s fulfillment is the final resurrection at the end of the age. Dr. Kendi suggests that adoption is a manifestation of dominance, not good will, and certainly not love—at least for some categories of people. His criticism reflects entrenched values of autonomy and self-sufficiency that reject inequality in any and all contexts. Yet the gospel assumes that God is always God and we are not. We need a savior and cannot save ourselves. Because Christ’s power exists alongside his goodness, he is never oppressive. God receives us as true sons and daughters, not by nature, but by adoption...in love.

And if God’s adopting love fills our hearts, then perhaps human adoption can truly, if imperfectly, reflect that reality.



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