Growing Up Black & White

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Growing Up Black & White

The story of one family's struggle with America's racial divide.

  • Growing Up Black & White

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    July 13, 1971 was a hot, muggy day in Menomonie, Wisconsin. My family breathed a collective sigh of relief as we stepped into the cool anteroom of the town's courthouse. Our appearance there was the culmination of my parents' two-year effort to adopt a young boy into our family.

    On this day, the courts would officially recognize Casey and Cooper Moo as brothers. As far as Casey and I were concerned, the legal world was way behind the times. A Hennepin County adoption agency had placed Casey in our home more than a year earlier, and we had already been through a full calendar of events together: a Halloween, a Thanksgiving, and a Christmas. We'd swapped candy corns for jelly beans, shared leftover turkey, and fought over presents. We didn't need a piece of paper to tell us we were brothers.

    For our parents, the event was perhaps more significant. After today, Mom and Dad could answer the question "Is he yours?" the way they wanted to answer it: "Yes, this is Casey, our youngest son."

    We entered the courtroom of Judge Bundy, who was finishing another case. Casey was 3, I was almost 5. We gawked at the grandeur of the courtroom and shied when Judge Bundy glanced our way. Suddenly our parents motioned us to approach the bench. Our family stood before the man in black robes while our attorney handed him the paperwork. I was smiling and found I couldn't stop. I looked at Casey and saw he was grinning too. Nervous energy. After a short bout of paper shuffling, the judge pronounced everything in order. He paused and removed his reading glasses to look down at us.

    "You two young men ready to be brothers?" he asked. We responded with low giggles and nodded vigorously. "Well, why don't you guys come up here and make it official?"

    Judge Bundy held out his gavel to indicate that Casey and I could be the ones to strike it and make our kinship a matter of legal record. Excitement filled us as we climbed the stairs to the stand. "Here," said the judge as he carefully took my right hand and Casey's left and wrapped them around the gavel.

    I will carry this image my entire life: Casey's small black hand above my small white hand gripping the handle. Together we slammed the hammer home—whack! Casey and I whooped in delight. What a great sound! We looked at the judge. Like Casey and me, he wore a huge grin. But he also had tears in his eyes—as did everyone else in the room. "What was everybody crying about?" we wondered. I mean, Casey and I were elated—we were officially brothers!

    "Cultural Genocide": The Politics of Transracial Adoption

    Had our court date been even a year later, the above event might never have taken place. In 1972, at its fourth annual conference, the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW) delivered a position paper in strong opposition to transracial adoption. While transracial adoption (TRA) can refer to adoption of a child of any racial background into a family of a different racial background, the term is most commonly used to refer specifically to the adoption of African-American children by Caucasian parents. A year after the 1972 NABSW conference, transracial adoptions plummeted from 2,574 to 1,569—a drop of 39 percent. Two years later, the number had sunk to 733. TRA in America has never fully recovered from the NABSW position paper, which in part read:

    Black children in white homes are cut off from healthy development of themselves as black people.... We the participants of the workshop have committed ourselves to go back to our communities and work to end this particular form of genocide.

    Immediately after the NABSW's 1972 conference, TRA became extremely controversial. On one side of the issue were adoptive parents of African-American children and private adoption agencies that arranged transracial adoptions. This group steadfastly defended TRA as a much-needed option for the growing number of black children in the foster care system. On the other side were the NABSW and a host of other agencies, primarily state and federal, who believed that insufficient efforts were being made to recruit black families for black children. They also questioned the ability of white parents to understand racism and prepare black children for it. How would white parents respond when their children came home from school and asked, "What does 'nigger' mean?" How could a black child have positive black role models if he or she were removed from the black community and raised in an almost exclusively white world? Additionally, some African Americans cited transracial adoption as another form of "integration"—a concept that to many was synonymous with obliteration of black culture.

    The furor rose to such a pitch that my parents, who for career reasons had moved the family to Kodiak, Alaska, soon after adopting Casey, worried that the TRA debate raging in the Lower 48 states might result in an effort to remove black children from their adoptive white families. Our family was far too busy being a family to listen to those who would tell us we could not be. From the moment Casey joined us we became a mixed-race family, and we dealt with all its issues—including racism—together.

    Sandlot Bigotry

    The first time Casey and I remember encountering racism was in grade school. We were playing in a sandlot with the Schauff brothers, who were white. We were having a great time with a Tonka road grader. An older boy from the house next door came out to play but saw Casey and stopped. "I don't like him," he said, pointing at Casey. We four were completely baffled. "Why?" we asked. The kid shook his head. "I just don't like him." I knew my little brother could be a total jerk sometimes, but we'd never played with this kid before—how could he have formed an opinion about Casey? We shrugged our shoulders and went on with our road construction. When we went home for dinner, we told our parents, and they explained that the boy may not have liked Casey because Casey was black.

    We learned an ugly new word that night—"bigot." Years later, Casey would disclose how hurt he was by the experience and how our parents had told him that he didn't have anything to feel bad about, that it was the older boy who had the problem. Because of Mom's and Dad's counsel, Casey was able to deal with the boy at future encounters, but some of the pain remained—as it would have no matter who Casey's parents were.

    Sometimes Casey's consciousness of his skin color manifested itself in ways that people found humorous. One summer day in Kodiak (Casey was 5 and I was 6), Mom took us to the school swimming pool. Since she couldn't follow us into the men's locker room and we were too old to go with her into the women's, she asked the lifeguard, a family friend, to make sure we got our clothes locked up. As Casey and I changed into our suits, Casey noticed the man hovering nearby. By then, Casey was used to the considerable attention his skin and hair drew, and this time he must have felt that a warning was in order. Just before he got fully undressed, he looked at the lifeguard and said, "You know, I'm black all over." This laid the guy out. I can still see him laughing so hard tears streamed down his face. Casey and I looked at each other, shrugged, and headed for the pool.

    Some people might see this story as anything but funny. They might take it as evidence that Casey was uncomfortable with his skin color. But while it is true that Casey sometimes felt estranged because of his color, his warning to the lifeguard was not for Casey's benefit, but for the guard's. Even at age 5, Casey realized the guard might not know much about black people, so—out of kindness—he prepared the man. I remember feeling that Casey's words of caution were reasonable and prudent, and had no idea why the guard found Casey's comment so funny.

    Me Black. You White.

    One summer afternoon in 1978—our family had moved to Anchorage—Casey and I decided to take in a matinee. Casey was 11 and I was 13. The cut-off for the cheaper child ticket was 12. A child ticket was $3, a junior ticket was $5, and that $2 was the difference between a movie with popcorn or a movie without popcorn, so Casey was very careful to tell the ticket taker that he was only 11. Even then, Casey was bigger than me and looked my age. The ticket taker, not believing that he was only 11, asked for photo ID. (What 11-year-old carries photo ID?) Casey spent several minutes trying to convince the woman that he was eligible for the children's ticket price until finally, in exasperation, I stepped in as the all-knowing "big brother" and informed the woman that, yes, Casey was only 11. "Believe me," I said, "he's my brother." The ticket taker's face hardened. "Five dollars," she repeated firmly. To my complete amazement, Casey handed over the cash. "Thanks, Coop," he said sarcastically. I was flabbergasted. Why had he given in? Once inside the theater, Casey explained, in Exaggerated Broken English, "Coop. Me Black. You White. She no believe we brothers."

    This had never occurred to me.

    Critics of transracial adoption might say this story is not amusing, but tragic. They might claim that I have the luxury of "forgetting Casey is black." This would be a ridiculous assertion. Since it did not matter to me that my brother was black, I incorrectly assumed that it wouldn't matter to anyone else. I must admit, however, that this was the naive belief of a 13-year-old boy raised in unusual circumstances; the fact that it does matter what color you are has always been a major crux of the TRA debate.

    Institutionalized Racism: "White Girl, Please"

    In the late 1970s, black-white adoptions increased to about 1,000 per year but never returned to the higher numbers of earlier in the decade. Many, if not most, of these adoptions were through private agencies. Public-sector adoption agencies had created policy heavily influenced by the stance of the NABSW. Throughout the '70s and into the early '80s, many states mandated that race be used as a criterion for placement of children in adoptive homes. At first take, this approach might seem reasonable. It is a common belief in the adoption community that same-race placement is desirable, and if a same-race family is available that family should be given first consideration. But there simply were not enough black families coming forward to adopt the growing number of black children waiting in foster care.

    Technically, state agencies were open to adoption of black children into white families, but in practice they took time to search for "race appropriate" families before referring a black child to a white family. In this way the rules actually worked against permanent placement for the largest-growing group in America's foster-care system—black children—because they delayed adoption of black kids, and one of the hard facts of adoption is that the older a child is, the harder he or she is to adopt. Most couples interested in adoption want infants. By the time children turn 2, their chances of being adopted drop significantly. Every day a child is not adopted brings him or her one day closer to a childhood trapped in the foster care system.

    The problem is made worse by the hierarchy of preferences among prospective adoptive parents. While agencies do not always keep records based on sex and race, the undisputed top request is for white infant girls, with next being Asian or Hispanic infant girls, then black girls, then white infant boys. Considering my wonderful lifelong relationship with my brother, it hurts to say that the most difficult child to place is a black boy, especially once that child reaches 2—as Casey had when my parents adopted him.

    This is not to say that if the barriers to TRA had been suddenly lifted in 1980, hundreds of white families would have rushed to adopt all the black children waiting for homes. Far from it. The NABSW and other groups point out that most of the children in the system will stay there regardless of the rules governing transracial adoption. In the vernacular of the adoption world, these children are "special needs" children. They are less attractive to adoptive parents because they are older, may have emotional or physical problems, or may just be rough kids who have bounced from family to family without connecting with an adult who could offer them support and guidance. No legislation is going to magically find these children families. But right-minded legislation might have saved them from growing up in the foster care system in the first place.

    Both private- and public-sector adoption workers agree—above all else—that children need families. For Casey and me, being in our family was the central part of our lives. But the older we grew, the more obvious it became that America had a difficult time seeing ours as a family at all.

    "I'm with Them"

    During our high school years our family lived in Seward, Alaska, two hours south of Anchorage by car. Every so often we would go to the big city to stock up on supplies, see the doctor, and generally take care of business. These trips were filled with endless errands and constant running around. On one such trip, our first stop was the Anchorage Nordstrom. Mom needed a new purse. She knew exactly what she wanted. We marched in, Mom grabbed the purse, and we strode up to the counter. The cashier was on the phone, so we waited a few minutes before he could help us. He raised a finger to signal he'd be just a minute and then gave a sidelong glance at Casey. I noted the glance, and because of it, I was listening closely when he hung up the phone. He raised his lefthand palm outward toward Mom as if to hold her in place, and to Casey he said, "Can I help you?" in the tone of voice that really means, "Why are you here? Please leave so I can conduct my business." Without hesitation Casey said, "I'm with them." "Oh," said the clerk, taken aback, and went about selling the purse to Mom.

    For the rest of the morning, I watched as we went from store to store and office to office. At almost every place, Casey got the same "Can I help you?" to which he gave his practiced answer, "I'm with them." Soon Casey and I would burst out laughing at every "Can I help you?" Casey said later that the questioning had begun when he started looking old enough to be out in the world by himself. When he was a child, people assumed he must be with our parents, but now that he was older, people saw a white family and a black teenager rather than a mixed-race family. We couldn't expect people to know Casey was adopted, but the fact that he was forced to say "I'm with them" at almost every store we visited revealed an underlying truth: In the minds of these clerks, and in the minds of many Americans, blacks and whites don't belong together.

    For the two of us—especially for Casey—it was another step down an often-painful road to realizing how much America divides itself along racial lines. When we hit our high school years, we began dealing with the race issue in the typically sarcastic way of teenagers. For example, Casey and I never tired of our "flesh-colored" Band-Aid joke. We had read the front of a box of Band-Aids and found the words "flesh-colored" on the box. Casey would put a Band-Aid on his arm, and we would wait for someone to ask him what had happened. Our response would be, "Wow! We're surprised you noticed the Band-Aid—it's flesh-colored!" We were equally unforgiving with our parents. Any parent with more than one child will occasionally mix up the names, but when our parents did, we retorted, "We're color-coded here! How tough can it be?"

    The Black Guy Always Dies

    Hollywood furnished us a highly visible example of American racism. Early in our childhood, Casey and I noticed that black characters in movies always bit the dust. We began to call this "The Black Guy Always Dies" phenomenon. Although it is less prevalent now than it used to be, you will nevertheless be surprised at how often it appears once you start looking for it. After watching Forrest Gump on video not long ago, I called Casey to discuss the film. When he picked up the phone, I tried to imitate Forrest Gump's slow drawl: "Life is like a box of chocolates."

    Casey laughed. "Great show, man. Great show... but just another candidate for 'The Black Guy Always Dies.'"

    "Oh yeah," I said, "the second Forrest meets Bubba Blue on the bus I knew Bubba was a goner."

    "Just like when I saw Scatman Crothers in The Shining, I knew," Casey said. "And remember when we saw Dawn of the Dead? We thought the black guy was gonna make it all the way through, but nooooo. Right at the end they kill him off."

    "I remember! And of course there was Towering Inferno."

    "That's right! O.J. can run through airports but he can't run from the fires of Hollywood."

    "You can run, but you can't hide your hide." I quipped.

    "Highlander!" Casey proclaimed.

    "That's right! There can be only one! Only one black guy, that is!"

    "And he's gotta die!"

    "Even in outer space you guys are toast—like in Alien."

    "That's right. One black dude—he gets chomped."

    "Actually, same thing in the sequel—Aliens. The black space Marine is bug food!"

    "Right again! Come to think of it, same thing in Aliens 3! The alien gets all the brothers! Where is Will Smith when you need him?"

    Buy a Nose

    An odd instance in Seattle some years ago convinced Casey and me that we needed to regain our childhood sense of humor about race lest we continue down our increasingly negative path. We were kicking around Pike Place Market one afternoon when I picked up a set of Groucho Marx glasses and started clowning around with them. Knowing that Casey had always loved the Marx brothers, I started looking for a set for him as well. Suddenly it occurred to me—all Groucho glasses have "flesh-colored" noses. They look peculiar on Casey. We asked the guy behind the counter if he had any black-nosed Groucho glasses. He paused for second and said, "You know, I don't! I'm not even sure they make any."

    Our quest was set. Casey and I spent the better part of an hour combing gag stores and costume shops downtown looking for black-nosed Groucho glasses, and coming up empty.

    Whenever we expressed our disappointment, salespeople were apologetic and even uncomfortable—except for one guy in a trick shop on Second Avenue. Casey and I bounded in and aggressively asked, "Hey, you got any black-nosed Groucho glasses?" "Of course not," he answered. We were somewhat taken aback: "What do you mean 'Of course not'?" "Groucho Marx was white," the guy deadpanned.

    Instantly, Casey and I felt like idiots. After a moment's silence we broke out in laughter at ourselves. We tried on the guy's Groucho glasses anyhow. They were of excellent quality—we each bought a pair. We put them on as we were about to leave the store. Mugging for the guy in the doorway, Casey asked the shopkeeper how we looked. "Great!" the guy said. "A very close resemblance. Any closer and you'd be brothers."

    Racism Defeated

    In the early part of the Reagan administration, laws intending to reduce the time children spent in foster care were passed. During the '80s, efforts were made to prioritize permanent placement of children ahead of "race appropriate" placements. The Clinton administration has carried this torch, passing several acts that, in combination, have effectively removed race as a determining factor for placement. The Multi-Ethnicity Placement Act (MEPA), passed in 1994 and amended several times since, expressly forbids the race of child or parent from being a factor in placement. The Inter-Ethnic Placement Act (IEPA) takes aim at the same issue. And the Safe Families Act is designed in part to make sure race plays no factor in extending a child's stay in the foster care system. As it now stands, any public adoption agency found to be using race as a determining factor in child placement will lose its federal funding.

    At first, these laws were not well received by many in the public-sector adoption community—at least not at the state level. Private agencies have been making trans-racial placements all along, but state adoption workers had been assuming that race should be an issue. Being told that race could not be used as a criterion for placing children seemed unrealistic to them, even though the statistics regarding the growing number of African-American children in foster care made it hard to argue against taking a different tack.

    Carol Williams, assistant commissioner of the Children's Bureau in Washington, DC, estimates the number of children in the foster care system to be "in excess of half a million, on a given day, at any one time." Perhaps two-thirds of these children will return to their families at some point. This means that more than 160,000 children in this country are without permanent homes. While it is difficult to make an accurate assessment based on race, adoption workers say approximately 40 percent of these children are African-American or biracial. Only 13 percent of America's overall population is black.

    About Face

    Over the last few years, the focus of adoption workers with regard to transracial adoption has changed. Instead of using race as a criterion, adoption social workers now assess a would-be adoptive family's ability to raise a child of another ethnic background. Does this family have a realistic idea of what it means to be a mixed-race family? Does this family have ties to the black community? Black friends? Does this family have the fortitude and strength to deal with issues stemming from being a mixed-race family?

    Genocide Revisited

    The NABSW has softened its rhetoric somewhat over the years, but its Web site still makes the case against transracial adoption, clinging to the decades-old claim that if better efforts to recruit black adoptive families were made, there wouldn't be an issue. Leorn Neal, co-chair of the NABSW Task Force on Foster Care and Adoption, says that it was never the position of the NABSW that black children should be kept in foster care rather than be placed with white families, although she does feel that it shouldn't be necessary to place black children with white families. She also says that it is not the belief of the NABSW that white people can't parent and love black children. But she also says that transracial adoption is "genocide," as defined by the United Nations, because it could completely deny children any connection with their cultural heritage. Thus, she says race should be an issue in adoption.

    Ms. Neal and the NABSW defend their anti-TRA stance because they "feel they have something to preserve." But do they really believe that preserving African-American culture and giving African-American children the best possible opportunity to have a family are mutually exclusive? Not quite: The NABSW now states that TRA is an "acceptable last resort."

    Reunion

    It's July 1, and I'm at Sea-Tac airport waiting for Casey and his wife to come off a Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis. I am standing so I can see down the causeway, scanning the off-loading passengers for the familiar 6-foot frame of my "little" brother. Suddenly there he is, stuck behind a slow-moving elderly couple. He sees me and flashes his huge trademark grin. He rolls his eyes at his hampered progress, and I find myself already laughing. The next several days will be filled with laughter at old stories, at each other's idiosyncrasies, at ourselves.... As I watch Casey step out of the causeway, I'm not thinking, "Hey, here comes an acceptable last resort." I'm thinking, "Hey, here comes my brother."

     
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