Dorothy Roberts is the author of Killing the Black Body (Vintage, 1997)and Shattered Bonds (Basic, 2002), both critically acclaimed explorations of Black motherhood and the racial politics of child welfare. She is widely recognized as an expert on transracial adoption and Black children, foster care and the Black family, and is Professor of Law and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her most recent book is Fatal Intervention: How Science, Politics, and Big-Business Recreate Race in the 21st Century (The New Press, 2012).
In this interview, conducted via Skype in December 2013, I talked with Roberts about the evolution and lingering legacy of mythologies of Black motherhood, the new face of the child welfare system, and recent disturbances in the narrative of transracial adoption.
~ Shannon Gibney
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Full Text of Interview
Shannon Gibney (SG): Many adult adoptees are coming of age now. We’re professionals, we’re artists, we’re professors. So we’re finally getting to tell our own stories. What I really appreciate about your work is that it really gets to the kind of complexity we live as adoptees – especially in terms of race. I feel like what your work has done is that it has created this context in which we can locate our individual experience within the systems that you’re talking about.
One of the questions I have is about one of the main ideas in Killing the Black Body that you revisit in Shattered Bonds, the power of dominant cultural narratives that we have about Black women – specifically about Black motherhood. Of course, Shattered Bonds is 2002, Killing the Black Body 1997, both still very important works, but now we’re in 2014. So I wonder if you could talk a little bit about what you’re seeing now in terms of narratives of the Black mother, the poor Black mother specifically, and how that is impacting things like foster care, child welfare, policy, transracial adoption, and so on.
Dorothy Roberts (DR): As I traced in Killing the Black Body, there’s a long, long history of negative stereotypes about Black mothers. During the time of slavery, there were incentives for Black women to have children because slave masters profited from the child bearing of Black women. It was a coercive practice. And out of that came the stereotype of the Black woman as Jezebel, the woman who was licentious, who could not be raped because she always wanted to have sex. And that supposedly justified the sexual exploitation of slave masters, and also the forced sex of Black women and girls in order to have more children. Sometimes we forget that this practice was applied to little girls, too, who were forced into early sexual experiences so that they could start childbearing early, and at a young age. So, the Jezebel, by being sexually licentious, is also inherently a bad mother because women are not supposed to be sexually promiscuous.
On top of that came the Mammy stereotype, which actually came out after slavery, to justify the continued domestic exploitation of women. The Mammy was supposed to be able to take good care of white children. But there were also stereotypes of Black women during slavery, such as that Black mothers smothered their children. And that was an explanation for high rates of infant mortality. That stereotype also furthered this myth of the irresponsible Black mother. So both the Mammy and the Jezebel were supposed to be bad mothers to their children.
There is also the Welfare Queen stereotype, who was supposed to get money from welfare just to spend on herself. There were all these myths about Black mothers who got all this money, and they would spend it on cars and jewelry and drugs. That had a lot to do with end of welfare entitlement in this country, because Reagan started promoting that myth, and it continued into the time of Clinton, when welfare was ended as an entitlement.
In the ‘60s, the myth of the Black Matriarch also became dominant. This was the stereotype of the Black mother who was supposed to chase men out of the home because she was so aggressive and unfeminine. That myth also painted Black women as bad mothers. This was connected with the idea that if you don’t have a husband, you’re a bad mother. And Black women were held up as the epitome of the rebellious single mother who didn’t know how to take care of her children, who destroyed the Black people, who destroyed the Black family, which was supposed to lead to harm for all of U.S. society.
And then, I go into the pregnant Black Crack Addict stereotype, coming out of the late-80s and early ‘90s. This was a negative image of a Black mother, again, whose drug use erased her maternal instinct. This was literally stated in newspaper articles, and even some scientific studies, which supposedly found that something called “the maternal instinct” wasn’t present in Black women because somebody smoked crack. And the Crack Baby, also another stereotype that was unique to Black people, who was supposed to inevitably become a criminal, or a drug addict, or a welfare dependent.
So there is this long history from slavery all the way into the 21st century of these negative stereotypes, and they continue to this day.
Since I wrote the books, those stereotypes have continued to affect policy even today. They come up in various contexts. One example is the billboards that went up in Black neighborhoods, saying that, “The most dangerous place for a Black child is his mother’s womb.” These were anti-abortion billboards that, once again, painted Black women as irresponsible, as making reproductive decisions that are harmful to our children and need to be controlled. As if we shouldn’t have control over our own bodies – we don’t make good decisions, for ourselves, for our children, for our communities. Those ideas are still out there and come up in policy debates on anything from welfare, to reproductive debates, to issues involving employment, discrimination, Affirmative Action, and criminal justice.
When Renisha McBride was shot in the face when she went for help outside of Detroit, I have to believe that part of the reason why a homeowner would be so frightened by a 19-year-old, 5’4” teenager, has to do with these myths that continue to circulate that Black women are aggressive, dangerous, and not in need of protection. That is another aspect of all of these myths, that Black women don’t deserve protection. And of course, that comes right out of slavery, because during slavery Black women had no rights whatsoever to have any control over their bodies. They deserved no protection under the law. Black women could not be raped in slave law. And even after slavery, it’s always been harder to get a conviction in the case of a sexual assault against a Black woman than a white woman.
These are myths that focus on our sexuality, our childbearing in particular, and paint us as Black mothers. I think that the idea that Black women are inherently bad mothers, that we cannot be rehabilitated, that we cannot change our behavior, this comes out in child welfare decision making, where studies have found that, for example, it takes more risk to remove a white child from a home than a black child for the same kinds of charges of maltreatment. And other studies have found disparaging remarks made by child welfare decision makers about Black mothers.
Also, in the criminal justice system, there was a study in Florida a few years ago that found that prosecutors and judges make statements such as, “We have to put Black children in juvenile detention when they’re charged with offenses because their mothers are single mothers who cannot control them.”
So I could give you hundreds of examples where Black women are at risk of state interference in their child-rearing decisions, but also in their relationships with their children because of these widespread and uninterrogated stereotypes, and that is related to the whole issue of transracial adoption. Why it is that there are so many Black children in need of adoption? You have to go back and ask, “Why were so many Black children removed from their homes in the first place?”
SG: I have some very specific questions for you from Shattered Bonds. On page 223, you write, “If there is one thing that child welfare experts and politicians across the spectrum can agree on, it’s that the foster care system is in crisis.” So, again, this is 11 years ago, 2002, that you’re writing this. So how would you characterize the foster care system now? Is it still in crisis? Because you are writing this right in the midst of welfare reform. You say, “We don’t know what the effects of these changes will be – these very strict work guidelines, for example.” You also go into the history of child welfare in the U.S., which has been very punitive on Black women, Black families, Black communities, and so on. So I just wonder if you can give an update on the state of child welfare right now, as it pertains to Black families, and Black women in particular.
DR: Well, child welfare policies and numbers have gone through a lot of changes over the decades. So at the time that I wrote Shattered Bonds, it was close to the pinnacle of the skyrocketing foster care population, and also racial disparities. In 2000, Black children were four times as likely to be placed in foster care as white children. There was a huge gap. Recently, the number of children in foster care has gone down, and the racial gap between Black children and white children in foster care has decreased somewhat. So now, Black children are about 15% of children in America, and about 30% of children in foster care. It’s gotten a little better, but still a huge over-representation and risk that a Black child will be placed in foster care versus a white child. I think there’s still reason to be alarmed by the numbers, but they have changed.
Researchers really aren’t quite sure why the numbers of children in foster care have gone down so much, and what it means for families. I’m a big advocate for reducing the number of children in foster care, but I’m also a big advocate for making sure that families are well-supported and have the resources they need to take care of their children. And I don’t know that just because the numbers have gone down that means that the money that was being spent on foster care is now going to families. In fact, I know it is not.
There are some new programs that are being introduced. There is something called the 4E Waiver that states can apply for with the federal government to take money that would have been spent to maintain children in foster care and to use it toward alternative programs. So far, a minority of states are participating in it. It’s not clear yet what the results will be: how they’re using the money, whether they’re really using the money to support families and prevent foster care placement, and whether they’re being successful. All of that can’t be determined yet because it’s only recently been implemented. So we have to wait and see.
But at the same time, we do know that we’re living in a huge economic crisis now, and that the gaps between rich and poor are expanding, and that poor families are struggling more than ever in terms of lack of income, lack of healthcare. We’ve got the Affordable Care Act, which, unfortunately, didn’t roll out the way it was supposed to. There is hope that that is going to provide more health care for struggling families in this country, but we have to wait and see. Because at the same time, we’ve got some states, especially some states in the South, that are not expanding Medicaid. And there is even more of a health care crisis for the poor in those states.
So there’s some improvement, but I don’t think there’s any reason to stop being concerned and vigilant about this. Children in foster care are more likely to have all sorts of problems, including being involved in the juvenile detention and criminal justice systems, poor educational outcomes, high rates of homelessness, high rates of children running away from foster care. All of that has to be addressed. And to me, the way to address it is to strengthen families, so that they don’t have to get involved in a system that I don’t see serving families well.
I’ve never said that we need to decrease foster care and not pay attention to the needs of families. My argument has been, “Take that money, the billions and billions of dollars that are being spent to take children away from their families and put them in foster care, without any evidence that this is some wonderful panacea for the problems that families face.” That money could be better spent in supporting families in a holistic way. So the answer isn’t just the money being transferred to families. There also have to be systemic changes that provide decent paying jobs for parents, that provide high-quality education for children, that provide universal, free medical care for children and their families. That’s just some of what needs to happen, instead of relying on foster care as the way to address the needs of family. If all that were done, there wouldn’t be this crisis in foster care that some people think requires transracial adoption.
People who say, “We need a campaign to increase transracial adoption. These children would be so much better off if they were adopted into white families,” they ignore all that I just said, but they also ignore the fact that white parents don’t want to adopt Black children out of the foster care system. So even if you thought that there was some justifiable reason why there were all these Black children in foster care, there is no evidence –in fact, there’s evidence to the contrary – that transracial adoption is going to solve the problem of all these children in foster care. But it’s held up as that.
My main contention with the people who support transracial adoption as a solution to the needs of Black children is that, not only are they not looking at the source of the problem and addressing that, but that they also tend to devalue the relationship that Black children have with their mothers and the rest of their family. In fact, to the point where some of them have argued that there should be easier and speedier termination of Black mothers’ rights so that these children can be adopted transracially. I just think that’s a horrific argument that completely demeans Black women and devalues their relationships with their children, and doesn’t account for the harm that children experience when they’re unnecessarily removed from their mothers; it just doesn’t show understanding for the reason for the large number of Black children in foster care. It’s a racist argument when they specifically cite termination of these Black women’s parental rights as a way to have these children adopted into white homes.
SG: It’s been interesting this year; there’s been a lot of negative press around transracial adoption. There was the Reuter’s series on rehoming and then CNN also did a big investigation into some of the problems with domestic adoption via foster care, and also with international adoption.
As someone who has thought about this extensively, what are your thoughts about the current landscape around transracial adoption and some of the public discussions that are happening? There are certainly the usual ones, about adoption as the panacea for these social ills, but that seems to be getting a bit disturbed lately. So I’d like to hear your thoughts on that, and on any interesting trends you see with transracial adoption.
DR: I think that narrative is getting disturbed, largely because children who are being adopted into white homes are now being heard with some of the issues that came up in their adoptions.
I think that most who have come forward, or whose stories have been popularized in the press, it’s not at all that they’re saying that they don’t love their parents, or that they weren’t good parents. But they raise the issue of the failure to address the racial complexities of growing up in America or parts of Europe as a Black or an Asian, Latino, or Native American child, and this whole philosophy of transracial adoption, that it transcends race. That because of the love of white parents for these children of color, they don’t have to grapple with race. That in fact, that the family itself, just by its mere existence, has overcome racism. And then there isn’t an honest, politically conscious grappling with the way that race effects the family dynamics, and the way in which the children’s experiences in a racist society. And when those aren’t dealt with, it has negative consequences for children, and for them as adults.
Next Time: Stripping the colorblind narrative in transracial adoption, a cross-sector movement to liberate the Black family, and where is the hope?