The Problem With Saying 'Black Babies Cost Less to Adopt'

Can you really put a price on a child's life?

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Every year, I teach writer Elna Baker's essay, "Babies Buying Babies" to my freshman composition classes as an introduction to narrative and critical thinking. We listen to her This American Life recording and I watch the students cringe, chuckle, and scoff as she recounts her former job at FAO Schwartz, where white Upper East Side moms refused to buy certain dolls because of their skin color. In the end, as non-black minority dolls gradually begin to be "adopted," Baker admits, "What were left were incubator upon incubator of black baby dolls."

Class discussion is predictable. "It's [insert year here]! I can't believe we haven't gotten past this!" Obama is often evoked as an arbiter of how much less racist these18-year-olds think the country is now than it was "back in the day." Usually my goal, to remind students of the insidious ways in which racial prejudice impacts even the most innocuous of activities, is achieved. But last year, a black student raised her hand. "I don't see that much wrong with this," she shrugged. "My mom only bought me dolls that looked like me, too." As other students nodded, I thought to myself, it's time to reassess this lesson.

For that class, the takeaway wasn't that white moms didn't want to "adopt" black dolls. It was that more black families should. That sentiment can be applied to the topic of real-life adoptions. There is merit in matching black babies with parents who look like them - particularly if a greater number of those babies are left languishing in the adoption and foster care systems, and especially when those babies are discussed like salable commodities.

NPR recently launched The Race Card Project, an initiative that invites participants to submit six-word sentences related to race. Morning Edition dissected one such sentence last week in a piece titled "Six Words: Black Babies Cost Less to Adopt."

As a black woman, here is what those six words immediately conjured: 1857, where a one-year-old black child, born a slave, could be sold for $100 in the Forsythe County area of South Carolina. The price of a slave child varied widely, according to a number of factors--most notably health and physical strength. The ability to bear children also spiked the monetary value of slave girls and women of childbearing age. According to Marie Jenkins Schwartz's book Birthing a Slave, a girl of 15 who had no children sold for $800, but a breeding woman sold for $1,500" in 19th-century Tennessee.

It's 2013. I can't believe we haven't gotten past this.

NPR included a screen-grab from an anonymous adoption agency, reflecting the racial breakdown of adoption costs. It reflects that white and biracial babies "cost" upwards of $30,000, while the cost to adopt black babies is around $17,000. But this is far from a new phenomenon. A 2002 ABC News report pointed to everything from "supply-and-demand," to Medicare's payment of birth mothers' prenatal expenses, to the length of time adoptive parents were willing to wait for a child as reasons for the different costs of adopting babies of different races.

Despite those possibilities, the key factor remains race. Across racial lines, fewer adoptive families seem to want black babies. A 2010 Centre for Economic Policy research study found that probability that a non-African-American baby will attract adoptive parent interest is seven times as high as the corresponding probability for an African-American baby. Christine Ward Gailey'sBlue ribbon babies: Race class and gender in U.S. adoption practicesuggests that stereotypes about black and low-income mothers could be to blame. Her findings are cited in a University of Michigan study on the culture of poverty:

Gailey found that parents who adopted internationally thought that their White or "closer to White" (i.e., racial identities that are not White or Black) children came from "better stock" with "greater moral fiber" than children placed in the US who are predominantly Black.

The Adoption Institute's 2002 National Adoption Attitude study lists black participants as having the lower support for and experience with agency adoption. A 1997 Princeton Survey Research Associates poll offers investigates why:

Among black Americans, 69 percent--twice as many as among the whites--favored having teen-age mothers raise their babies themselves.

Blacks were also less likely than whites to say that they themselves would place a child for adoption if they could not provide for the baby. And about one in three of the blacks said adoptive parents got less satisfaction out of raising an adopted child than a biological one, compared with one in seven of the whites. Transracial adoption has been one approach to ensuring that more black children find homes with adoptive families. With the passing of 1996 Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, the race, color, and national origin of adoptive parents was no longer taken into account when matching children with adoptive families. In the near decade that has followed, transracial adoption has gradually increased, since white, non-Hispanic parents made up 63 percent of those who adopt from foster care, 71 percent of those who adopted privately within the U.S., and 92 percent of those who adopt internationally.Of approximately 120,000 children adopted in the U.S. annually, transracial adoptions now account for 40 percent.

Transracial adoption is not without its critics. The North American Council on Adoptable Children, the Child Welfare League of America, the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption and the National Association of Black Social Workers have all urged changes to the Multi-Ethnic Placement Act, citing its "color-blind" approach as problematic for the development of adopted children's racial and social identities. To address those concerns, there's a case to be made for more black women and men--both married and single--to consider adopting black babies.

For writer Nefertiti Austin, the decision was a no-brainer. "I was in my late 30s, had a steady U.S. History teaching gig at a couple of local community colleges and was ready to be a mommy through adoption. It seemed like a logical step to take."

Austin, who is writing a book about black adoptive single motherhood, opted for a son. Disparities in adoptive preference aren't just racial. Boys are also less likely to be placed than girls. "I knew going into the adoption process that black boys were more plentiful." Her choice was not without criticism. "Black men weren't particularly keen on a single, black woman raising a black man. Also, some Black women don't think that a woman can raise a boy. I knew that building a male community for my son would be key to his development."

Some reports assert that the adoption process is quicker for black children. African American Adoption Online claims, "For bi-racial or full African American adoptions, a family is sometimes matched in a few weeks with a birth mother." Austin's son was placed with her at six months old, but she is hesitant to attribute it to race. "That was more circumstance and timing."

One reason why agency adoption may be lower among black prospective parents is that black families are more likely to engage in "kinship care." Kinship care, or the practice of caring for the children of relatives, is far more common in black communities than agency adoption, according to the National Adoption Institute. Interestingly, black families were found more likely than whites to consider adopting children with a behavioral issue. And though level of education was a determinant in black participants openness to adoption, income wasn't found to be much of a deterrent.

Austin believes that single black women are concerned about the social stigma they may face by adopting and becoming "single mothers by choice." "If we could remember our legacy of taking in others' kinfolk during the great migrations of the 19th and 20th centuries, I think more Black women would be less skittish about adoption."

Austin agrees, citing free and low-cost county programs, the federal adoption tax credit, and free healthcare until the child turns 18, as reasons why income may not be a reason forgo adoption. "Whether or not a person is on the high end of the earning spectrum is less important than a willingness and ability to parent. Those serious about adoption will find it rewarding and a way to empower our community, whether they adopt a family member or stranger. And since a large percentage of the children in foster care are black, I believe that it is our responsibility to take them in."

For black families who are interested in adopting black babies, several agencies offer help specific to their desired placement arrangement. Homes for Black Children in Detroit has led to the adoption of 1,800 children since 1976, and the online resource, Lifetime Adoption, boasts a high preference of black birth mothers requesting to be matched with black families.

Regardless of who chooses to adopting them, black children don't "cost less." They shouldn't be discussed as "priced" commodities. Austin believes that the emphasis on race in adoption cost is misguided. "Does it cost to adopt? Yes. But the costs are not dictated by race, rather the type of adoption. The statement ['Black babies cost less to adopt'] is offensive, untrue, undermines the seriousness of raising a child, and continues the business of de-valuing Black children."