Race and Adoption in America: Glimmers of Hope Amidst Dark Times

Even as we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this week, it’s hard not to feel a shadow over the land. For many whites, it is the wrecked illusion of a post-racial America. For people of color, it is the numerous recent reminders of how elusive Dr. King’s dream remains.

But even in this, it may be that Dr. King’s dream is wounded yet still very much alive. Disillusionment is not always bad. It can be a vital first step toward honesty, the necessary foundation for any healing. Meanwhile – as disheartening as the bird’s eye view can be – a closer look yields many micro-trends that give good reason for hope.

This includes the notable growth of inter-racial marriages, up 28-percent from 2000 to 2010, now comprising one in every ten marriages. It is also seen in the increase of multi-racial churches across the U.S., actively cultivating communities of authentic relationship.

There’s also another micro-trend that my work allows me to see regularly nationwide: the growing number of cross-racial adoptions, particularly among committed Christians, who adopt at rates more than double the general population.

A few years ago, the Wall Street Journal noted the increasing numbers of churches embracing a vision for adoption and foster care:

Foster children are also likely to be of a different race from their new adoptive parents. As more and more evangelical churches take up the cause of adoption on a large scale, their congregations have begun to look like the multiracial sea of faces that Christian leaders often talk about wanting. But it does involve parents giving up on having children who look like them. All of this makes the growing evangelical interest in adoption seem particularly countercultural….

Just before Christmas, the Religion News Service wire carried an article exploring the implications of this growing reality, titled, “How adoption has forced evangelicals to grapple with race relations.”

Along with reflections from John Piper, Russell Moore, and Jen Hatmaker, the article draws also from one of the sharpest critics of Christian adoption and orphan care, Kathryn Joyce. Joyce has directed much reproach at what she labels Christian “orphan fever.” Yet she acknowledges that she has been surprised by the extent of thoughtful attention to race among adoptive families.

“Self-critique is happening with a lot of conversations focusing on big issues like racial justice, social justice, class, privilege,” Joyce said, saying she first heard about [Trayvon] Martin’s 2012 death on an evangelical adoption forum. “These parents, mostly moms, were thinking about race early on because they had this personal connection.”

Speaking personally, I can say that nothing has challenged me to get serious about race issues more than becoming a cross-racially adoptive dad. It’s been far more than just learning what it takes to care for ebony skin or the countless hours my wife, Rachel, has spent braiding tightly-curled hair.

My kids and some of their cousins a few years back.
My kids and some of their cousins a few years back.

I grew up in highly diverse public schools. My basketball and soccer teams, weekend hangouts and yearbooks were all a smattering of ethnicities – Asian, Latino, Caucasian and African American. Race seemed little more than a colorful backdrop for far more important matters of friendship, studies and sports together.

I still value those relationships deeply. But I also now recognize how different the world looks when viewed from another vantage point: not from the casual, rarely-pondered comfortability of a majority culture, but from within the rarely-spoken tensions and impediments felt when in the minority.

I see and feel those realities more deeply – admittedly in a limited, secondhand way – in my love for my daughter, whose skin is dark and lovely. I yearn for her joy, grin at her irresistible belly laughter. I also ache for the insecurities and invisible barriers she will face in the world beyond our home – some of these likely springing solely from the color of her skin.

It all has made me think that the complexity of race is often a bit like riding a bike in the wind. When the wind is at your back, you rarely notice it is there, even when strong gusts help push you along. But when you turn around, everything changes. Riding into a decent headwind can be daunting, even miserable. Sometimes it makes you feel like you can’t move at all.

My friend Mark Molzen (left) and his siblings, in a time when cross-racial adoption was less common
My friend Mark Molzen (left) and his siblings, in a time when cross-racial adoption was less common

I definitely don’t consider myself an expert on race because I have a black daughter. But I do find myself noticing and caring about race far more than I did in the past. And I desire more than ever to be always learning and listening – especially to be able to love, understand, and support my daughter along the unique journey she will walk, and also to better love my friends of other races as well.

Countless other adoptive parents have shared similar emotions with me. They feel this, passionately. They’d be the first to say they are learning as they go and often stumble.  But it seems they are stumbling in the right direction.

Good friends, the Tuckers, whose kids arrived via birth, local adoption, and inter-country adoption
Good friends, the Tuckers, whose kids arrived via birth, local adoption, and inter-country adoption

I also see that what these adoptive parents feel for their children carries consequence far beyond their own home. The questions and conversations and intentionality spill outward – impacting extended family and friends, churches and even entire communities.

In a time when the thin veneer of a “post-racial” America is now in tatters, cross-racial adoption is not a sweeping cure for racial tensions any more than inter-country adoption is a sweeping cure for the global orphan crisis. And there are countless caveats one could mention about the hazards of each.  I yearn to see more adoptions happening locally: foster youth of color adopted into communities of color; orphaned children globally adopted within their country of birth.  But I also see again and again that — until every child needing a family can find one nearby — adoption across such boundaries can play a powerful role: transforming a single life…a family…a church…and sometimes even more.

Isn’t that how lasting change happens after all?