Chicago.--Most of the public debate over whether the delicate question of race should matter in adoptions tends to miss the point. Maybe the real question is not whether whites should be allowed to adopt black babies, but rather, why are so few black parents allowed to adopt?
Trans-racial adoptions, usually between white parents and black children, have won praise from some as a valuable, although still rare, way to find homes for adoptable black children.
Unfortunately, since 1972 they also have been roundly condemned by the National Association of Black Social Workers as "cultural genocide."
This has resulted in stunted growth and more than a few court fights for trans-racial adoptions. In some heart-breaking scenes, black children have been wrenched away from the arms of white parents by social workers intent on placing the children with blacks.
In response, Sens. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., and Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, have introduced a bill that would prohibit any agency receiving federal funds from disqualifying applicants or "unduly delay or deny the placement of a child" because of the race, color or national origin of the prospective parent.
Should race matter when all a child needs is love? It shouldn't, but our society is still too infected with racism for its own good. Some say white parents tend to be less well prepared to teach the racial coping strategies that black parents are more likely to take for granted.
Others point out that children can actually benefit from a mixed-race upbringing. Andrew A. Cohen, a 24-year-old black Nyack, N.Y., man told the New York Times recently that his white parents provided him with ample ethnic pride and black mentors so he could "hold a mirror up to two cultures, seeing the beauty and ugliness in both."
The more important question is this: Why are black parents failing to fill the gap? Many presume black parents simply cannot afford to adopt. That's largely a myth. Studies show African-Americans currently adopt at a rate as much as six times that of whites and 4 1/2 times that of Hispanics.
Unfortunately, there are so many more black children waiting to be adopted (about 40 percent of the total nationwide, although blacks are only 10 percent of the total population) that blacks would have to increase their adoptions by 144 percent to close the gap.
Many prospective black parents are turned away, and mounting evidence indicates that many of them should not be. A National Urban League study, for example, found that out of 800 black parents applying, only two families were approved. That's one-quarter of 1 percent, compared to an overall national average of 10 percent approval.
A major bottleneck may be the agencies, which tend to be operated and staffed by whites. Critics say many of them seem to be searching for the Huxtables from "The Cosby Show" when the everyday realities of black life tend more often to resemble Fox TV's "Roc," whose husband and wife hold the steady, but unglamorous jobs of sanitation worker and hospital nurse.
"It doesn't mean whites don't know what they're doing," said Zena Oglesby, director of the Los Angeles-based Institute for Black Parenting. "It means the system was not designed for blacks. It was better designed for the placing of war orphans at the end of World War II."
In one case, Ms. Oglesby notes, 2,000 black families responded to a California television ad, but only 15 made it all the way through the system. The reasons given by social workers ranged from significant to the suspiciously trivial: "No pictures on the wall. . . . Home lacked stimulation. . . . Woman got up too early to go to work. . . . Family wasn't 'black' enough. . . . Man defended his wife too much."
The institute has helped increase black adoptions by 39 percent during its five years of licensed operation in the four major counties of southern California through such innovations as easier processing, evening and weekend office hours, waived fees and interviews conducted in the home, not the office.
Similarly, Detroit's Homes for Black Children, a pioneer in the black adoption movement, placed 132 black children in black homes in a single year, more than all the city's 13 other child-welfare agencies combined. Illinois experienced similar results after simplifying its adoption procedures and using more Chicago-area black community churches and media.
Other agencies are learning from such success stories. If this new movement works, the black parent gap could close and the question of trans-racial adoptions could become virtually moot, as perhaps it should have been all along.
Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.