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September 10, 2015 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

In this article, George Will takes aim at identity politics, as he has before (Topeka Capital Journal, 9/5/15). His weapon of choice is the Indian Child Welfare Act, his ammunition, two cases in which children died in aboriginal homes.

He quotes Chief Justice John Roberts approvingly as follows:

“It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race.”

He does so because that is what the ICWA does. In adoption proceedings, it gives a preference to American Indian parents who seek to adopt American Indian children. The law is an effort to acknowledge and correct exactly what Will inveighs against — the discrimination against Native Americans by whites. Among many other things, that took the form of denying aboriginal children their heritage. As in Australia, those children were routinely taken from their homes and families, made to speak English, dress like Europeans, go to white schools and generally pretend that they weren’t who they were.

The results were disastrous, a fact whites eventually came to admit. So the U.S. Congress decided to try to rectify the situation and ensure that it never happened again. So now, according to the ICWA, American Indian children whose parents have lost their parental rights, must be adopted by American Indian parents if at all possible.

In short, the ICWA attempts to address the negative outcomes of centuries of “identity politics” by resort to “identity politics.” Will doesn’t like it.

And neither do I. But unlike Will, I’d like to add a bit of context.

We in the United States have always practiced what’s now euphemistically called “identity politics.” That is, we’ve always looked at people and seen Africans or American Indians or whites of European ancestry or for that matter, Chinese, Jews, Mexicans, Poles, Italians, etc. We’ve never been blind to race or ethnicity. Our laws and public policies for centuries frankly acknowledged exactly that.

Indeed, I can imagine that Native Americans of all tribes would have opted for Justice Roberts’ statement at any time during the centuries in which whites were exterminating up to half of them and pushing them off of tribal lands. Wouldn’t African slaves have been glad to hear a white man of such power as Roberts say what Will quotes him as saying? Surely they’d have agreed that “divvying us up by race” was a “sordid business” indeed.

I suspect Will would agree that the type of virulent discrimination (not to say genocide) was wrong and contributes to many of our current problems. But what he seems not to notice is that “this divvying us up by race” isn’t just something that happened in a “sordid” past, but continues today.

I doubt that white police officers who gun down unarmed black men in the street and pay no penalty for doing so are animated by the type of conscious racism that was frank and on public display in the 19th century. Nor are prosecutors and judges that mete out harsher sentences to black men than to any other demographic.

But whatever may be on the minds of law enforcement officials, the fact remains that African-Americans and Native Americans remain poor, uneducated and imprisoned out of all proportion to their numbers. Yes, this “divvying us up by race” is a “sordid business” alright.

Now, not for an instant do I forget that some of that divvying up is done by blacks and Native Americans themselves. There is certainly a large measure of personal responsibility in the type of negative outcomes I described above. No one forces African-American women to have children out of wedlock, but that’s the situation 70% of those children are born into. That’s true despite the fact that the detriments of fatherlessness are by now well known to all. The silence on the subject on the part of black leaders is deafening.

But the context in which Will is writing is an unbroken history of “divvying us up by race.” That he objects to it when it stands to benefit American Indian cultures but not, for example, when it harms African-Americans does a lot to diminish the impact of his article. He wants the preference given by the ICWA for American Indian children to be adopted by American Indian parents done away with and those children “to be treated as all other children are, rather than as subordinate to tribal rights.”

That sounds fair enough. My guess is that treating the aboriginal identity of a child and its need for cultural continuity as but one factor — albeit an important one — to be considered by an adoption court, might solve the problem Will identifies.

But Will’s article stands on shaky ground, and he knows it. For one thing, he selects two cases in which an American Indian child was kept with American Indian caregivers and ended up dead because of it. Unquestionably, those children’s tragic deaths were partly the responsibility of a policy that too dogmatically respects native cultures above all else, sometimes including children’s safety.

But Will’s is a game we can all play. Like him, anyone who wants to cast aspersions on the adoption industry has plenty of examples of bad adoption outcomes to choose from. But likewise, anyone who wants to promote adoption can find examples of horrible, abusive biological parents. After all, Will himself could as easily have taken note of the outrageous history of white’s taking aboriginal children from their homes and the trauma suffered by those children, but he didn’t. That’s not because he doesn’t know the facts; it’s because those facts didn’t support his narrative and the cases of the two dead children did. Do all Native American adoptions result in injury or death to the children? Of course not. The real test is whether they generally do as well as native children adopted by non-native families. It’s a test Will avoids mentioning.

Perhaps worse is his reference to this case.

The most recent case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court concerned a child who was 1.2 percent Cherokee. The Goldwater Institute, the Phoenix think tank whose litigators are challenging ICWA’s constitutionality, says “her nearest full-blooded Indian ancestor lived in the time of George Washington’s father.”

Just so. But what Will neglects to mention is that the Court did exactly what Will would have wanted. It overruled a claim by her Cherokee father under the ICWA that her adoption should be stopped and he be awarded custody due solely to their Native American blood. The adoption went ahead just as Will would surely have hoped.

In the end, a political discourse that values who we are rather than the merits of our arguments is uninteresting, self-referential and bound to fail. The assumption that African-Americans, whites, Native Americans, Jews, women, men, Asian-Americans generally have the same ideas, values, interests, etc., each according to its group, is simply false. People are much less predictable and more interesting than that. Blacks don’t act exclusively for blacks, nor whites for whites, nor women for women, etc.

But too, a political discourse that pretends that the past either didn’t happen or doesn’t affect us every minute of every day is equally likely to fail. A color-blind society may be something to aspire to, but it’s not what we have.

Like the image of the Anima Sola, we’re chained in the fiery pit of our own making while simultaneously reaching out for a higher, better world. George Will may not like it, but that’s the way it is.


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#Indian Child Welfare Act, George Will, racism, child custody, adoption, identity politics

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