I 'm a moderate racist.


My personal data "suggest a moderate automatic preference for European Americans compared to African Americans." This data came from something called the Implicit Association Test, which is hosted on the website of Harvard University. The test, developed in 1998, is intended to gauge unconscious bias. It measures how long you take to answer questions (by keyboard) that ask you to associate faces of different races with good (e.g., "joy") versus bad (e.g., "failure") words.

This is the test that King County employees of the state's Children's Administration department are going to be taking, because Washington has a problem. It's the same problem pretty much everywhere around the country, and not a new problem either: Too many kids of color are coming into foster care and staying in too long. In King County, the Children's Administration is writing a plan with five parts, one of which is "staff development, which begins with self-examination," says director Joel Odimba. "We're going to train in knowing who we are." The five-point plan includes—in addition to soul searching—a review of policies, the formation of an advisory committee, and a possible Cultural Competency Center.

Those are pretty quiet, bureaucracy-as-usual ideas compared to the idea that made Seattle famous on this issue. In 1999, Washington's Department of Social and Health Services launched a pilot project that four years later became the full-blown Office of African-American Children's Services (OAACS, pronounced "oasis"). It was staffed with people trained to handle the particular issues of black foster kids, and most of the county's black kids were routed through it—blatantly defying the colorblind mandates of federal adoption law. Quickly, it was the talk of the nation, a test of dealing with race head-on in public policy, as if it matters. And it was invented out of a sense of desperation not uncommon around the country: In 2004, while black children made up 7 percent of the population of King County's kids, they accounted for 30 percent of the kids in King County foster care.

It was a stab, an effort, a start. But it got complaints. Its management turned over often, and it was criticized by the rest of the department. Last spring, just as OACCS's approach was about to be validated by new research—two months later, the Donaldson report would call for an emphasis on race in the child-welfare system—OACCS was killed. The federal Office of Civil Rights declared it in violation, and the state decided to let it go. The state's foster-care administration would no longer deal with race in a direct way. Meanwhile, the OAACS building would be renamed the Martin Luther King Jr. office—an apt linguistic elision. Now it operates like all the others, taking cases on the basis of where the kids live. You'd never know that a major experiment on the role of race in families went on there, and whatever it might have been on its way to learning appears to have been lost.

There are not that many movies about domestic transracial adoption. In one, the 1995 movie Losing Isaiah, Halle Berry stars as a crackhead named Khaila who leaves her baby, Isaiah, in a trash can while she goes to find some crack. He's discovered, taken to a hospital, and adopted by Jessica Lange's character, Margaret. When Khaila cleans up and discovers her son is still alive, she wants him back, and a judge orders his return. But it is too late—the toddler is attached to Margaret, and he doesn't respond to Khaila. Khaila is forced to admit that Margaret has become her son's mother. The last scene shows Margaret and Isaiah reunited over some toys, and Khaila playing alongside them. A title card flashes: "And a little child shall lead them, Isaiah 11:6."

A little child shall lead them.

That phrase hits me hard. One of the reasons I was at that October 2007 workshop (at Seattle University), and that I'd been looking into transracial adoption, was to teach racist family members of mine a lesson. I had other reasons too—I've been debating whether to become a parent for a while—but this one was the most embarrassing. In my fantasy, I hadn't considered how exactly I would protect my child. The child was a means to an end, a healing agent: Want to rid your parents of their overt racism? Give them black grandchildren and defy them not to love them! Need to atone for your own covert racism? Adopt a black child and let him teach you!

Part of the genuine appeal of transracial adoption, it's true, is its potential to transform our culture. "I often think about transracial adoption as a grand social experiment," writes John Raible, one of the first mixed-race children adopted to a white family in the 1960s and something of a spokesperson on the topic.
Even so, children shouldn't be the day laborers on the job, says Chad Goller-Sojourner. Would you want your children to be the test cases in a grand social experiment?

"What I'd ask parents is, are you willing to be the uncomfortable one?" Goller-Sojourner says. This is how he'd question a prospective parent if he were a social worker. "Because somebody's gonna be uncomfortable, and it seems the burden is on you. You have to be the uncomfortable one."

He means that if white parents of black children, for instance, don't live in black neighborhoods, join black churches, have black friends, and send their children to significantly mixed-race schools, then at least they should cross the thresholds into black barbershops even though it's awkward, or drive out of their way to shop at grocery stores in black neighborhoods. Parents should be careful to raise their children to live in this world, not the one they wish existed.

"If you're buying a house and you have a dog, don't you spend more time looking for a big old yard for your dog?" he says. "Love is but one of many components of parenting. You're raising children to live in a world that may not be your world. If you go to the pound, they won't just give you a dog. There are rules. They'll say, 'That dog's not good for your house, we'll get you another dog.' But when you ask that question about kids, people freak out."

Goller-Sojourner is a performer. This summer, he put on a one-man show at the Rainier Valley Cultural Center called Sitting in Circles with Rich White Girls: Memoirs of a Bulimic Black Boy. As a big, gay, dark-skinned black adoptee of white parents living in white University Place outside Tacoma, he has had to explain himself many times, from many different perspectives, to many different kinds of people. He's developed multiple metaphors: the dog-adoption analogy, one involving a seven-foot child with five-foot parents ("It's not that one's better, it's just an acknowledgement of likeness or nonlikeness"), and one about lions and a gazelle.
"Let's say I was a gazelle adopted by lions," he says. "I pranced around happy until I got to first grade and all these lions tried to attack me; it's like they didn't get the memo. The other gazelles, they smelled the lion on me and didn't trust me, so I stood open."

He can also tell it literally: "The difference between when I got called nigger and when other black kids got called nigger is that they went home and got love, and I went home and got love from people who looked just like the people who called me nigger. As a child, you don't have the ability to bifurcate."

Phebe Jewell is gay. She and her partner, Dawn, adopted a boy named Isaac. He has the same mother as Bill and Pam LaBorde's two children, the poor woman from Texas, Amanda, who for the most part finds it too painful to be in contact with the children she's let go. Isaac, Theo, and Simone all live in the same neighborhood, and Theo and Isaac go to the same school (Simone is too young). When friends from school come over, they are often confused about why Isaac, Theo, and Simone don't live together. But then somebody explains it, and that's that.

Isaac is 6 1/2, the oldest of the three, and he is not a quiet kid. You can hear him across the aisles at a store. Phebe worries that some people will see him as "dangerous, a thug," but she knows that if he were quiet, he'd probably get teased as an Oreo. At his school, many of the kids are black. He comes home talking black, calling her "girl." It makes her proud, that he's getting black culture, black cadence. Even though she's white, she knows it herself, having grown up partly in the South. She jokingly calls him "boy" in return, but she knows she'll eventually have to stop herself, because of that word's old association with power and slavery, something Isaac couldn't know about now.

Isaac does know about slavery. He learned about it a year ago. Eventually, he used it against his mother when she tried to tell him what to do. "White people don't own black people anymore, so you can't own me," he told her.

Ingenious, she thought. That's my son.

Over at Theo and Simone's house, they have just finished eating their black-bean burritos, and it's time to put on swimsuits and get in the car to go for lessons. Lessons are at Medgar Evers Pool, a place named for a man who was intimidated from voting just 62 years ago, who was on his college debate team, who married a woman named Myrlie, who had a Molotov cocktail thrown into the carport at their home, who was nearly run down by a car, who was shot dead in his own driveway—in the back—by a Ku Klux Klan fertilizer salesman who was not convicted of murder until 30 years later. Everything good that happened to Medgar Evers was because of Medgar Evers. Everything bad that happened to him was because he was black and refused to apologize for it.

Theo and Simone are sitting in the backseat of the car. Pam is explaining how she dresses the children carefully. If they were white children, she might dress them as "little Goodwill hippies," but she doesn't want black or white people thinking of them as poor maltreated urchins, so she dresses them up. Theo is wearing a white button-up polo shirt and glasses. We are driving past Garfield High School, where on Halloween night, a black teenager was killed in what police think was a gang shooting. Since then, black teenagers have been walking around the Central District and riding city buses along Martin Luther King Jr. Way in sweatshirts that say "RIP Lil Q" for the kid who died.

Theo doesn't know any of this. He doesn't know that he's going to a pool named for Medgar Evers. He doesn't know that there was a shooting here at this same place, another shooting of a black man. He doesn't know that this is my neighborhood, where I live, where I'm learning about the meaning of race, the moderate racist in the front seat.

He does know about Obama, though. What does he know about Obama? I ask him. He puts his fingers to his chest and says, "Black." Then he says, "White House." That's all he says.


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