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Season 1, Episode 13: Dr. Elizabeth Raleigh discusses the work that she and Dr. Rose Kreider have been doing in developing a demographic understanding of White and Black adoptive parents of Black children using US Census data. She highlights the lack of nationally representative research of Black adoptive families and the implications of this significant research gap. Dr. Raleigh then outlines the findings, both those expected and surprising, from using the US Census data to compare Black and White adoptive families of Black children, linking these findings with the broader discussion of race in America. Last, she describes a research agenda moving forward that would focus on broader and deeper understanding of Black Adoptive families. 

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Routledge Handbook of Adoption


Dr. Emily Helder:  Hello, I’m Dr. Helder and I’m here with Dr. Elizabeth Raleigh, who is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Carleton College and the author of “Selling transracial adoption: families, markets, and the color line.”

She and Dr. Rose Kreider also co-wrote a chapter in the Handbook of Adoption and it presents a nationally representative comparison of Black and White adoptive parents of Black adoptees. So, thanks so much for being willing to come chat a bit about the chapter.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: Well, great. Thanks so much for inviting me and for, including our work in your really great compilation.

Dr. Emily Helder: Thanks. So let’s dive in. So your chapter really begins by giving a helpful summary about some important historical movements and policies around the adoption of Black children. And I wondered if you could expand on that a little bit, tell us some of the tensions that have existed, continue to exist around this form of adoption.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: Right. And so, you know, we chose to start off talking about 1972, the National Association of Black Social Workers and their kind of landmark statement coming out against transracial adoption saying, you know, that Black children belonged, you know, physically, psychologically, for safety in Black families and that White adoption was not necessary.

And so one of the things that of course, policy pundents, families, people really kind of went on the part that it was about cultural genocide and they missed this sort of other piece where they said, you know, it’s not even really necessary. There are so many Black families who want to adopt. And if only there wasn’t so much, you know, here I’m paraphrasing systematic racism and exclusion of those particular prospective adoptive parents, it would be kind of be a moot point. And so one of the things that of course sparked our interest is that, you know, what is the national population of Black adoptive parents? What are their demographic profile? What do they look like? How many are there? And because a lot of the work particularly coming out and spurred by the National Association of Black Social Workers is that it was very much within the realm of social work, which is great, but, oftentimes too, that they were limited to pretty much convenience samples. So we didn’t know a lot about the national profile. And of course it wasn’t until what, 2000 that the US Census even started asking to differentiate between children who were foster adopted to adopted as well, or who are foster children versus adopted children. And so now we had a way to disaggregate those who were in step families or who were adopted. And so that kind of opened the door to doing more demographic analysis. And so that’s where Rose and I decided to come in.

Dr. Emily Helder: Great. Great. And one of the things too, that you highlighted in the literature review kind of leading up to your data analysis was that a lot of research has focused on White adoptive parents of Black children.

So the transracial adoption piece. And I wondered if you could talk through, what you see the impact of that being, you know, what studies are missing, how has that limited researchers understanding of Black adoptive families?

Dr. Liz Raleigh: Right. So, yeah, definitely. Thanks for asking that part. I think part of it is that in terms of a human interest story, that transracial adoption is very much, something that I think audiences are really fascinated by. It’s often, and I talk about this in some of my other work, seen as sort of this feel good moment. I also think too, you know, a little bit of backstage questioning is that there are a lot of White adoptive parents who are academics, and then they want to write about their experiences as well. And so it makes sense that you see a lot more transracial adoption.

On the other hand, too, there are a lot of transracial adoptees like myself who have come of age and who are interested in contributing to the research. And so I think that you end up seeing relative to the numbers of actual transracial adoptees in the U S a disproportionate amount of focus in the literature.

And one of the things we really try to emphasize is that Black monoracial adoptive families are pretty much invisible because they are not so easily visibly recognized. Of course, White monoracial adoptive families are invisible as well, because they would emulate that so-called “as if begotten model.”

However, because we know that adoptive parents are disproportionately White, that I think that those monoracial White adoptive families still get their due, I guess, in the literature. But there’s such a dearth of emphasis on Black adoptive families that we wanted to try to at least plumb what we could from a limited sample, like the American Community Survey to see what else could we find and what sort of important comparisons and contributions can we make to help remind people about some national benchmarks for Black adoptive families.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Yeah. I, when I read the literature that you reviewed, I was so struck by that same reaction that I’ve seen that that’s just a, really a large gap anyway, in, in the literature.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: I was going to say like, I mean, I was just going back that  a decade ago, almost they said, you know, this is a call we would love to see more work in this area. And then it’s kind of silent, you know, I was going through and looking at all these different databases, not just even sociology where I’m trained, but in social work and gender studies. And that there’s just so little out there so hopefully this could be, you know, again, another call to try to have more literature on it because given where we are in this political moment, I think in thinking about the fragility and the precarity facing not only Black families, but of course, Black young boys and young men in particular, I think putting that in the adoption context and actually thinking a little bit more about the way that transracial adoption fits in with that is really, really important.

And then just again, thinking more about Black adoptive families in general.

Dr. Emily Helder: Right, right. Yeah. Well, and you mentioned too where your data came from, but I wanted to follow up a little bit on that. So, so you drew from the American Community Survey data set, and I wondered if you could say a bit more about what you saw as the advantages of that versus any limitations that you faced as you were trying to answer your research question.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: And so again, and then I’m really glad, and it’s been such a wonderful, just sort of intellectual and great collaboration and partnership with Dr. Rose Kreider at the U S Census. And so the fabulous thing about having a collaborator who works with the Census is that she has access to the internal data file.

And so, whereas if you’re able with people who have used the Census, you know, you can pull a 1% or a 5% data, but this is like the full file. And then to combine five years, what did we do? Like 2011 to 2014 at the time of that in order to get enough people to actually have any kind of statistical power. And so, because if we know that adoptive families are what, like  2% of the US population, and then you can start doing some quick math that Black parents are what like 13% of that.

And so you’re getting pretty small and like cutting a small pie smaller and smaller. And so of course having this combined data file is really great. However,  the number of variables and questions that people ask, because these aren’t researchers who set off to say, Oh, I want to make a survey about adoptive families, but rather I’d like to find out things about home ownership, education, unemployment status, the racial, ethnic composition of their families. And so the things that we could use, but it’s not exactly adoption specific. The only other one is, so there is a national survey of adoptive parents, which some colleagues and other people who’ve done really wonderful work on. But however, because adoptive parents are disproportionately White and I think because they oversample those who adopt internationally, and that is very, very disproportionately White, that those adoptive parents in the file, even if their children are an array of racial and ethnic backgrounds, the parents themselves are pretty White. And so having kind of done some digging there to see, it looks like, you know, that there’s even as much smaller group of Black adoptive families.

And so, again, in order to turn the lens and to look more nationally at Black adoptive families, you can, you have to kind of use the data that’s available, but you, in some ways, compromise on some of the questions that you have. And so what we were able to look through is limited in terms of the adoption context, but still I think, you know, some of the findings that we were able to unearth are worth reminding and even more surprising to us in some ways, too.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. Well, and let’s turn to that. So tell me a little bit about,  what you felt like were your main takeaways, your main findings. How did they compare with what you’d expect that you would find?

Dr. Liz Raleigh: So in terms of hypotheses, I mean, some of the things I think are in line with our expectations. And so quickly to go through that, like, as we know from many other studies about inequality that Black adoptive parents, that they are disproportionately women, more likely to be single, compared to White adoptive parents, more likely to have less than a college degree, more likely to rent than to own. And so then what we just see is the continued manifestation of systematic inequality playing out through the lens of the family.

So that wasn’t a surprise to us, but it was certainly sobering. The things that did surprise us and what we know from the literature. One, we know that there’s a really big gender imbalance in terms of sex, I guess I should be using like, sort of, I don’t know how those parents would identify their children, but maybe we’ll go with sex assigned at birth.

In the sense of terms of the way that parents talk about their adopted children and that they’re disproportionately female. And so we know that in adoption in general, but I think a lot of that of course is driven by adoption of Chinese girls. And so when you were looking at kind of adoption in general, that we see a greater preference for girls or for daughters, we were wondering if that was going to play out, certainly in some of the qualitative work that I’ve done I saw that the ways in which social workers talked about the transracial adoption of Black children that they were, I mean, one person said, “it’s fine that if you want to take a Black girl, but you don’t want to have a Black boy, I can totally understand.” And so we were wondering if at the national level we would see the this intersectional preference play out and I was expecting to see that White adoptive parents who adopted Black children were more likely to adopt girls than boys. And yet that wasn’t the case. And so we had done this gender ratio and across the board. And so we looked at monoracial White adoptive families, monoracial Black adoptive families. And then also for a bit, we also want to look at sort of interracial White adoptive parents who were married to somebody who was, who did not  identify as White, to see.

And that the other thing I thought was really interesting about that is that those, but so across those three groups, there was not a gender preference. So that was a real surprise to us given everything that we’ve seen and read in the literature about a preference for girls. So that was one. The other thing that I think was a really kind of fascinating and important takeaway is that we knew that monoracial White adoptive parents would, we hypothesized that they would be more likely to say that their children, that if they are, Black in combination with another race, so to have a multiracial Black child.

And so we were wondering if this was because that there’s some, in the, some, some aspects of the literature that would suggest that White parents are more likely to seek out a biracial multiracial child, partially, maybe because they were looking for a child who would have, I’m talking about colorism, lighter skin, or maybe who was part White.

So that way the parents felt like they could connect a little bit more to their racial backgrounds and then their child. We expected that Black monoracial parents would adopt a Black child, but we did not expect to see the discrepancy. And so I was just going back to look at that, White parents are seven times more likely to say that their child, their adopted child is multiracial and that’s, to me is a really big difference.

And I think part of this has to do with the way that race in the United States, like there’s some literature that would suggest that Black families, even if their child is quote, technically multiracial, they’re much more likely to claim a monoracial identity. And so it’s not like we are, and I could go off on this tangent about the accuracy of 23 and me anyway, but it’s not like we’re trying to dig down to like, whatever the true makeup is, but rather the way in which people who create their families through adoption, try to, even on a US government form signal one way or the other, like how, what their connections look like.

And so there, I think there’s a lot of really interesting room for further research to think about what it means for when White parents say, yes, I am adopting transracially, but yes that child is, has a multiracial background versus monoracial Black adoptive families who might say, well, maybe my child, you know, is part something or other, but to me, like we’re a Black family and that’s how I want it to be recognized and counted.

And so,  even though we hypothesized we’d find a difference to the extent, the extent of it was a lot more than we had anticipated.

Dr. Emily Helder: It seems like it would be so interesting to follow that up with some qualitative work, to see a little bit of the background and backstory of that.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: Right. And so, I mean, I would love to see it.

So certainly we know that, and you know, for somebody who’s a social scientist and very mixed methods anyway. But, one thing I really appreciate is that there is a really nice mix between quantitative and qualitative work in the Handbook and to really think about the way that those stories are so illustrative and to understand, you know, why is it that people, when they fill out those forms this way, and of course, sociologists, they have a long history of asking people, you know, even from Mary Waters’ work, you know, why would you fill out a census form this way? And so to think about that in terms of, for adoptive families, I think would be a really great next step.

Dr. Emily Helder: Great. Well, and tell me too, what do you feel like you took away in terms of adding more nuance or complexity for your understanding or for, kind of, general public’s understanding about who adopts Black children, you know, are there, do you feel like there’s misunderstandings or stereotypes that are out there about adoptive families who adopt Black children that you felt like your research was really able to correct or address?

Dr. Liz Raleigh: I mean, I think just in terms of the representation and I mean, of course I can statistically understand why, and of course that this is true, but it’s a good reminder that there are more Black adoptive families in the United States. And more, I  guess, more Black children are adopted by Black parents than by White parents. And of course that’s so different from the, what gets magnified, not only in the literature, but if you also think about in the popular press and the media, the stories of celebrity adoptions and who gets kind of pegged as an adoptive, you know, and here I’m being gendered, mother of a Black child. And of course there are so many more Black mothers who adopt Black children. And so when we think about the importance of imaging and even for those who are later on in charge of things like grants and giving out money for that type of research, to remember that as well, in terms of like, Oh, this is really an important place.

And second, I think, because there is so much discussion about, and then of course, Black adoptive parents that look like they’re much more likely to adopt, not internationally, US born children, oftentimes probably through foster care. And as we think about the sort of growing number. And I imagine I knew that post 2008, the number of foster care placements, not only did we have like sort of the Great Recession before, but then the opioid crisis.

And now with everything that’s being hit to Black and Brown communities for COVID that I can see a real important need to start, you know, more actively recruiting from those communities as well. And then the other thing too, about the American Community Survey data is to think a little bit more expansively about adoption.

We don’t necessarily know the type of adoption. Part of, it could be kinship adoption, or, you know, kind of the informal adoption of somebody else into the family. And so when we think about how it is that we envision adoption and count it, that when people kind of define their own relationship status, then I think that that’s worth paying attention to as well.

Even for me, that sometimes that I feel like I have a more circumscribed kind of strict definition of what adoption is, and yet to think too about when, the way that people fill out forms and the meaning that comes from that and how they claim their family kin structures for me is an important reminder as well.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yeah. I’m so glad you pointed out the recruitment by adoption agencies, because I think there there’s been a lot written and discussed regarding race of the social workers in practice and how that impacts recruitment. So I think that that’s a really valuable reminder that your chapter provides.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: Right. And then the importance of it because there, you know, even to echo back, you know, I really do believe the language, the part from the National Association of Black Social Workers that said, yes, there are so many Black families who want to adopt. And I could see that those pieces that I think know the American Community Survey shows that there are many people who have, and of course, one has to wonder if that there were better recruitment pipelines, more welcoming, inclusive procedures, if you would see even more as well. But of course that’s all predicated on this too. I’ve been really thinking about like, I, as much as I think adoption is a really wonderful, great thing. Like to put adoption of Black children in the larger context of who are the people losing those Black children as well.

And so that’s not something we were able to address here, but I think very much part of the, the conversation.

Dr. Emily Helder: Right, right. Prioritizing those family preservation efforts in the context of child welfare. Yeah. As, as you’re kind of thinking about next steps and building on this work, I wondered if you could outline, I guess, beyond what you’ve already mentioned, what you see as the next steps in the research agenda for better understanding Black adoptive families, especially.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: I mean, I think that part of it is that having better data sources. And so, people like,  who work in the Census and other places have gotten good at working with what we have, but the importance of more data. And though, and again, I think that there’s so much to learn from qualitative studies and that sort of rich thick description is essential, but I would like to see that complimented by more national level data.

And so I was really excited and I do think the National Survey of Adoptive Parents is a real treasure trove. However, if you do want to look at not just the race of the adopted child, but the race of the parents, then you’re going to need a lot more oversampling. And so if they’re ever thinking about doing another wave of that, I would like to see that to be made a priority as well.

Because again, I think that Black adoptive parents are oftentimes just sort of ignored. And so to have more of an opportunity to learn more about those experiences with some actual statistical power behind it would be a really great opportunity that so far I think people have sort of missed.

Dr. Emily Helder: Yes. Yes. I hope it doesn’t take, I hope in another decade, we’re not sitting here saying the same thing. Well thank you so much for being willing to describe some of your work and for writing the chapter with a Rose in the first place. I think it’s a really valuable contribution to the Handbook.

Dr. Liz Raleigh: Well, thank you so much for the opportunity and this was a great discussion. Thank you for including me.

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