Race, Rights, and the Rules of Adoption

REVIEW: 'You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity and Transracial Adoption' by Angela Tucker

Angela Tucker with her adoptive parents
May 21, 2023

"The prevailing idea of adoption is tidy and neat," Angela Tucker writes in her new book You Should Be Grateful. "It’s a simple recipe. A family with extra love and resources meets a child in need of both. What’s not to love about this?"

Tucker was born in 1985 in Chattanooga, Tenn., to an African-American mother who bore four other children and did not raise any of them. Her biological father did not know about her birth—he was a developmentally disabled man who lived on the streets and made money standing outside of bars selling flowers that were donated to him.

After a brief stint in foster care, Tucker was adopted by a white couple in Bellingham, Washington. By her own account, she had a wonderful childhood with loving siblings and parents. Despite being born partially deaf and with legs turned in such a way that doctors did not expect her to walk (both most likely the result of drug use by her mother), Tucker was a star athlete and musician. Over the years, people have told Tucker she should be "grateful," and she is. But she worries that people don’t really understand that adoption is complicated, that she also wished the circumstances of her birth parents were different.

Her adoptive parents share this view. As she writes: "They fearlessly understood and named the paradox that they were so happy I’d joined their family and also longed for a world in which Deborah could have kept me."

So who thinks adoption is a "simple recipe" where we take a child away from their birth parents and just throw them into another family? Certainly no one who has been adopted or who has placed a child for adoption or who has adopted. Of course, there are people who haven’t given the concept of adoption much thought at all. For them, Tucker’s vivid description of the complex emotions that accompanied her on the journey to finding her birth family will be an education. And maybe it will stop them from saying insensitive things to Tucker and others in her position. But there is a point in all of our lives when we accept that strangers make ignorant comments, and it’s not really worth losing sleep over all of them.

When I was pregnant with my first child, a stranger came up to me at a wedding and asked how I felt knowing that this child (who would presumably have dark skin like my husband) would be "totally alienated" from me. At some point you just shake your head or throw your drink, but you have to move on.

There are complexities to growing up black in a white family in a white town in a white state. But the ones Tucker points to suggest a bizarre understanding of racial identity. For instance, she notes that she was always louder and dressed more colorfully than other members of her adoptive family or people in her town. Is that because she’s black? Another black adoptee tells her that her tastes in food differed from her adoptive parents. And another says she felt at home with her birth parents because they shared her sense of humor and sarcasm. No one doubts these adoptive children sometimes felt out of place in their families. But is this because of their race?

And no one doubts that adoptive children sometimes adapt "people-pleasing behaviors" in order to fit in. But there are a lot of non-adoptive children who share the same race as their parents who also feel they don’t fit in with their families. In fact, for the demographic of mostly teenagers that Tucker is mentoring, one might assume that such discomfort is actually the norm—even among children raised by their biological parents. But when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you view everything through the lens of adoption and race, then you lose sight of all the normal challenges young people face. Indeed, you lose sight of the fact that many people exist in this intersection of happiness and tragedy.

The parents who lose a child to cancer but then decide they want to have another one. The widower who finds love and marries again. There is not a day that these people don’t wish the world could be different, but then they also know that the joy they experience every day would not have been possible without the tragedy that preceded it.

Much of Tucker’s book is devoted to the ways she would fix the world so that Deborah could have kept her. And most of the problem in Tucker’s view is racism. Black people are held, she says, to a different standard than white people when it comes to their behavior, a white standard. She says that the nine children who integrated the elementary school in Little Rock were taught that "acting white" was essential to their success. This might have come as news to their parents and civil rights leaders at the time, who thought practicing nonviolence and acting respectfully was not the exclusive province of white people.

But you can tell where Tucker comes down on the civil rights movement when she describes Malcolm X as "a proponent of nonviolence." That picture of him with a rifle looking out his window is just an aberration?

The legacy of racism and "ancient historical trauma" have caused Deborah’s problems, she writes. When Tucker first approaches her birth mother and Deborah denies that Tucker is her daughter, she speculates that Deborah was experiencing "unmetabolized trauma from the past." This is a grown woman who travels with a doll that she talks about as if she were a real baby. There is no doubt that Deborah has experienced trauma—substance abuse, mental illness, perhaps even abuse and neglect when she was young—but one needn’t go back to ancient times to find it.

Though Tucker knows Deborah could not have raised her, she says she is angry at the child welfare system "that assumes black children must be saved from the social ills of their culture, which is quick to believe glossy social media posts that depict wokeness." She also blames the "war on drugs." Whether or not the war on drugs was a good thing generally has little to do with whether individual parents’ drug use made them incapable of caring for young children. Tucker knows that she was not removed from Deborah’s home because of black culture. She was removed because Deborah couldn’t care for her. One of Tucker’s sisters was initially left with Deborah but was actually raised by a grandmother briefly and then was just bouncing to different friends’ homes.

Much of the book describes her anger at not meeting her birth family sooner. She had what is called a "closed adoption," where information wasn’t provided to her family about her birth mother and she could not access it. But very few adoptions are closed anymore. She believes that open adoptions "end up looking closed" because once an adoption is finalized, the adoptive parents can decide how much contact their child will have with their biological parents.

Tucker dismisses "safety concerns" cited by adoptive parents in limiting the contact with biological parents. But frankly there are real issues here and though lawmakers in New York recently proposed mandating visitation for birth parents even after adoptions are finalized, this would seriously infringe on adoptive parents’ rights to be real parents to their children. And it would probably discourage adoption generally.

You Should Be Grateful is ultimately a mishmash of Tucker’s own story, which is both moving and fascinating, with "research" she has picked up from progressive academics. For instance, she touts "blind removals" whereby agencies decide whether to put a child in foster care without revealing the race of the child to the people making the decision. She says this dramatically altered racial disparities in foster care. In fact, the agency that was doing it just changed the way they were counting kids and when it compared apples to apples, the percentage of black kids removed went up and down in no discernible pattern.

Tucker is right that adoption is not neat. And any policy solutions to the problems of our child welfare system will have to recognize the complexity of these issues. Unfortunately, when Tucker turns from the personal to the political, all her nuance seems to go out the window.

You Should Be Grateful: Stories of Race, Identity and Transracial Adoption
by Angela Tucker
Beacon Press, 196 pp., $25.95

Naomi Schaefer Riley, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the Independent Women's Forum, is the author of No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives.