Yesterday I ended up having an interesting, and somewhat robust, exchange on Twitter with Johann Hari, he of the Independent column, scourge of the Pope, radical atheist, gay activist, and thorn in the side of right-wingers everywhere. Although we have some very sharp differences of view – most especially on religion – I am normally very much in sympathy with his perspectives. I remember a particularly piquant dissection by him of the Conservative council in Hammersmith and Fulham and I couldn’t have roared him on with more enthusiasm if he’d been John Terry about to take his penalty against Manchester United in the 2008 Champions’ League final. Although, as on that occasion, I don’t always back the winner, of course.
In this instance, the subject of our disagreement had nothing to do with religion, but to do with inter-racial adoption. The Children’s Minister, Tim Loughton, had been explaining the government’s updating of adoption guidelines to make inter-racial adoption easier, laying less emphasis on racial matching of adoptive parents and the children that they might adopt. Johann welcomed these changes and found “the idea that white adopted parents can’t understand black children bizarre. My parents were straight and loved me totally.” He went on to tweet “that I hate this idea we’re divided by chasms of race, sexuality etc. In fact we’re all pretty similar, and empathy can bridge the differences.” I wonder about two assumptions that underpin these sentiments, both of them controversial.
The first is that racism and homophobia (not an expression I would have coined myself since it implies that dominant heterosexual society acts out of fear rather than out of irrational hatred coupled with the power to impose that hatred) are equivalent in this context. Of course Johann is not arguing that racism and homophobia are the same, but they have sufficient “similarities” as he put it to be used as analogies when it comes to thinking about the ability of parents to reach out across the divisions of race and sexuality. The second is that “empathy can bridge the differences”.
What is wrong with these assumptions? I have the horrible feeling that I’m about to upset a lot of people whose opinions I respect, and whose sensibilities I have no wish to offend. But I simply don’t believe that the undoubted things that are common to racism and homophobia are sufficient to overcome the fundamental differences between them. Both lead to discrimination. Both lead to injustice. Both have elements of institutionalisation. Both are deeply, morally obnoxious. Both need to be challenged. Both have been taken up by fascists. But homophobia is not of itself routinely associated with social and economic disadvantage. Homosexuality is not inescapably visible across a street (and that is no reason why anyone should be pressured or obliged to avoid visible identification as gay.) And most importantly, homophobia has not resulted in the enforced migration of tens of millions, of their enslavement over hundreds of years, of the continuing economic oppression of whole continents. Of course there is such a thing as “gay culture”, but gay sub-cultures have always existed alongside heterosexual culture, and in some periods and in some places, have had higher, rather than lower, social status. Because all societies have always had gay members, there has always been a rapprochement to be arrived at. For sure, that rapprochement has often been at the expense of a bitter and disgraceful price for gay people, but there have been ebbs and flows throughout history. Racism in the modern western world comes from specific social and economic events: the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the imperial expansion into the East.
So what? For this debate, I think these differences are critical. It is inevitable that gay children will by and large be brought up by straight parents simply because of arithmetic. It is normal in the statistical sense for this to be the case. And it is hard to see this as a “problem” that can be “solved”. What would such a solution look like? Being gay is, at least to some extent, a behavioural issue (sexual relations are surely a behaviour) in a way that being black is not. So I dare say that Johann is right when he says that heterosexual parents can use empathy to bridge the differences with their gay offspring. In a way, if empathy cannot bridge that gap, then nothing can. What else is there? No-one is suggesting that gay children are forcibly adopted by gay adoptive parents in order to experience a more sympathetic family milieu. None of this is true for black children being adopted by white parents. Gay children still have cultural ties to their straight parents. Black children do not have the same ties to their white adoptive parents.
But finally, the problem of inter-racial adoption is political, not developmental. It is political because, whether we like it or not, Britain is still a deeply racist country, and white British people are still largely ignorant about black history and black culture. It is political because race is inextricably bound up with economics and deprivation. It is political because relative to their numbers, disproportionately many black people in this country are disproportionately poor. These things cannot be overcome with empathy. You might think that getting adopted by rich white parents might be the simplest way out of these problems. But that would be to sell those children’s heritage down the river, and is effectively buying off their racial identity. You might as well offer gay kids money to act straight.
I do not believe that inter-racial adoption is morally wrong, and I know that it is often the least worst option for many children otherwise languishing in a damaging care system. But it is problematic, and trying to avoid it is not just political correctness getting things out of proportion. It is trying to ensure that at least black children are sustained in families that share their history, and their relationships to British society. When, and as, they grow up black kids need all the racial support they can get to deal with the racism that they will inevitably confront.