As heartbreaking as it is to listen to the cries of refugee children who have been forcibly taken away from their parents, we should remember that the forced separation of families is nothing new, especially when it comes to communities of color.
Source: AP via US Customs and Border Protection. An agent keeps watch as children file out of a cage.
Before I go further, I want to state the intention behind this post. I have been heartbroken and appalled by the lack of compassion being shown to desperate families from our neighbor nations to the south. My heart goes out to parents who seek respite from the dangerous circumstances in their home countries.
As a U.S. citizen, I try to recognize my nation’s complicity in creating the dire conditions these families are fleeing, whether in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, or Nicaragua. I am clear that part of the reason why so many desperate parents risk everything to bring their children north is directly related to the legacy of weapons, war, drug money, deported gang members, and political destabilization exported from the United States during my lifetime.
Furthermore, as the adopted son of immigrant parents, as a transracially adopted African American member of a multiracial family that includes refugees from the Nazi Holocaust, as a teacher educator of color, and as the adoptive father of black sons who survived the traumas of foster care, adoption, and incarceration, I must speak out.
It is tempting to feel powerless. I ask myself, What can I possibly do? Well, I know how to write, and I have loyal blog followers. Maybe my words, in some small way, will help strengthen our resistance movement. It is for all these reasons that I feel compelled to break my self-imposed blog silence and use some of my privilege and cultural capital to express my thoughts on child removal, family separation, foster care, adoption, and schooling–all topics that I have studied and personally participated in, for better or worse.
While I have taken a break from blogging for some time, I have been diligently working to make amends for the harm I may have caused through my involvement and participation in social institutions which I have come to recognize as fundamentally unethical and untenable. As a grandfather now, I feel more and more driven to work to hold myself accountable. These feelings are the genesis of this post. And so…
While it is shocking to witness, in our own time, media images of incarcerated children confined to oversized dog kennels, the roundup of children on the border is but the latest manifestation of an age-old government policy. Many Americans either don’t know or don’t care to think about how child removal has a long, shameful history as U.S. government policy. Even so, this policy can be understood as part of the larger attempt to manage the “problem” of diversity within the unfolding great American social experiment.
In terms of U.S. history, child removal has proven to be an effective strategy for domesticating communities that the power elites view as their enemies. Back during slavery times, enslaved parents had their children sold away, sometimes as a punishment for disobeying the master’s wishes, other times as intimidation designed to keep enslaved adults in line.
Later, long after slavery was abolished, child removal continued to be used to control black bodies. Think about it: It made a kind of sense for white authorities to fear the resentment, if not rebellion, of their former slaves. Systems were put in place to monitor and contain black aspirations for freedom, including the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, the penal system, chain gangs, and “hyper policing” of black neighborhoods. Don’t forget about the lynchings, torch-wielding night riders, White Citizens Councils, etc. that used violence and intimidation to shore up white dominance. Want some documentation? Read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow for an excellent analysis of how white power came to be maintained after slavery ended. Alexander shows how mass incarceration became a preferred way to keep watch over potentially rebellious malcontents, namely, African Americans and poor people of all races and ethnic backgrounds.
As the social welfare and justice systems slithered their icy tentacles into African American communities, forced child removal was added to the arsenal of the surveillance apparatus. Why do you think there are disproportionate numbers of black and brown children in foster care? Why are so many black and Latinx youth living behind bars? After reading his autobiography in which he describes his childhood experience surviving both foster care and incarceration, you begin to understand why the legendary African American leader, Malcolm X, referred to social workers as “home wreckers.”
The long and valiant efforts to defend the Native way of life from encroaching “settlement” by hostile invaders ultimately ended in the military defeat of resistant Indigenous nations. Conquered Native Americans had to watch their children being forcibly removed from their families. The most resistant and defiant tribes had their children snatched first. Captured children were sent away to residential “Indian schools,” where forced assimilation into the white man’s way of life was foisted upon them.
Carlisle Indian School (or indoctrination center, depending on your loyalties)
Even today, many Native and First Nations communities throughout North America struggle with the long-lasting effects of this historical trauma. Trauma today shows up in a complex of social problems, including alcoholism, child abuse, domestic violence, and high rates of youth suicide. It is not easy to “get over” and simply forget the deliberate breakup of families, which arguably serve as the backbone of vibrant, culturally intact communities. It is a testament to the resilience and beauty of their cultures that my Indigenous friends are still here. In gratitude for your example, in admiration of your courage, and out of a sense of moral outrage at the colonization you continue to endure, I rise in solidarity.
It is no exaggeration to say that child removal policy has been a primary strategy for building and maintaining the white settler nation state. If you need further evidence, study the work of historian Margaret Jacobs, my award-winning colleague here at the University of Nebraska. Her book, White Mother to a Dark Race, details the way self-appointed white women rushed in to Native communities at the end of the so-called Indian Wars to “rescue” children from what they saw as a barbaric, dying culture, by ripping them away from their supposedly “uncivilized” parents. Jacobs points out how Indian child removal by these ethnocentric reformers, even though they acted as if it were for the children’s own good, was actually part of a deliberate process of white nation-building during Westward Expansion. She also hints at the way the seeds were sown for the later transracial adoption experiment of placing Indigenous children in white Christian homes. Jacobs’ impressive book documents the same approach taken by similar white settler nation states, such as Canada and Australia, where white invaders snatched Indigenous children as part of their own nation-building process. I’m not making any of this up, folks. Go check for yourselves.
While you’re at it, read Joel Spring’s book, Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality. In it, he discusses the uses and abuses of schooling, along with other U.S. government policies, to control minoritized communities. Spring systematically chronicles the treatment of Native Americans and former slaves, Asian immigrants, and colonized Latinx communities, including families living in occupied territory claimed by Mexico and Puerto Rico.
Separating children from their families was found to be an effective way to intimidate and coerce resistant adults of all ethnicities. Confining children in schools and other institutions continues to be used to manage diversity, principally by assimilating and socializing the next generation of conquered and resistant peoples into accepting their subordinate status.
Even the white children of European immigrants weren’t spared, back in the day. What we like to think of rosily as the “American Dream” is actually rooted in the nightmare of cultural imperialism, enforced through loss of languages and given names, Americanizing “foreign-sounding” family names, and erasing cultural identities. Europeans from different nations were coerced and bribed into leaving all vestiges of their respective motherlands behind in order to gain the privileges reserved for white Americans.
And even though we are not often taught this tidbit from history, it is a fact, nevertheless, that thousands of immigrants returned to Europe. Once they had a taste of the racist, misogynist, and unfriendly American class structure, not to mention the abysmal working and living conditions, they were like, “I’m out of here.” Don’t believe me? Check out James Loewen’s revealing book, Lies My Teacher Told Me.
Schooling has always been key to the assimilation and domestication agenda. (Read Paulo Freire’s excellent critique of what he calls the “banking model” of schooling in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In fact, it may be time to revisit his contemporary Ivan Illich’s ideas in his book, Deschooling Society.) Schooling is based fundamentally on removing children from their families, albeit temporarily, but for large and recurring chunks of time. (See award-winning educator John Taylor Gatto’s book, A Different Kind of Teacher for some great insights into how this all works.) Because most of us have been effectively tamed through schooling, it should come as no surprise that many of us timidly and obediently accept this process as a social good, even as a necessity. But given the emerging social and political crisis facing the United States, it’s time we ask ourselves: At what cost do we willingly submit our children to domesticating education?
We are currently living through a terrible period of scapegoating, demonizing, and dehumanizing particular communities, exacerbated but not caused by the current occupant of the White House. As the Baby Boomer generation ages, and the complexion of the nation’s youth generation grows darker with each passing decade, we are being encouraged, mainly through corporate media propaganda, to buy into an “us versus them” mentality. Some of our neighbors, friends, and family members are being labeled as undesirable and treated as expendable. That is unacceptable, and we must resist all efforts to pit us against each other.
Recognize how we are being conditioned and desensitized in order for the state to take steps to further contain and control the burgeoning brown youth generation through a strategy of divide and conquer. Recognize how they are trying to break our spirits. But before we give in to sheer exhaustion, and before we give up in utter despondency, we must ask ourselves: How do we want history–and future generations–to judge our response to the current manufactured crisis?
Wake up from the desensitization! We have become too desensitized to the ongoing trauma of separating children from their families. We have been conditioned to think of it as normal. For example, most Americans accept sending our own children off to school, where they are taught by strangers, away from the watchful, loving eyes of parents and grandparents. We act as if rounding up the young and segregating them away from adult society is somehow “natural.” We force kids indoors for hours at a time, away from nature, in buildings that look and often feel like prisons, grouped unnaturally by age or “grade,” and we call that education. Then we wonder why so many kids hate school.
We tolerate other professional interventions into family life, for example, by social workers and other authorities. We allow them to physically remove children from any families they decide are unfit. We tolerate the psychic violence done by adoption agencies both at home and abroad, and their unethical trade in children. We make it seem normal and acceptable for a so-called “birth mother” to walk away from her child. We accept as a good thing the transnational movement of children from one “unfit” family to another “approved” family. We tolerate the breakup of largely disenfranchised, struggling families, often impacted by poverty. By accepting as legitimate the global institution of adoption, we tacitly endorse the wholesale destruction of families and communities, and render “birth parents” and other biological relatives largely invisible and powerless.
On top of that, we tolerate the mass incarceration of youth who, in past times, would not have been tried as adults or treated as criminals, but would have been forgiven their youthful mistakes, and probably given a second chance. We have become so desensitized, over the years, that we now accept without thinking that the “best interests of the child” are served by allowing self-appointed authorities to remove children and send them to live away from their families—behind bars, in detention centers, in group homes, in psych wards, in foster homes, or simply spending their days away at school. And now, we watch incredulously as frightened, already traumatized refugee kids are being corralled into kennels and tent cities along the U.S./Mexican border. I can’t help but ask, what would Jesus say?
When you step back and understand U.S. history from the vantage point of child removal, you begin to see the pattern. My writing partner, Jason Irizarry, and I have written elsewhere about the “ideology of containment” as a pattern throughout the history of schooling in the U.S.A. It’s all part of a corrupt continuum that shores up the white nation state’s apparatus for the surveillance and containment of young black and brown bodies.
From the harshest extreme of genocide and brutal slavery to mass incarceration, techniques of hyper policing, mandatory schooling, the coercion that underlies the foster care and adoption industry, to private prisons, youth detention centers, and other institutionalization processes, the elites who govern the white settler nation state are hell-bent on maintaining their power over an increasingly diverse (meaning browner and browner) youthful populace, by any means necessary.
I believe that our children are not expendable. On the contrary, I believe they are sacred. If we are serious about liberation and social justice, especially for young people of color, one of our tasks might be to answer, as honestly as we can, a few critical questions. I would suggest that these are important questions for all of us, but especially for white family members and adult allies who care about creating a multiracial society oriented towards justice and social harmony:
(1) In order to wrest our children’s freedom from the grip of institutionalized authority and the tyranny of experts who have the power to disrupt and displace families, to which communities must we remain especially loyal?
(2) Regardless of our academic fields, jobs, and/or civic engagements, in whose interests primarily should we work? Whom do we serve?
(3) Which structures and institutions need to be abolished–literally–in order for our children to go free?
(4) Lastly, before we can act as effective allies to the young, how do we begin to deinstitutionalize and decolonize our own minds?
“ … for I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.’
“Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ “