Analysis Race

Evidence-Based Advocacy: Poverty, Adoption, and Inequality in Perspective

Steph Herold & Gretchen Sisson

How do the intersections between adoption, poverty, race, and class play out today? 

Evidence-Based Advocacy is a column that seeks to bridge the gap between the research and activist communities. It will profile provocative new abortion research that activists may not otherwise be able to access.

Reproductive health academic and activist writing contains no shortage of articles devoted to untangling the various intersections between access to abortion, abortion stigma, and poverty. The same thoughtful commentary and analysis has been applied to parenting and motherhood, exploring ways that different mothers are subjected to stigma and societal judgment for their reproductive choices based on race and social class. Yet, when it comes to adoption, the intersections with poverty are just as complicated and deserving of analysis yet less examined by those who care deeply about reproductive health, rights, and justice. Since November marks the beginning of National Adoption Awareness Month, we decided to come together to review some new research on adoption and poverty.

Before Roe v. Wade, women had few good options when facing a unplanned pregnancy: get married (if they weren’t already) and parent the child; give birth and relinquish the baby for adoption; become a single mother in a society where that role was even more stigmatized and less supported than it is now; or, risk their health and life with an illegal abortion, should they know where to find one. Unsurprisingly, the demographic breakdowns of who chose which option varied dramatically by race and social class. Data from researcher Christine Bachrach, et al., shows that most White women facing unintended pregnancy (64 percent) married before the child was born and parented that child, compared to only 21 percent of Black women. Nineteen percent of White women relinquished children for adoption (usually under coercive circumstances), compared to under two percent of Black women. Most of these disparities are best attributed to the ways different communities accepted non-marital pregnancy and single motherhood. In her book Wake Up, Little Susie: Single Pregnancy and Race before Roe v. Wade, historian Rickie Solinger writes:

“White women in this situation were defined as occupying a state of ‘shame,’ a condition that admitted rehabilitation and redemption [through adoption]… Black women, illegitimately pregnant, were not shamed but simply blamed…There was no redemption for these women.”

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Today these racial disparities may be significantly less pronounced, but they have persisted. Though adoption rates for all women are very low (hovering between one to two percent for the past 15 years), it’s difficult to draw conclusions regarding race.  It remains true, however, that the women who relinquish or place children for adoption are almost always of a lower socioeconomic status than the families that adopt their children.

How, then, do the intersections between adoption, poverty, race, and class play out today? How are birth parents—most likely living in open adoptions, where they have ongoing contact with their child and his or her adoptive family—affected by these social differences? A new paper by sociologist Kathryn Sweeney examines perceptions of birth parents held by their counterparts: their own children’s adoptive parents.

Sweeney’s primary thesis is that the way our culture understands poverty broadly  influences the way adoptions are lived individually. She relates the culture of poverty (that is, the socially-conservative American model for explaining inequality which attributes poverty to an inherent laziness or lack of personal responsibility in low-income communities) to adoption by saying:

“[adoption] perpetuates culture of poverty arguments by assuming that removing children from families is a solution to poverty; removing children implies that the families they are born into are inadequate to raise them… The focus on failures means that connections are lacking to larger economic systems that lead to placements by disempowered birth mothers and give privileged adoptive parents access to children.”

Through 15 in-depth interviews with White adoptive parents, Sweeney examined how they perceive their child’s family of origin, and how those perceptions are influenced by broader ideas of a culture of poverty. The narratives of adoptive parents – even those adoptive parents who recognize the structural causes of poverty—focus on individual choice, individual responsibility, and courage and altruism in making adoption decisions. Many viewed birth parents as making “bad choices” that led to their pregnancy, and described a “pathology of poverty” in which the negative traits associated with poverty were viewed as contagious—and, consequently, the adoption was a redemptive way out. Not so different, then, from the type of “redemption” that Solinger describes as being available to women 50 years ago.

Though a small study, the implications here are profound. Sweeney’s findings represent challenges for those in the adoption community: agencies that unwarily allow culture-of-poverty discourses to influence discussions of adoptions; adoptive parents who view their child’s family of origin as substantially different from their own; birth/first families who attempt to negotiate ongoing openness in their adoptions across a cultural divide that is both real and manufactured; and adoptees who must develop an identity that reconciles both their adoptive parents’ ideas of their original families and their own feelings about their origins.

Outside of the adoption community, though, these findings tell us something about the “stickiness” of the culture of poverty narrative. It has become such an entrenched part of understanding inequality in our society, such an easy and accessible way of attributing difference, that it creates barriers to understanding and empathy. This narrative allows us to inappropriately view individuals’ reproductive choices outside of the context of their whole lives, and outside of a broader social context that includes systemic inequalities—and, in doing so, it prevents us from fully understanding how to allow people greater control over those choices.

Q & A Sexuality

White Southern Girlhood and Eugenics: A Talk With Historian Karin Zipf

Tina Vasquez

The same white supremacy that declared Black men and women to be hypersexual also subjected troubled or abused white girls to incarceration and state-sponsored sterilizations to make sure the teens did not pass on "bad" genes and "ruin the race."

From 1929 to the mid-1970s, North Carolina sterilized about 7,600 people in the nation’s most aggressive program of its kind. It was all in the name of eugenics, a coin termed by Francis Galton to describe efforts to “improve or impair the racial quality of future generations.” The program stopped as opinions began to shift surrounding eugenics—and lawsuits were filed against North Carolina’s Eugenics Board on behalf of those who had been sterilized—but 30 states participated in similar ones targeting a wide range of people, including people with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups.

Seventy-seven percent of all those sterilized in North Carolina were women; about 2,000 were people 18 and younger. Before the 1960s—when Black people became the majority of those sterilized—poor, rural white girls were the primary targets of authorities and women reformers. Girls were punished for engaging in so-called “deviant” behaviors, such as sexual activity or crossing racial lines in their romantic interests. Poor white girls who were sexually abused were also criminalized, labeled “feeble-minded,” and institutionalized.

This is the history explored by East Carolina University professor Karin Zipf in her new book, Bad Girls at Samarcand: Sexuality and Sterilization in a Southern Juvenile Reformatory. Samarcand Manor, North Carolina’s “industrial school” for girls, was a juvenile facility designed to keep troubled girls “in line.” In reality, this whites-only institution in the town of Eagle Springs was a violent place where courts, social workers, and parents committed young white girls for not adhering to social norms or the rules of white supremacy.

Founded in 1918, the institution began sterilizing girls after 16 girls set fire to two Samarcand dormitories in 1931. Officials believed that sterilizing the girls by tubal ligation would stop them from passing on “defective” genes. Though the justifications for the so-called treatments varied among groups in power, the prescription remained the same. Hundreds of girls and young women suffered forced sterilizations before the state sterilization program ended. Samarcand closed in 2011, but it was reborn as a new law enforcement training facility in 2015.

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Author Zipf spoke to Rewire about early 20th-century eugenics beliefs, the dangers of Southern white womanhood, and Samarcand Manor’s legacy.

Rewire: How do you remember first hearing about Samarcand Manor?

Karin Zipf: There were about two or three articles that came out in the late ’90s on institutions, [which] referenced the arson case at Samarcand where the girls burned down their dormitories. The girls at Samarcand were arrested on arson, which at the time could result in a death penalty charge. [The charges were reduced, and some of the girls were incarcerated.] So, historians knew of this case, but few had written on it. One book that was particularly interesting to me is by a historian named Susan Cahn—I have to shout out to her. Her book, Sexual Reckonings: Southern Girls in a Troubling Age, was really inspiring. She wrote one chapter on the fire.

Rewire: What were some of the challenges of tackling Samarcand’s history?

KZ: The research was challenging. I didn’t have any oral history to rely on because everyone I might have interviewed was deceased. State restrictions were hard to get around because we’re dealing with sensitive information here and generally, health records are closed to the public too. It’s a double-edged sword because obviously, policies are put in place to protect people’s privacy. But on the other hand, it makes it very difficult for researchers to go in and see how the state treats children.

Rewire: Often when we talk about white supremacy, the focus is how it affects people of color. But it was very interesting to explore how white supremacy affects white girls and women in particular. In some ways, is Samarcand is a direct result of white supremacy and wanting young girls to conform to feminine representations of it?

KZ: This is what I find to be the real topic here. I teach and research U.S. Southern history, so race is obviously a very important part of that. When I learned this was an institution only for white girls, I knew white supremacy was central to the story, especially because I knew that African-American girls in need at the same time were literally left on the street.

The state and upper-class women reformers believed these young white girls to have fallen from some sort of grace by becoming [sex workers] or choosing sexually active lifestyles. Reformers—those who pushed for the [initial] creation of Samarcand—believed that when [a white girl] falls from grace, she can get back up again. If you were a white girl, it was their job to help you get back up again.

At this same time, there was a white supremacy movement that was impacting how eugenics was viewed. … This wasn’t just in North Carolina, of course, but here eugenics beliefs were on the upswing, especially this idea that there were genetic defects that caused differences in society. Eugenicists believed genetic defects caused poverty, promiscuity, delinquency, etc.

There were people at the time who called themselves mental hygienists, who had a different understanding of womanhood than the Victorian reformers who saw “fallen” girls as disgraced. For example, they saw sexuality as a positive thing, provided it occurred within the confines of marriage. They believed women had sexual desires, that they were sexual beings, but that girls who were “mentally defective”—as they called it—gravitated to promiscuity or delinquency.

Victorian reformers and mental hygienists expressed two different attitudes about womanhood, but both were informed by constructions of whiteness and how that should look or be defined. Mental hygienists believed these girls had become so impoverished, they could not be saved. [Their behavior] was believed to be a genetic impurity that was going to spoil the white race, so they needed to be institutionalized and segregated from society at places like Samarcand—and this often also meant being sterilized.

Rewire: Some of the most interesting areas of your book delved into the historical meaning of Southern white womanhood and how this particular racist brand of womanhood deeply influenced eugenic science, especially in North Carolina. Talk to me about that.

KZ: The concept of Southern white womanhood is very much a multitiered system defined by race and sexuality. White men are at the top, they’re the top tier. They are seen as the protectors, and they are seen as the breadwinners. They believe themselves to be providing law and order, especially when it comes to race.

Next are white women, who are seen as chaste, virtuous, passive, obedient, domestic, and motherly. If they do enter into the public arena, it’s for the purpose of “public housekeeping,” [such as social work and advocacy for children].

Southern white womanhood rests on this ideal these young girls could not really meet. These were girls from the very bottom of the white social ladder; they were in abject poverty. These girls were out in the street hanging out with all kinds of people; they weren’t at home doing domestic chores. The big fear was that these girls were going to have children with Black men. White supremacists saw these girls’ lifestyles as the worst-case scenario for white supremacy; they believed these white girls were going to spoil the race by having children with men of color. This is why these girls were so strictly policed, perhaps more than other demographic group.

African-American men occupy the third tier. According to white supremacist beliefs, African-American men are aggressive. If you look at images from this time, they’re really horrible. Black men are portrayed as beastly, as predators, and what they want is access to white women. I strongly believe that so much of what Jim Crow was about was to separate Black men from white women.

In this system, Black women are at the bottom. They are seen as the opposite of pure, virtuous white women. The word often used at the time was “lascivious,” and African-American women were often referred to as “Jezebels.” The reason why reform efforts were focused on white girls is because white reformers assumed that Black girls and girls of color couldn’t be saved.

Rewire: I assumed that the way we put white womanhood on a pedestal protects all white women, but your book is an example of how that’s not always the case. Upholding Southern white womanhood in particular is also harmful to certain kinds of white women. How much is class responsible for this?

KZ: Around the same time as the early days of Samarcand, there were a number of textile strikes, which [often] involved young women. Some of the girls at Samarcand were cotton mill workers or the children of cotton mill workers. Affluent whites already had negative associations with textile workers because of the strikes, so there’s already a sort of demonization of the working class—and this is part of our history we don’t talk about enough. There were strikes all over the South, but it’s a part of North Carolina history that’s almost been lost.

You have these girls who are wearing overalls with caps twisted backwards, and they’re protesting and yelling in the streets. Today, society views protesters as socially disruptive at best, but back then these young girls were seen as ruining the race.

Rewire: Your book has an entire chapter on Kate Burr Johnson, who is written about rather favorably in North Carolina history, even while promoting eugenics and white supremacist ideals as the first woman state commissioner of public welfare from 1921 to 1930. She emphasized the interplay of culture and biology, which was, at the time, a pretty common stance in the South among intellectuals. Why was this such a popular idea?

KZ: Eugenicists generally agreed with the idea that “cultural” characteristics like juvenile delinquency, promiscuity, and poverty were passed through genes. The belief was that once those genes get into the line, there is no getting them out—and it didn’t matter what race you were.

But Southern eugenicists, such as Kate Burr Johnson, formulated a different theory to protect their belief in “white purity.” Southern eugenicists didn’t want to say that there was something in white people’s genetics that made them defective; that meant whites couldn’t be inherently superior. They had to get around that idea somehow, so Southern white eugenicists adopted a theory from a biologist named [Jean-Baptiste] Lamarck, which said that genes can mutate based on the environment and then those mutated genes can be passed on and introduced into the DNA of offspring.

The way that Southern eugenicists were able to sidestep any contradictions poor whites posed to white supremacy was by explaining that some white people became impoverished, for example, and when their poverty continued for generation after generation, then that environment of poverty affected their genetic makeup. Kate Burr Johnson really believed that poor whites’ DNA became disfigured to the point that they lost their whiteness. Other eugenicists weren’t buying it, but the Southern eugenicists were trying to figure out a way to modify the eugenics argument in order to meet their need of carrying on this idea of the “purity” of the white race.

Rewire: The ableism of the time was also pretty extreme. Young girls who were sexually assaulted were deemed “mentally defective” or “feeble-minded.” How was ableism used to further stigmatize these girls?

KZ: That was a really hard part of this research, honestly. In some instances, we’re talking about girls as young as 10 years old, raped by their own fathers, yet they’re being labeled as “mentally defective.” These girls were forced to take IQ tests designed for 19-year-old World War I-era soldiers. When these girls failed the tests—especially those already labeled as promiscuous—they were classified as “feeble-minded.”

In my reading of these records, so many girls were clearly exhibiting symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder after repeated sexual assaults—and no one thought to question what they’d been through. It created this added layer of discrimination against these girls. The injustice was so deep, and no one called what happened rape or incest or sexual assault. If it was acknowledged that there was a problem at home, rather than address the perpetrator, Samarcand became a place to send the girls who were victims of assault, effectively punishing them for something horrible that happened to them.

Rewire: Was Samarcand an example of how white womanhood is placed on a pedestal and the lengths people will go to uphold and protect this idealized version of white Southern womanhood, or is it more of an example of what happens to young women who don’t conform to very particular ideas of what womanhood should look like?

KZ: I think it’s both. White Southern womanhood is this ideal that so many were desperate to meet because it had huge implications for the preservation of the white race. They would do anything—including isolate, segregate, quarantine, and sterilize young white girls—just to uphold the ideal.

But ultimately what I’m really trying to talk about here is the fluidity of white supremacy. In the effort to defend the “purity of whiteness,” white supremacists often disagreed with one another about the mechanisms for doing so. “Whiteness” appeared to be a fixed category, but Victorian reformers and mental hygienists disagreed sharply on the treatment of poor white girls who did not meet the purity ideals. I hope this encourages more dialogue about the construction of whiteness and the dangers of it.

Rewire: Do you think any of the themes surrounding your book or any themes around Samarcand are present in today’s culture and how we view womanhood?

KZ: I think that our concerns today really revolve around the control of women’s reproductive choices. I hope we can think about the ways white supremacists in the past justified the control of women’s bodies. What we see today is another iteration of that.

Why do states invest so much in attempting to control women’s bodies, and for what reasons? What populations of women are most impacted? These are important questions. Why does the state enforce laws to control women’s sexuality? We see it all the time. We should know the motivations and justifications that people have used in the past to restrict women’s sexuality. The lessons of Samarcand hopefully will empower us to better understand our world today.

This interview was conducted by email and by phone. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Trump Campaign Says Glitch Led to Selection of White Nationalist Leader As Delegate

Ally Boguhn

The prominent white supremacist has since resigned. And on the Democratic side, both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders registered their objections to the Obama administration's immigration raids.

A “database error” this week supposedly led Donald Trump’s campaign to select a white nationalist leader to its California delegate list, and the Democratic presidential candidates are speaking out about the Obama administration’s planned immigration raids.

Trump Campaign: Picking White Nationalist Who Wrote Book Calling For Deportation of All People of Color as Delegate was a “Database Error”

Trump’s campaign added William Johnson, leader of white nationalist group the American Freedom Party, to his California delegate list after a supposed computer glitch.

Johnson applied to the Trump campaign and was chosen from a list of the presumptive Republican nominee’s delegates submitted to the California secretary of state’s office. In California, presidential candidates choose Republican delegatesnot the party.

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Johnson, in an email to Mother Jones on Tuesday, confirmed that he had been chosen by the Trump campaign, expressing excitement about the opportunity. “I just hope to show how I can be mainstream and have these views,” Johnson told the publication. “I can be a white nationalist and be a strong supporter of Donald Trump and be a good example to everybody.”

Trump campaign spokesperson Hope Hicks claimed that the inclusion of Williams was no more than a glitch after the campaign had rejected the white nationalist leader. “Yesterday the Trump campaign submitted its list of California delegates to be certified by the Secretary of State of California,” Hicks said in a statement to the Washington Post. “A database error led to the inclusion of a potential delegate that had been rejected and removed from the campaign’s list in February 2016.”

Johnson on Wednesday told the Associated Press he had resigned from his role as a delegate. “I was naive,” Johnson told AP about his application. “I thought people wouldn’t notice, and if they did notice I didn’t think it would be a big deal.”

He noted that Trump’s policy positions lined up with those he supported.

“[Trump] wants to build the wall [along the border with Mexico]. He wants to cut off illegal immigration, and he wants to cut back on foreign trade, bring jobs back to America,” Johnson said. “We believe Donald Trump will help lead the country in a proper direction.”

Johnson gained notoriety as a self-identified “white nationalist” whose PAC, American National Super PAC, was responsible for robocalls this year in Iowa featuring another white nationalist, Jared Taylor. “I urge you to vote for Donald Trump because he is the one candidate who points out that we should accept immigrants who are good for America,” Taylor said in the robocall according to Talking Points Memo. “We don’t need Muslims. We need smart, well-educated white people who will assimilate to our culture. Vote Trump.”

Johnson wrote a book in 1985, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, calling “to deport all nonwhites as soon as possible” from the the United States:

In 1985, under the pseudonym James O. Pace, Johnson wrote the book Amendment to the Constitution: Averting the Decline and Fall of America. In it, he advocates the repeal of the 14th and 15th amendments and the deportation of almost all nonwhite citizens to other countries. Johnson further claimed that racial mixing and diversity caused social and cultural degeneration in the United States. He wrote: “We lose our effectiveness as leaders when no one relies on us or can trust us because of our nonwhite and fractionalized nature. … [R]acial diversity has given us strife and conflict and is enormously counterproductive.”

Johnson’s solution to this problem was to deport all nonwhites as soon as possible. Anybody with any “ascertainable trace of Negro blood” or more than one-eighth “Mongolian, Asian, Asia Minor, Middle Eastern, Semitic, Near Eastern, American Indian, Malay or other non-European or non-white blood” would be deported under the Pace Amendment.

As late as Monday, Trump’s campaign had expressed confidence about their delegate selection before controversy broke out over the addition of Williams. “We believe that our delegation represents the economic and grassroots community diversity of California. We feel very good about it,” Tim Clark, Trump’s California strategist, told the Sacramento Bee that day.

The campaign reportedly corresponded with Johnson on Monday.

Other notable figures selected as delegates for Trump include House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), and Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal.   

Democratic Presidential Candidates Speak Out Against Obama Administration’s Immigration Raids

Both Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), condemned the Obama administration’s coming immigration raids after news broke this week of an upcoming sweep.

U.S. immigration officials will conduct a monthlong series of deportation raids targeting undocumented families from Central America, Reuters reported on Thursday, in what will likely be “the largest deportation sweep targeting immigrant families” by the Obama administration this year.

“I oppose the painful and inhumane business of locking up and deporting families who have fled horrendous violence in Central America and other countries. Sending these people back into harm’s way is wrong,” Sanders said in a statement posted to his campaign’s website Thursday. “I urge President Obama to use his executive authority to protect families by extending Temporary Protective Status for those who fled from Central America.”

Clinton said she was “against large scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities” and that “we should not be taking kids and families from their homes in the middle of the night.”

The candidates have spoken out against the Obama administration’s ongoing raids, showing particular concern for the deportation of children. Advocates, however, say that the presidential candidates have not done enough to tackle the issue.

What Else We’re Reading

Priests for Life President Frank Pavone compared the presidential election to a choice between killing ten people and killing 100 people. 

Clinton proposed allowing “people 55 or 50 and up” buy in to Medicare.

Trump supporter Sarah Palin spoke out against Trump’s assertion that he would change the GOP’s abortion platform while speaking on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday. “I don’t want the platform to change,” said Palin, adding that she “respect[s] the “culture of life that will be built upon the pro-life views the majority of Republicans hold.” 

The Nation’s Ari Berman wrote that “voter suppression is the only way Donald Trump can win” the White House.

Leaders from extremist groups such as the Family Research Council, National Right to Life, and the National Organization for Marriage are reportedly still unsure about whether they will back Trump now that Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has left the race for the Republican nomination.

The Washington Post examined how the rise of Donald Trump may jeopardize the Congressional seats of other Republicans running down the ballot. One of those legislators could be Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) who notoriously introduced the failed “Blunt Amendment” to exempt any employer with a moral objection from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit.

Former KKK leader David Duke tweeted that Donald Trump should ask him to join his ticket as vice president, claiming the move would be good “life insurance.”

Minnesota Republicans endorsed a candidate for the state’s 2nd congressional district seat who once claimed that women are “simply ignorant … of the important issues in life” because they are concerned about their reproductive health.

Don’t miss The Black Belt, a short film from the Intercept. It highlights voting rights in Alabama—which requires a photo ID at the polls—after the state closed 31 DMV locations that were primarily located in communities with large Black populations.