The Sunday Times

February 27th, 2011

Public servants’ closed minds will thwart mixed-race adoption

Westminster may propose, but town halls dispose. Only if they are under the lash of the fiercest statutory requirements do local authorities have to do what they are told by the elected government of the day. This is, of course, what localisation is all about — not power to the people so much as power to the town hall. And it doesn’t always work for the best. Take adoption.

Last week Michael Gove, the education secretary, who was adopted as a child, issued new guidelines on adoption for social workers, which are intended to make it easier for couples to adopt children of different ethnic backgrounds from their own. For many years now this has been very difficult because social workers have clung to the astonishingly old-fashioned idea that people should be allowed to adopt children of a matching skin colour only. And they have used their formidable powers to impose this view, which in most other contexts would be seen as racist — discrimination against adults and children on the grounds of race.

In practice Gove’s new guidelines are primarily aimed at helping white couples, since there are a lot of darker-skinned children who need adoptive parents in Britain but a severe shortage of darker-skinned adults who want to adopt. So it is white couples, mainly, who are being denied the chance to adopt while many darker-skinned children are condemned to stay in the misery of so-called care.

Gove is entirely justified in trying to put all this right. But he might just as well be spitting in the wind. I remember Paul Boateng, health minister in the early months of the Blair regime, solemnly promising that he would do something about the political correctness surrounding adoption. I was sure at the time he meant it, but nothing happened.

There was some talk later of relaxing the rules on mixed-race adoption and there was even an adoption act in 2002, which didn’t address it. Still nothing changed. So I wonder whether Gove’s new guidelines will make the slightest difference: he is facing a deeply entrenched and reactionary mentality in public services.

The strange thing about this supposedly politically correct mentality in public services is how politically incorrect it is. To suggest that a white-skinned woman cannot be a good and loving mother to a dark-skinned child is to talk the language of apartheid in reverse. I am amazed it is legal in a multiracial society such as ours.

Of course it used to be true that a black child of white parents was an oddity and likely to be bullied at school. During my childhood in a West Country village there was one unlucky boy, the illegitimate son of a black GI, who was often mocked. But these days, with the rainbow mix of children and parents, that is less and less likely. As a result the social workers’ bullying argument is weakening every day in a mixed society, as is the identity argument.

Of course a child wants to identify with its parents, not least in looking like them, and social workers have traditionally been very concerned about this, with good reason. But that concern, too, is out of date now that there are so many mixed marriages and so many biological families of mixed ancestry. Because of the lottery of genetics and intermarriages over generations, simple racial resemblances between parents and offspring are disappearing and for that reason are considered much less important. Some close friends of mine are a prime example: the mother is very pale Nordic, the father very dark Indian and the children, who look Mediterranean, resemble neither. Social services today would not have placed them with their birth father.

Mixed-race adoption is unlikely to present any serious problems for a child. Society seems to have changed much faster than the mentality of social workers.

The other conventional objection to mixed-race adoptions is the cultural one — the idea that a child ought to be brought up within the ethnic culture of its biological parents. But why? Culture is not something inherited, something in the blood. Culture is acquired through one’s parents, family and social experiences.

Gove’s culture, no matter who his parents were, is the culture of his adoptive parents, and he often says how grateful he is to them. Nimmy March, the half black and half white baby of an Englishwoman and a South African, was adopted 40-odd years ago by the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and she has often talked movingly about how very happy she has been in her adoptive family.

“When I think that today, despite being half white British, my colour would probably dictate a ‘same race’ adoption, it makes me furious,” she once said. “The important things are love and acceptance.”

Culture is not genetically printed upon babies or children in the way their appearance is. It is a remarkably old-fashioned, National Geographic notion of identity to assume that what someone looks like determines his or her ethnic identity and the traditions he or she should adhere to. History and migration have overtaken that view; these days someone looking like a Masai warrior might easily be more British than I am, as I wasn’t born here.

It might be nice for adopted children to grow up with a sense of their biological parents’ cultures, if anyone knew them or could disentangle them, but equally well it might not be nice at all. It might be confusing and disruptive; there are some harrowing tales of children adopted from slum-dwellers or destitute drug addicts abroad going back and feeling shocked and alienated by what would have been their ethnic identity and guilty, too, that they so much prefer their adoptive identity.

Some adoptive people have every reason to be glad they have lost their birth culture: who would want to cherish a culture of inferior rights for women and the fear of female circumcision when she could grow up safely in suburbia? And why do adoptive children need to be schooled in the ethnic traditions of their birth parents, always assuming anyone can sort out what those are? Or sent on regular acculturation trips to Mogadishu, when and if it is safe to go? People are all of equal value, but the same cannot be said of cultures: not all cultures are desirable or admirable. Gove’s new rules say that families seeking to adopt a child of a different ethnic identity should not have obstacles put in their way, but “should be properly trained to cater for its cultural needs”. Oh dear. That sounds like more of the same old town hall political correctness.