Madonna and Africa's Orphan Tragedy
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The figures, like so much else about black Africa, are almost beyond belief.
More than 12 million children have lost one parent, or are orphans. And given the eye-popping level of disease, most notably the HIV-AIDS pandemic, warfare, and poverty that plague many African nations, the number of orphans or near-orphans will soar to nearly 20 million by 2010.
The worst part is that apart from a string of bulging, cramped, desperately under-funded, and in many cases unsafe orphanages in Sub-Saharan Africa, many of these children are doomed to live out their childhood years in a caretaker existence.
The even more galling thing is that Africa's orphans are still mostly unwanted anywhere else in the world, and that includes the U.S. Last year nearly 21,000 immigrant visas were issued to Americans that adopted orphans from other nations. Ethiopia with a paltry 441 orphans that Americans took in was the only African country that cracked the top ten list. Liberia and Nigeria were the only other African nations among the top 20 nations with 182 and 82 orphans Americans took in.
China by contrast had nearly 8,000 and Russia with more than 4,000, headed the list. With the need so great to find homes for Africa's orphans, why would anyone or group that has a smidgen of concern about Africa's very poor, very needy, and very neglected orphans raise a peep of protest about Madonna's noble and courageous adoption of one year-old David Banda, a Malawian orphan?
There are two reasons. One is loudly publicly stated. The other is unstated, and more contemptible.
Human rights and child protection groups claim that Madonna tossed her money and celebrity weight around to bend and twist Malawi's adoption law to fast track the adoption, and that the adoption is another celebrity chic publicity stunt. Neither is true. She observed the rules, and the courts have upheld the adoption. She also kicked in a lot of dollars to boost orphanage services in the country. As one of the world's best-known superstars that legions of paparazzi jump over each other to record a sneeze from her, she hardly needs to snatch an African child to grab some camera action.
The unstated, and more contemptible, reason groups scream about the adoption is the archaic notion that a white, especially a wealthy white celebrity, is abysmally culturally clueless when it comes to raising a black child, or worse, they'll whitewash their black identity, and tout white values (whatever they may be).
Thirty years ago when it was not considered politically incorrect to say such things, the National Association of Black Social Workers gruffly branded the adoption of black children by whites as genocide. The group later dropped the inflammatory, over-the-top rhetoric, and talked about kinship, extended family ties, preserving cultural identity, and strengthening family relations, to beg more black families to adopt black babies.
Despite the syrupy-sounding positive spin, the message is still pretty much the same: that whites and non-blacks should butt out when it comes to adopting black babies, and that a black home is the best, indeed the only place, that a black child should be.
What makes this notion even more wrongheaded and ridiculous, is that the crisis is not just one in which African babies are shunned in America, African-American orphans are too. There are more than a half million children in foster care homes in America. Nearly forty percent of them are African-American children. They stay in foster care homes, on average, a year longer than white children.
The litany of myths and stereotypes about black children in the homes is endless. They are deemed rebellious, have more special needs, and born of disease, alcohol, and drug-ridden mothers. A number of black church groups, black private agencies and social agencies have worked hard to break down the barriers, and have had modest success in getting more blacks to adopt.
While this is welcome, and well intentioned, their adoption pitches have not been color-blind. They have almost exclusively urged blacks to adopt black children. That subtly reinforces the notion that black homes are the only place that can provide the children a loving, nurturing and culturally correct upbringing.
Countless studies have shown that the race of the adopting parent has little to do with whether an adopted child matures into a healthy, emotionally secure, adult. The key is that the home must be a loving, nurturing, and financially stable home. There is also little evidence that black children raised by white parents suffer permanent racial or cultural identity amnesia. Race and racism is still alive enough in enough places in American society to ensure that black children can't or won't forget that they're black.
Madonna deserves props, not jeers, for casting the ugly glare on Africa's orphan tragedy. The pity is that more haven't done the same.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.