David Mack remembers driving through a black neighborhood in Washington with his mixed-race adopted daughter when she blurted out, "Dad, I wish you and mom were black."
The 10-year-old's unexpected comment stung a little, he said, but it also showed a child's natural desire to see herself reflected in her parent's faces.His daughter, Catherine, who has black, native American and white heritage, is now a college student comfortable with her identity. But for those like the Macks who reach across racial divides to form families, race relations are never far from the surface, Mack said.
Their experience illustrates the extra burden that mixed-race adoptions place on both parents and children, said Mack, a former diplomat.
As Congress considers this week outlawing race restrictions in adoptions, it should be careful, Mack said, not to ignore the fact that even in healthy adoptive families, racial differences are an obstacle to be overcome.
"I am very opposed to the current practice in some jurisdictions of prohibiting transracial adoptions," Mack said. But there is some "social justification" for race-matching in adoption, if there is a minimal delay in finding an appropriate family, he said.
"In general, children are more comfortable with families of their own race," he said.
Legislation to be considered by the House this week would prohibit states from using racial considerations to delay or deny adoptions. It also would provide a $5,000-per-child tax credit to offset adoption costs.
The goal of the bill is to speed adoption of the nearly half-million children in foster care. About half of them are minorities, studies show, while the majority of prospective parents are white.
A 1994 law, written by former Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, D-Ohio, allows public adoption agencies to consider race as a factor as long as that consideration does not delay or deny the placement of a child.
Four states - Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota and Arkansas - have not yet changed their written policies to comply with the law. And even Metzenbaum says his legislation "was gutted" by loopholes that allow social workers to leave children in foster care until same-race parents appear.
The new legislation would authorize the federal government to withdraw some of its $4 billion annual child-related funding from states that allow race-related considerations to delay or deny adoptions.
"It would put the fear of the Lord and fear for the pocketbook into the states," Metzenbaum said.
Some lawmakers, including Rep. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., who has an adopted black grandchild, wanted to prohibit any consideration of race in adoptions to prevent race from becoming the dominant factor.
In a heated debate at the House Ways and Means Hearing last week, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-New York, who is black, argued that by prohibiting any racial considerations, social workers would be required to work on a "first come, first served basis" without regard for the best possible matches.
The committee settled on a compromise that would allow race-matching as long as no delay in placement occurs. President Clinton has endorsed the legislation in a letter to Congress.
But that compromise may not satisfy either side, and a "battle royal" is likely when the bill reaches the House floor this week, said William Pierce, of the National Council for Adoption.
"It's about money, power politics and prejudice," Pierce said.
Rita Simons, a sociologist at American University, said research shows that most children in mixed-race adoptions grow up "healthy, aware of their racial identity yet connected to their families."
"That's why we have to take race out of the adoption picture completely, because as long as we allow it to be a factor the case workers take advantage of that to delay making permanent placements for children," Simons said. "Transracial adoptions can bring all types of people together."
The National Association of Black Social Workers has modified its stance since it termed transracial adoptions "cultural genocide" in the 1970s. But it still opposes eliminating race as one consideration among many in adoptions, said Toni Oliver, co-chair of the group's foster care and adoptions committee.
"It is a good idea to consider race, how can you not consider race in our society?" Oliver said.
If a white family was committed to a multicultural life experience they should not be prevented from adopting a child of color, Oliver said.
"But in reality, too many transracially adopted children wind up isolated in their communities, making them stand out as being different," she said. "We don't feel comfortable standing out as adults, I don't know why we would expect our children to feel any more comfortable."
What really needs to be addressed is how long the adoption system takes to place children and how few parents are willing to adopt older children of any race, she said.
Charlotte Vick, of the National Council on Adoptable Children, said she wouldn't have adopted her special-needs black and native American children if parents of their own race had been available.
She couldn't immerse her children in their own culture the way people of their own heritage could have, she said.
"You can be culturally sensitive, but you are never able to give them the same culture," said Vick, who is white.
"Race is a factor for those kids as they grow up, and it would be easier for them to grow up in a same-race family," she said. "Race and ethnicity are just part of who a child is and it ought to be considered."