Friday, February 12, 2010

Asian Americans, Adoption & Jim Crow

Between Martin Luther King's birthday in January and Black History Month in February, my kids always have tons of questions this time of year about how Southern segregation would have affected them in the era of Jim Crow. I don't mean to co-opt Black History Month for Asian Americans, but my girls are quite convinced that they are the center of the universe, even at this time of year!

Zoe, motivated by a story read in class, asked her reading teacher last week where she would have had to sit on the bus in Rosa Parks' day. Answer from the teacher -- "That's a good question. I don't know the answer, though." I bet most would have to answer that way; we usually only think of Jim Crow as separation along the black/white divide. And the application of Jim Crow laws and customs to other races differed from state to state and from area to area in the states. To complicate things even further, a lot of Jim Crow was based on custom, unwritten rules, not statutes.

This site, the History of Jim Crow, has an overview of the Jim Crow laws, but it's not that detailed (or that easy to dig out!). But it is fascinating to see the application of legal race separation for Asians. Outside of the South, many Jim Crow laws applied to Asians, also called "Mongolian."). In California, for example, Chinese and Japanese specifically and Asians or "Mongolians" in general, were prohibited from going to school with white children or marrying whites. Laws disallowing marriage between whites and Asians were passed in Oregon, Idaho, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, Nevada, Not a big surprise to see Western states specifying Asians in their racial classifications, since most Asians came to America via California, and migrated east as discrimination and oppression in the West grew.

Many of those Asians fleeing the west headed to the South. So in some southern states, the segregation laws were not just black/white, but were white/non-white. Thus, in Georgia, it was against the law for a white person to marry a "Negro" or "Malay" or Asian. South Carolina and Missouri also prohibited marriage between Caucasians and Asians. Virginia added Asians to their prohibition on blacks and whites marrying in 1930. Mississippi disallowed marriage between a Caucasian or Asian, with Asian defined as anyone with 1/8th or more of "Mongolian" blood. And speaking of blood -- Louisiana required donated blood to be labeled "Negro," "Caucasian," or "Mongoloid," and if it wasn't so labeled, it could not be used.

No explicit answers here for where Zoe would have had to sit on the bus. Most of the description of the statutes calling for separation in public accommodations like buses didn't mention Asians specifically. But in those states that included Asians in their intermarriage statutes seem to have operated along the white/non-white divide, which would suggest Zoe would have to sit in the back of the bus.

The first time we talked about her position in the Jim Crow bus, Zoe said, "You mean I couldn't sit with you?!" That tickled me, because she obviously hadn't connected any of the race separation talk to adoption, that I probably would not have been allowed to adopt across the color divide.

Indeed, adoption was a topic of Jim Crow laws. Kentucky forbade transracial adoption in 1951. Same for Lousiana and Missouri. Maryland and Oklahoma required that race of petitioners and child be disclosed on adoption petitions. South Carolina passed a law in 1952 making it a crime to place a white child with a black person (this would have applied to foster care, guardianship, and custody after divorce (if a mixed-race marriage ended in divorce, the children and parent who looked most alike racially was given custody). Outside the South, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and South Dakota required the race or color of adopting parents to be included in the adoption petition. In Indiana, Ohio, New Hampshire , Massachusets and Michigan, the law required judges take "due consideration of race" in adoptions. I suspect that the information and "due consideration" states approved very few transracial adoptions. What makes this approach Jim Crow is that it was motivated by race separation and keeping each race in its place.

And suppose somehow I had managed to adopt Zoe and Maya in the Jim Crow era? Could we sit together on the bus? Well, in Florida, where separation of races was required on all streetcars, a statute gave Caucasian women the right to have their children attended in the white section of the car by an African-American nurse. So some accommodation was made for child care issues. But an African-American woman did not have the right to have her child attended in the African-American section by its Caucasian nurse, so we weren't that accommodating. And might interpret the rule to say white children in the white section, non-white children in the non-white section, and not fitting for white caregiver to be in the non-white section. That separates us again.

As I've been typing this, Zoe has been reading over my shoulder, and has had many questions. I've explained it a bit more simply to her, and she just got tentative answer to the bus question. Zoe and Maya say they are happy we don't live in the Jim Crow era, because they would miss me if they couldn't sit with me on the bus. But at least they'd be together!

They'll have to come to grips later with the fact that we might not have been allowed to be a family at all. . . .


Wendy said...

We have been discussing the same thing at school (pre-surgery) and M asked the very same questions. She also has not connected the TRA dots, but said she was sitting with me in the neutral section! She also asked if I would be like Rosa if they said we could not sit together-I would hope I was that strong,I suppose if I fought to adopt in that time I would fought that too :-)
Great questions Zoe and M!

A Chinese Dad said...

What an excellent post on an intricate subject!!! You have my understanding and support on thorny issues like this one when raising TRA children. Kids will ask questions like this one. In their little mind, they are stuck and puzzled by it. I know many Asian American kids have asked this question. You have done a good job helping your children build up a good self image but incorporating their ethnic background. My kids know they have got the best of both cultures and are proud of that. Aren't we glad the world has become more connected with this global economy?

A Chinese Dad said...

Sorry for the typo... meant to say
"by incorporating their ethnic background."

Anonymous said...

You have done a good job highlighting how far we have come as a nation, and yet, still so much more be done now that (more often than not) racism is covert.

patti said...


This subject just came up for us too. Lilly told me this am that the teacher asked if anyone knew what segregation and integration were. To my surprise, she was able to define both. I never thought she was listening when I talked about how things "used to" be. I printed the Missouri Jim Crow laws from that website. It stops at 1952 and what I'd really be interested in knowing, is when these things were repealed.