“I haven't known if I should talk about this or not.” With these words, Abby Johnson began a 15 minute YouTube video on police brutality. Johnson is a former Planned Parenthood director turned pro-life activist. She is also an adoptive mother to a black son. I decided to watch her video with an earnest desire to hear her thoughts. As adoption is my wheelhouse, I need to know what an adoptive parent with a major platform thinks about an issue. I especially need to know how they may influence other adoptive parents because this, in turn, impacts adopted children. I was willing to put aside my fundamental disagreement with the ways in which she discusses abortion in hope that she, as the white mother of a black child, might use her platform to condemn police brutality toward black Americans.
To say I was disappointed would be an understatement. I immediately began writing a blog post about what it feels like to be an adopted person whose reality plays second fiddle to their pro-life mother’s political work. My adoptive mother was on the board of directors of a crisis pregnancy center. I know what this feels like. This blog post I began writing became filled with guidance and advice on how to overcome political cognitive dissonance to ensure parents choose their children first. But, I soon realized that it was necessary for me to take down Johnson’s harmful arguments before I could publish that blog entry.
“As you can all see, I'm a very white person.” Johnson said. “And, I found that as a white conservative "non-woke" person, when I speak on racial issues, my voice isn't wanted. But, then when I'm silent on the issues, I'm told that I need to speak. And so, as a white person, I feel like I don't... I don't really know what to say.”
I'm deeply familiar with this state of being. I have been here myself. This is the "re-integration" stage (stage 3 of 6) on the Helm's White Racial Identity Model (cite). Someone in this stage is aware that white privilege and racism exist. However, they are unaware of what it means for white privilege to be "unearned." And, they are still looking for ways that biracial/indigenous/people-of-color (BIPOC) are responsible for the hardships that they face. White folks at this stage tend to perceive BIPOC activists as unfair or even "oppressive" to white people who give their opinions on race. This comes from the fact that the white person in this stage does not fully understand the conversation they've invited themselves into. Therefore, they do not understand the responses they receive either.
I don’t know what to make about her next statement, about Candace Owens. It is not clear to me why Johnson mentioned her. But I will continue with my previous point and say this. A white person who spends deep, contemplative time listening to a diversity of BIPOC voices and black scholarship and literature no longer feels that the race relations conversation is "damned if you do, damned if you don't." And this does not happen by only listening to one black voice, such as Owens, that speaks in ways that confirm what someone already believes. In other words, "I don't really know what to say" is where Johnson ideally ought to have ended her video.
Johnson went on to introduce herself as a mom of eight children - three girls and five boys. She has a biracial son, named Jude. She said she is going to have to have "a different conversation" with Jude than her other "very very pale skinned white sons." Why? She explained that her black child will grow up to be "a tall, probably sort-of-large, intimidating looking, maybe, brown man.” Her other sons will look "like nerdy white guys." She explained why having a "different conversation" with Jude doesn't make her angry.
I look at statistics over emotion.... I look at our prison population, and I see that there is a disproportionately high number of African-American males in our prison population for crimes - particularly for violent crimes. So, statistically when a police officer sees a brown man, like my Jude, walking down the road, as opposed to my white nerdy kids (my white nerdy men) walking down the road. Because of the statistics, that [Jude] knows in his head that these police officers know in their head they're going to know that statistically my brown son is more likely to commit a violent offense over my white sons.
There are a number of problems with this statement. If it is true that Johnson prefers statistics over emotion, then she will be open to critique about it.
First, there is indeed a disproportionate number of black men in prison compared to white men (cite). However, we can't simply guess as to why and expect our guess to also be fact. According to Johnson, violent crime is a condition that is specifically determined by blackness. This type of reasoning is an overlap of racial essentialism and biological determinism. That is, it's a scientifically unsupported ideology that "varied social outcomes" between racial groups are caused by genetic traits that each person in a given racial group must share in common (cite). It's racism. Really, really old school racism.
It's also categorically false. Information about what contributes to disproportionate arrests and sentencing disparities of black Americans is widely available. One powerful quote from a recent study (2019) tells us that black youth,
[W]ere situated in more disadvantaged neighborhoods with greater violence occurring and yet maintained stronger parent–child relationships, and tended to have no greater problematic behavior rates, they even drank less frequently and used less drugs in emerging adulthood than their White counterparts. Despite all this, and after controlling for all these factors, Black participants were still arrested at a rate that was seven times more frequent than White participants (cite).In short, black Americans do not perpetrate more crime. They're just more likely to be arrested and imprisoned for it when they do - and that's given that the arrests themselves were even justified in the first place.
Johnson continued, presuming that any given police officer must share her unsubstantiated interpretation of statistics. She explained that these statistics are why being on "high alert" around her son would therefore make a police officer "smart." She said that she would only be angry if the police officer actually hurt her son.
It's important to note how Johnson had to misrepresent the issue in order to make it easier to take down. By repackaging brutality as simply being on "high alert," she didn’t have to take a position on the actual violence. She made a reference to violence only in an abstract sense that it could occur. She did not acknowledge that it's something that regularly occurs. It’s something that occurred five days ago when Jacob Blake was shot multiple times in front of his children. Johnson’s version of the argument allows her to appear to have a reasonable position without the faux pas (to her) of appearing to support Black Lives Matter.
Johnson said, "I recognize that I'm gonna have to talk to [Jude] about how to behave when he gets pulled over. And, how to be maybe extra cautious when he gets pulled over as an adult. How he walks down the street. How he talks to a police officer if he's approached by a police officer."
What makes her angry is “the why.” It's the "why the statistics are the way that they are." This is a reference to her previous claim that black people are more violent than white people. In other words, she isn't angry that she has to tell her son specific ways black men can show police they're not dangerous. She is angry with black men for the violence she earlier attributed to them. By saying this, she essentially suggested that the existing police brutality cases could have been avoided by black people knowing to act a certain way that she knows how to teach to her son.
By mid-video, Johnson shifted abruptly away from someone who didn’t know what to say to using “authority bias.” Rather than substantiate her claims, she went on to tell us about her master's degree, how she is finishing her doctorate, and how she is a naturally talented researcher. Within seven minutes of hitting the “record” button, she transformed into an expert as she went on to highlight black "fatherlessness" as a causal factor for the violent behavior of black men that does not actually exist. Her ending lecture toward both black men and women alike was nothing short of deeply condescending and hurtful.
As the video ended, I found myself staring at that iconic darkened “suggested videos” thumbnail screen heartbroken. I had desperately wanted to see a mama bear proudly proclaim that her little boy has a right to walk this earth the same as anybody else faced with no more suspicion than anyone else. I wanted to hear her say that black men don’t appear intimidating to anyone that recognizes their full humanity. I yearned for any divestment of privilege whatsoever in protection of black lives. Or at least, for the protection of the one black life that is in her care.
I wanted to see this white adoptive mother model taking a protective stance towards a transracially adopted black child from a national platform. Unfortunately, I fear her need to stay consistent in her support for Trump, who supports her pro-life stance while misrepresenting police reform stances in campaign videos, took center stage. As an adopted daughter, I cannot tell you how painful it is to not be seen by a parent first and above politics. In my next post, I’m going to publish my thoughts on this Abby Johnson dilemma, and the imperative to choose adopted children first.
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