But don’t ignore the structural inequities that make the child’s salvation necessary in the first place.
Although I was shaken and distressed by the scale of human suffering, I forced myself to watch hours of Haitian earthquake coverage. I remembered how many turned away from the televised abandonment of black people in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I did not want to commit that same betrayal by turning off the television. I wanted to bear witness to this tragedy, which affected so many black people.
I finally had to stop watching when I saw dozens of dead schoolchildren. One little face looked too much like my own daughter’s.
Many people have a visceral reaction to children’s agony. The innocence of youth makes their suffering particularly hard to bear. I understand wanting to swoop in, to scoop up the kids and to whisk them away to a better place. These are the emotions that seemingly motivated the American missionaries who attempted to relocate dozens of Haitian children to an orphanage in the Dominican Republic. Arrested and accused of child trafficking, they maintain that their intentions were entirely benevolent. But many of these Haitian children, it turns out, had surviving parents and relatives–a fact that the missionaries either knew about and disregarded or never bothered to investigate in the first place. Rather than viewing these kin as the children’s best resources in a time of disaster and loss, the missionaries sought to save the children in isolation from the restoration of their nation.
The desire to save the children might be noble, but this definition of salvation implies that familial, communal, linguistic and cultural connections are irrelevant. It assumes that a life of relative privilege is always preferable to a life of poverty, and it denies that children are bound to their origins by ties of loyalty, experience and preference. This troubling political impulse can be seen in the feel-good movie of the season, The Blind Side, based on the true story of a feisty Southern white woman who rescues an African-American teenager by adopting him out of poverty. Its roots go back to early twentieth-century progressive reformers who supported an aggressive "Indian education" agenda in the belief that efficient intervention in children’s lives was key to developing a productive, temperate citizenry. From the 1880s through the 1920s, more than 100,000 American Indian children were removed from tribal reservations and educated in government-supported, church-operated boarding schools. "Kill the Indian, save the man," was the explicit cultural extermination mission of child-salvation efforts that banned contact with parents and forbade tribal languages.
From the Haitian adoption scandal to Indian education programs, save-the-children logic defines black, brown, immigrant and poor communities as harbingers of cultural and behavioral pathologies. It demarcates children’s interests separately from, sometimes in opposition to, those of the adults in their communities.