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.
There was a similar rationale to Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s blithe assertion that Hurricane Katrina was "the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans." I was in New Orleans the day before Duncan made his comment. I had just watched as dozens of high school students raised their hands when asked, "Who here has been personally touched by violent crime in our city?" Certainly there have been demonstrable improvements in the city’s test scores, but Duncan’s rosy assessment was discordant with what these kids were reporting about the difficulties they face. They live with rampant violent crime. There is little organized recreation. They have inadequate healthcare and few employment opportunities. Duncan myopically assumes that children can be saved solely through schools, but the children of New Orleans need more than a proliferation of charter schools; they need safe streets, open parks and parents who have real economic opportunities.
Likewise, I watched with interest and concern as First Lady Michelle Obama launched her national initiative to combat childhood obesity, an effort well suited to her self-proclaimed role as mom in chief. In its current form, Mrs. Obama’s initiative is focused on providing nutrition information, improving food choices and encouraging physical exercise. The program establishes a competition for healthier schools and offers information about "food deserts." But it does not rigorously engage a policy agenda that embraces children as part of nutritionally and recreationally deficient communities. Since race and poverty are intimately linked to childhood obesity, it is easy to imagine that this effort could soon slip into rhetoric about saving kids from their deep-frying, sedentary parents rather than linking health to the government and corporate choices that affect both children and adults.
Of course, progressive policies should take the needs of children seriously. Child-centered advocacy can be pursued in ways that are politically savvy and ethically sound. The Children’s Defense Fund, for example, uses children’s welfare as a tool to influence structural issues like reproductive health, criminal justice reform, housing policy and economic development. But it is important to guard against an impulse to save children that ignores the structural inequalities that made their salvation necessary in the first place. Presenting children as uniquely worthy implies that disadvantaged adults deserve their misery. It further implies that the private choices of irresponsible adults, rather than the policies of governments and corporations, are primarily responsible for children’s suffering.
It is easy to feel good about charitable efforts to assist disadvantaged children. But the desire to help children can create its own blind side, allowing us to ignore the communities from which they emerge and the racist and classist assumptions about who deserves assistance–and who doesn’t.