Tearing Families Apart: An American Tradition

old rusty chain over black

Tearing babies from the arms of their mothers is nothing new in America. 

We are all still sickened by the state-sanctioned child abuse on our Southern border, where children, including babies, have been ripped from their parents’ arms and put into cages.

But this practice of breaking up families of color has its roots in the very foundation of the nation. It was common practice to tear apart African American families during slavery and sell off children and other family members.

Starting around the end of slavery and continuing until the 1970s, Native American children were forcibly taken from their parents and sent to “Indian School.”

This practice continues to this day with the hyper-incarceration of Black parents, their children being torn away by the State. The Child Welfare System targets Black mothers to break up their families. For example, Black and White women suffer about the same rate of substance abuse but Black women are 10 times more likely to be reported to Child Welfare for substance abuse during pregnancy (New England Journal of Medicine) and even though Black children make up only 15% of the population, in 2000 they accounted for 36% of children in foster care (The Appeal).

So, this cruel behavior we see and rightly blame the Trump Administration for has a long and horrifying history in the hundreds of years that Europeans have occupied North America.

Why does the State tear families of color apart by ripping children from their parents’ arms?

This is not merely a callous disregard from the integrity of families of the disenfranchised. Breaking apart families has always been an intentional method of state terrorism, a way to control a subjugated population. What better way to demoralize a population that to tear apart the central social unit, the very thing that gives people comfort and support under duress?

For slave owners, it was a way to further dehumanize enslaved people in order to justify the unjustifiable. Today, it is also a way to dehumanize, coming as it does with the assumption that parents of color caught up in the injustice system are not worthy of raising children. There is a certain racist eugenics ideology at play reminiscent of forced sterilizations of the early 20th century. Similarly, for Native Americans, it was part of the systematic cultural genocide meant to erase Native American identity, seen as either inferior or threatening to the dominant White culture.

With the children of undocumented Latin American immigrants, the US government has lifted any veil of rationalization for the practice. A policy devised to be as inhumane as possible is thought of as a deterrent to non-White immigration. President Trump said as much: “If they feel there will be separation, they don’t come” (Reuters).

The reason family separation is an American tradition central to the history of the last several hundred years is it that it allows an ethnic population always in fear of losing power and being over-run by others to dominate and maintain control. It is the ideology of White supremacy, and it becomes more blatant as those in power become increasingly desperate and fearful. 

As individuals, White people can reject these practices, can reject White supremacy. But to reject something, you have to be aware of it. If the White population even subconsciously accepts the premises behind the various practices of family separation, political leaders will continue to be empowered to implement it. It will forever be thought of as the fault of its victims, unable or unworthy to raise their families. It is, and has always been, “business as usual.” The question is, will White people recognize it for what it is and stop either looking the other way or looking for one politician or political party to blame?

It feels awfully good to think that one aberrant politician has hijacked the country and that getting rid of him will allow us to return to business as usual. But do we really want to accept business as usual?

A little something about combatting stereotypes:


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