Feb 18, 2021
The United States has a long history of using child separation to further racial nationalism. The two main groups targeted by these terrorizing policies were African Americans and Native Americans. Enslaved families were routinely split up, and Black families continue to suffer from child separation today thanks to 20th century laws like Suitable Home Rules and other similar legal mechanisms. Children of Indigenous Peoples were forcibly removed and put in boarding schools. The current separation of Central American children at the southern border follows these precedents.
The removal of Native children was originally considered a progressive policy to end the Indian Wars. Putting Indigenous children in boarding schools was touted as a non-violent solution to ending a ‘native problem’ at the time of westward expansion. The true ultimate goal was to turn Native children into a servant class, so it is not surprising that these boarding schools were rife with abuse. This program created mass trauma for entire generations of Native Americans, which is still felt heavily today. It also caused incalculable harm to the transmission of tribal culture, language, and tradition.
As the Black freedom movement transformed into a movement of desegregation in public accommodations, Black children became the focus of the civil rights movement. At the same time, white segregationists focused attention on welfare and impoverished mothers, pushing narratives of welfare fraud. The more Black communities fought for their freedom, the more welfare was cut. Eventually, the small child welfare program that primarily served white families became an agency that actively worked to take Black children. Through Suitable Home Rules, the government villainized Black mothers and remove their children. This welfare system remains in place today.
Professor Laura Briggs, PhD is an expert on U.S. and international child welfare policy and on transnational and transracial adoption. She received her A.B. from Mount Holyoke College, her M.T.S. from Harvard University, and her Ph.D. in American Studies from Brown University. Her research studies the relationship between reproductive politics, neoliberalism, and the longue durée of U.S. empire and imperialism. Briggs has also been at the forefront of rethinking the field and frameworks of transnational feminisms.
Her newly published book Taking Children: A History of American Terror, examines the 400-year-old history of the United States’ use of taking children from marginalized communities—from the taking of Black and Native children during America’s founding to Donald Trump’s policy of family separation for Central American migrants and asylum seekers at the U.S./Mexico border—as a violent tool for political ends.
Briggs is a public intellectual whose work has been featured in court cases, podcasts, and journalism, including National Public Radio, Slate, PBS, New Republic, Indian Country Today, and Ms. Magazine. She began her intellectual career as a journalist for Gay Community News. She regularly teaches seminars on transnational feminisms, reproductive politics, and contemporary feminist theory.