Black Children Are Not Baby Seals

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A controversial billboard campaign in Atlanta is bringing needed attention to an issue that’s having a devasting effect on the black community in America. But is this the right way to do it?

Perhaps you’ve heard about the controversial billboard campaign sponsored by Georgia Right to Life, that state’s largest pro-life organization, in partnership with a Christian group called the Radiance Foundation. In signs put up around Atlanta, as well as through a dynamic website, the campaign puts the abortion issue squarely in the faces of passersby with the image of a young child next to the startling words: “Black Children Are an Endangered Species.”

It’s a provocative, thought-provoking image and caption. And the campaign is brought to you, in part, by black and biracial folks, many of whom have deeply sympathetic stories related to the pro-life issue.

Like other pro-life efforts geared toward African Americans, the campaign draws attention to The Negro Project, a controversial initiative of Margaret Sanger, who founded one of the organizations that later became Planned Parenthood. The Negro Project, which was initiated in 1939, focused on teaching birth control methods in black communities, often with the help of black ministers. The paternalistic and eugenicist language of Sanger’s writings is often interpreted as evidence of a racist conspiracy to control black reproduction.

I applaud the campaign’s message, and the attention it will generate about the Negro Project. The statistics the website raises about the disproportionate impact abortion has had in the black community — for example, that black women have abortions at three times the rate of white women and almost twice the rate of other racial groups combined — let us know that there is knowledge for us to share and to act on.

I’m adamant about my support for the campaign’s aims, because it’s important for African Americans to become aware of the devastating impact of abortion. At the same time, I believe it’s important to use language and symbols carefully. I find the use of “endangered species” language and imagery to describe black children to be profoundly inappropriate.

First, there’s the problem of comparing African Americans to animals. Anyone with any knowledge of the way that kind of imagery has been used in the past should think twice before leveraging it for its shock value and attention-grabbing potential. The fact that the cause is to save black children doesn’t make it right.

I get it: They want us to see that, like cute little penguins or baby seals, whose survival has become a subject of passionate concern for millions of people around the world, black children are in danger too. So the point of the Georgia campaign, like those famous “Save the Baby Humans” bumper stickers, is to emphasize the hypocrisy in caring more about animals than we do about people.

But black children aren’t animals — and that’s precisely why their lives are important. They shouldn’t be compared to the Okaloosa Darter or the Galapagos Petrel, or some other species you haven’t heard about and don’t care about the survival of. That’s why this imagery is such a bad idea. It “others” and objectifies black children in ways that are racially problematic and potentially harmful.

But, if it saves lives, isn’t it worth it?

I believe that’s a flawed question, because we’re capable of thinking more creatively than that.

The words and imagery the campaign’s organizers have chosen creates a false choice between saving lives and recognizing those lives as human — which is precisely the point of the pro-life movement, as well as the blind spot it’s sometimes accused of having.

Think about how we often regard animals on the Endangered Species list: they are protected with the hope that they can be released back into the wild, where they can survive on their own.

The late Spencer Perkins identified the problems with this kind of thinking back in 1989, when he raised the question of a “pro-life credibility gap.” In Perkins’ view, those Christians who were most visible in leading the pro-life movement were often not as interested in other issues of justice for African Americans. He wrote, “I feel that if the love of Christ compels me to save the lives of children, that same love should compel me to take more responsibility for them once they are born.” Though Perkins was making the point about white pro-lifers, it’s a question for all of us to consider.

An “endangered species” mentality de-contextualizes and dislocates many children from the possible sources of the issues they may face. This mentality doesn’t imply that these children will need places to live free from poor environmental settings and polluted air, or a neighborhood that isn’t a food desert, or a street that’s safe from the bullets of warring gangbangers, or church families to help support them, or high-quality public schools to prepare them for life, or intact families with parents whose relationships provide a secure home, or people (of any race!) who will adopt them and raise them lovingly.

I am not saying that eliminating poverty will end abortion. I am saying that comparing black children to an endangered species limits our thinking about what they will need to live healthy lives.

I’m pleased that a national spotlight is being directed on a critical issue. I just wonder if the folks behind the Georgia campaign could’ve garnered similar attention without the “endangered species” meme.

Some may say I’m being overly sensitive, or that the anti-abortion message requires this kind of brutal frankness. Perhaps. But in our efforts to draw more attention to the tragic impact abortion is having in the black community, we should be wary of further dehumanizing the very lives we seek to save.

About the author, LaTonya Taylor

LaTonya Taylor is a communications professional and graduate student in Chicago. She blogs intermittently at Gospel Gal.
  1. Thank you… this piece needs to be written and referred to many times over, because it deals with the polemic philosophical schism between people who want to address an issue with careful nuance and people who want to use the language of shock and awe in order to get people’s attention.
    I am of the belief that regardless of the issue at hand there are sometimes a need for both approaches, but one needs to be aware of the underlying costs of going one way versus another.
    I’m reminded of the “Read A Book” video … yeah, it was coarse and it was blatantly in-your-face (and full of vulgar language), but not only was it effective as a PSA to grab the attention of young Black folks but it also served as a piece of satire for how ridiculous hip-hop culture has become.
    Of course, the fact that it was so over the top meant that it offended a lot of people, and there are probably scores of unsophisticates who don’t understand satire who probably just thought it was funny because it was a literacy PSA with spinning rims and booty-shakin’ females.
    Point is, there is a downside to shock and awe, and sometimes the downside is obvious, and sometimes it’s not so obvious. But it’s there, nonetheless.

  2. I think the billboard serves its purpose. It’s purpose is to grab the attention of the observers. Mission Accomplished! Sometimes you have to go to the extreme in order to shake people out of the morass we sometimes find ourselves in because nothing else will work. We in the African-American community tend to wear our feelings and race on our sleeves. We need to get past this and see the truth. Abortion is actually just a symptom of a much larger problem in our community. Too many of us have given ourselves over to our whims and passions. Many times the result of this is a child we’re not ready to handle. What do we choose once this happens? Many choose abortion. This only compounds the problem. This is not unique to us. This affects every community. The problem for us is that because we’re one of the weakest of all communities (in terms of our economic stability and family structure), this smacks us in the face the hardest!
    Please do not think I’m just blaming the woman because it is the woman who chooses abortion. Too many times, we brothers love doing the crime, but we don’t want to do the time. This leaves too many sisters with the burden of a child with no father and very little support. It appears to me that the abortion ad reveals more about us than we would like to think. One of the problems the writer of this article has with the billboard is that it may compare black babies to animals. I believe the real offense is that too many of us treat black babies as animals that can be ignored or gotten rid of like one would dispose of an incurably sick puppy!

  3. I agree with LaTonya Taylor! I think we can be more creative. The message can be just as attention grabbing without resorting to this kind of shock treatment that compares our children to animals. We should not use the excuse that because the problem is so big we have to resort to these extreme measures. That’s BS! We’re intelligent and creative people. We can use our brains to come up with an effective message that doesn’t take the cheap way out. I think people are more likely to pay attention to something that bypasses this typical shock and awe babble.

  4. Please, before we get distracted by these types of debates, go to the source. The campaign speaks for itself, and so do the facts-both about abortion in the Black community, and about why The Radiance Foundation chose this particular theme for its effort.
    http://www.toomanyaborted.com/?p=1628
    http://www.toomanyaborted.com/?page_id=346
    Peace.

  5. Chandra,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I’m hoping people will go to the site and explore for themselves–which is why I included a link to the site in my post. As I said, even though I agree with the campaign’s goal to raise awareness of this issue, and I agree that it is hypocritical to care more for animals than we do for people, I disagree with the language/imagery the campaign organizers have chosen and some of its possible connotations.
    That isn’t causing a distraction, unless it is true that we can’t care about saving children and speaking well about them at the same time. I think we can.

  6. We can agree to disagree. This isn’t personal, but thanks for the very personal response.

  7. Wow. What a great article! A Facebook friend linked to the site you write about, and I left the site having read through a bunch of stuff and just… feeling funny about it. Couldn’t quite figure out why, but your article has beautifully (and quite compellingly) expressed the confusion/frustration I was feeling.
    Praise God that there are such great voices out there like this! Very encouraging. I look forward to reading more.

  8. Wow! Great, thought-provoking article. I especially like the part where you challenge pro-lifers to be a part of a community that cares for children after they have been born. I was raised in a far-right, conservative home and my family was very involved in the pro-life movement. The Pro-Life fight is important and worthy, but it’s not the only issue we should care deeply about. Which is something the white pro-life movement can tend to forget. That said, as an adoptive mother I’m thankful every day that my son’s birthmother chose to give birth.

  9. Calling a group of people an ‘endangered species’ is fairly common and I don’t think it’s intended to dehumanize or compare black children or whatever group to animals. People say things like “good men are an endangered species,” and aren’t trying to dehumanize men.

  10. Great article, and I see your points and they resonate with me this way: I see our whole culture as being “de-humanized” and pushed back towards slavery. The eugenics movement , euthanasia, gay culture, anarchists,porn industry, the Green rev thinking people are just animals. ZPGrowth,…lotsa signs that we’re thinking, or being trained to think, more like “beasts of the field” than humans.A billboard campaign that sells a Pro Life message to a culture in decline , and which is propagandized so heavily by all these decadent images and messages, kinda has to approach from the angle of ” cognitive dissonance”…shakes people out of a ” comfortable slumber”, and really is telling a truth here. ” Honesty’s the best policy”. You can’t save em all…only some will be saved. But I guess it’s all in how you look at it. Peace.