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.