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The Racial Geography of State "Child Protection" (WP-07-06)

Dorothy Roberts

Dorothy Roberts examines an understudied aspect of the gross overrepresentation of black children in the U.S. child welfare system, in which a black child is four times more likely than a white child to be in foster care. She argues that such statistics conceal a disturbing racial geography, in which child protection cases are concentrated in communities of color in the nation’s cities. To investigate the sociopolitical impact of such overrepresentation on black communities, she conducted a small case study in the black Chicago neighborhood of Woodlawn, where there are high rates of foster-care placement.

Analyzing in-depth interviews with 27 black women, Roberts uncovered many ways in which the intense agency involvement in Woodlawn negatively affected both family and community relationships. Yet surprisingly most of the women did not believe that the agency was overly involved in their neighborhood, and in fact, called for greater state involvement.

Roberts surmises that the residents of such neighborhoods are forced to rely on more punitive state institutions to meet their needs because of the growing dearth of social programs in these neighborhoods, caused by the government’s shift to market solutions for poverty. She concludes that the racial geography of state child protection also illustrates the critical role that institutional racism plays in the neoliberal state’s new forms of punitive governance.

Dorothy Roberts, School of Law, African American Studies, and Sociology, Northwestern University

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