Since Judge Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, a great deal of media coverage has focused on her family. She and her husband Jesse Barrett have seven children – two of whom, Vivian and John Peter, were adopted from Haiti. Benjamin, their youngest, has Down syndrome, and most of her children were present at her confirmation hearings.
Seeing her family in the spotlight has prompted indignation from liberals. Several pundits have argued that Republicans were using Barrett’s motherhood as a “smokescreen” – in the words of author Anand Giridharadas – to distract from her views, or as a public-relations tool. Talk of her motherhood is “meant to defuse criticisms of Barrett by making the case that, as a Mom, she simply wouldn’t have the heart to do some of the things liberals are afraid of, like voting to overturn the Affordable Care Act,” asserted a Vox writer – while also making critics seem “anti-child, anti-family, and anti-women.”
These complaints are easily rebutted by noting that the confirmation debate has focused largely on her legal record. Indeed, nearly every question Barrett received from Republicans related to her judicial philosophy and her qualifications, not her family. But beyond the talk of smokescreens and P.R., there was a far less pleasant strand of liberal commentary: It involved strained interpretations of why Barrett adopted children, and how she speaks of them – implying that she was racist, and perhaps ableist. These comments did not only represent armchair psychoanalysis at its worst; they also showed how easy it is for partisanship to trump basic decency.
When Barrett’s nomination was announced, Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” slammed Barrett in the guise of offering a history lesson. “Some White colonizers ‘adopted’ Black children,” he tweeted. “They ‘civilized’ these ‘savage’ children in the ‘superior’ ways of White people, while using them as props in their lifelong pictures of denial, while cutting the biological parents of these children out of the picture of humanity.” (“Whether this is Barrett or not is not the point,” he added, disingenuously.)
Kendi was clearly implying that the Barretts were guilty of having in a sense stolen Vivian and John Peter to disguise their own racism, not having chosen out of love to welcome them into their family.
In her opening statement, Barrett offered loving remarks about each of her “seven wonderful children.” “Emma is a sophomore in college,” she began, “who just might follow her parents into a career in the law. Vivian came to us from Haiti. When she arrived she was so weak that we were told she might never walk or talk normally. She now dead lifts as much as the male athletes at our gym, and I assure you that she has no trouble talking.” She went on to say something short and sweet about each of her children.
Yet some observers claimed to hear a nefarious subtext in her comments. “Did anybody else notice that Amy Coney Barrett told us her white children have intellectual goals while her black children can . . . deadlift? Or was that just me?” observed the Nation’s justice correspondent, Elie Mystal. “It was very subtle, did you catch it?” tweeted a law professor at the University of Houston. “Judge Barrett describing her five biological kids as intelligent, smart, future scholars (except her Down’s syndrome child) while describing her two black adopted kids as athletic and ‘happy go lucky.’ ”
Other commentators suggested that she was posing as a white “savior” and that she spoke about her adopted children “like brutes.”
These descriptions of Barrett’s remarks are remarkably uncharitable. To understand why she might tell a story involving Vivian’s strength, a humane observer might want to consider that when Barrett and her husband brought Vivian home, she was 14 months old yet weighed a mere 11 pounds. It wasn’t clear whether she’d survive. That Barrett would boast of her daughter’s ability to weight-lift as much as men isn’t a racially motivated dismissal of her intellectual accomplishments: It is a testament to the miracle of her life.
And these were the comments that supposedly reduced John Peter to a racist stereotype: “John Peter joined us shortly after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, and Jesse, who brought him home, still describes the shock on J.P.’s face when he got off the plane in wintertime Chicago. Once that shock wore off, J.P. assumed the happy-go-lucky attitude that is still his signature trait.” It requires hyperpartisan dishonesty to interpret this description as something other than a loving mother describing the personality of her young child.
In a talk at Notre Dame last year, Barrett described in considerable detail the challenging process of adopting John Peter, which took several years. After complications, they were told that the adoption would not proceed. Long after they had reconciled themselves to not being able to adopt him, they got a second chance. By this point, the Barretts had four children, the youngest of whom was still a toddler, and she had just discovered that she was expecting their fifth.
Nevertheless, they moved forward. “I thought, in context, when you think about the value of people and the value of life and what’s really most important, what you can pour yourself into, that raising children and bringing John Peter home were the things of the greatest value that I can do right then, rather than even teaching, being a law professor, which I was at the time,” Barrett said. “That was what was really most important.”
This is not how a woman speaks when she believes her adopted children are less valuable than her own, when she views them as anything other than true members of her family.
But Barrett’s critics didn’t stop there. Others insisted she had “described her child with a disability only by his disability” and that she ignored his talents and attributes.
In fact, Barrett said of this child: “Our youngest, Benjamin, is at home with friends. Benjamin has Down syndrome, and he is the unanimous favorite of the family.” In that 2019 talk at Notre Dame, Barrett said: “Sometimes we see things that are very difficult or that are burdens – and Benjamin’s diagnosis definitely derailed us off what we thought life was going to look like, what we thought his life was going to look like. But in a way that we can’t really understand or appreciate but that we see unfold every day, it will be the most important thing that we do probably.”
In the end, it was Barrett and her husband, not their critics, who chose to adopt two children from Haiti and raise them as their own and who made the courageous choice to raise their youngest son, eschewing the more common decision of [of others]. For progressives to offer armchair judgments about Barrett’s family in an effort to delegitimize her illustrates their willingness to prioritize ideology above simple humanity.