Transpartisan Note #99
by A. Lawrence Chickering and James S. Turner
The May 25th, 2018 New York Times op-ed article Why Life as a Foster Child Made Me a Conservative by Rob (Robert Kim) Henderson — a 2018 Yale graduate, 8-year Air Force veteran, and loved son of his foster mother and her female partner — features significant transpartisan themes.
First, the headline misdirects. After recounting his story Robert Kim closes by saying: “If today that makes me a conservative, great. I take responsibility for that.” In the article, rather than saying he is a conservative, he says if progressives, society, or others see him as conservative he accepts and takes responsibility for that.
Yale has few conservatives and even fewer foster children. Rob’s drug-addicted birth mother sent him to foster care for five years when he was very young. He was adopted when he was seven and was brought up in broken homes. His three names, Robert Kim Henderson, came from three different adults, all of whom, it turned out, abandoned him.
Second, victims, progressive, conservative, other. A Yale classmate recently told Rob he was a victim. He had never heard himself called a victim, only at Yale. He answered: ‘…if someone had told me I was a victim as a kid, I would never have made it to the Air Force, where I served for eight years, or to Yale. I would have given up.’
When he was ten, a teacher told Rob that if he really committed himself, he could change his life—which he did. His fellow student suggested that Rob ‘was not as progressive’ as he was. Strange syntax. Did this fellow student mean Rob was not as progressive as the progressive student? Did he mean Rob was less progressive than Rob thought he was? Did he mean not thinking of himself as a “victim” meant he was not progressive at all?
Third, what is a conservative? Rob then reflected on what it means to be a conservative. His first principle was honoring inherited wisdom, which for him meant ‘the value of the two-parent family’. He listed among benefits emotional and financial support. A psychology professor helped make his case when he asked students anonymously to describe their parental background. All 25 in the class except himself and one other came from traditional two-parent families.
Foster children fare even worse. Ten percent go to college, and only three percent graduate. He noted that out of some 5,000 undergraduates at Yale, fewer than ten were foster children.
In discussing other values conservatives claim, he focused on the rights and responsibilities of individuals. Among responsibilities, he notes ‘a sense of unease among my peers’ when he says parents ‘should prioritize their children over their careers.’ ‘They think I want to blame individuals rather than a nebulous foe like poverty … [or] ideologies, institutions, abstractions’.
Finally, success. When people ask Rob how he was able to succeed given his troubled childhood, or when people use his success to argue for lax attitudes about parenting his ‘skin crawls.’ He explains his success simply: ‘During adolescence, I had the benefit of two parents…, and I had control of my future.’ His parents created a stable home for him in rural California. ‘We had dinner together every weeknight. We talked about minutiae … we loved each other.’
‘My adoptive mother and her (female) partner [created a stable family]… Though they experienced homophobia and struggled financially, they never let it get in the way of doing the right thing for their son.’
Rob did not comment on the drum beat of opinion in political media, academic studies, legislative initiatives, and in conservative circles that repeats the stereotype that “Conservatives want to keep gay couples from adopting fostering kids”.
What do you call a foster kid from a financially stressed California family with two female parents who promotes duty, love and responsibility? Transpartisan.