Not So Black And White
Dorothy Roberts On The Myth Of Race
Law, Africana-studies, and sociology professor Dorothy Robertsdescribes race as a “political category that has been disguised as a biological one.” It’s a hard concept for many to grasp. Physical features associated with race, such as skin and hair color, are inherited through our genes. So how is race not biological? The long answer is found in Roberts’s book Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, but the short answer is that there’s no clear biological basis to divide humanity into five or six or seven races, any more than there is to divide it into twenty or a hundred or a thousand. The lines are drawn by social and political imperatives, not nature.
Roberts’s thinking about race originated in growing up in an interracial family in Chicago. Her white father, Robert, was an anthropology and sociology professor, and her Jamaican mother, Iris, had been his research assistant at the university and became a public-school teacher. Both of Roberts’s parents taught her that “there is only one human race.” As an adolescent in the 1960s Roberts became interested in the antiwar and civil-rights movements, and her undergraduate years at Yale University introduced her to the women’s liberation movement.
After graduating from Harvard Law School in 1980, Roberts clerked for federal judge and civil-rights champion Constance Baker Motley and practiced law in New York City. In the late 1980s she began to read about women — especially black women — being prosecuted, on charges ranging from neglect to attempted murder, for using illegal drugs while pregnant. Why, she wondered, was a threat to the health of mothers and their babies being treated as a criminal-justice matter?
It was the beginning of her research into the stark differences between white and black women’s reproductive freedom in the U.S., culminating in her 1997 book Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. From there Roberts explored racial injustice in the child-welfare system, and more recently, the fields of genomics and medicine, where she finds that misguided ideas about race are leading to different treatments for patients of different races and false genetic explanations for racial health gaps actually caused by social inequities.
In 2012 Roberts joined the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia as its fourteenth “Penn Integrates Knowledge” professor and became the founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society. I met with her one winter morning in her cheerful, cluttered university office. She had expressive eyes and an easy laugh. As I tried to find a place for my recorder amid the piles of books, she chuckled and said, “I like stacks.”
Leviton: What was it like growing up in a biracial family?
Roberts: My father began studying interracial marriage as a twenty-two-year-old grad student at the University of Chicago. His parents were immigrants from England and Germany, and he grew up in a European-immigrant Chicago neighborhood. He interviewed interracial couples as early as 1937, and in 1940 he wrote his master’s thesis on interracial marriage and the racial order in the United States. It’s amazing to me that he even found these couples, some of whom had gotten married in the late 1800s. There were barriers to race-mixing in Chicago then, though there wasn’t an outright ban on interracial marriage in the state of Illinois. In the 1950s my mother, who was originally from Jamaica, was one of my father’s students. They fell in love and got married while working on this black-white-marriage project. I was born a year later.
My parents were devoted to the principle that there is only one human race. It was a mantra in our house. My father was doing his research not just because of his personal relationship to the subject, but because he believed that interracial marriage was the answer to this country’s race problem. He believed that if blacks and whites got to know each other — preferably intimately [laughs] — racism would wither. He saw black Americans and white Americans as incredibly similar. My father would say that if you compared a black American, a white American, and someone living in a tribal village in Liberia, where he also conducted research, there was no doubt that the two Americans had a lot in common.
From an early age I believed strongly in the equal humanity of all people. I also was very aware that my mother was black and my father was white. A number of interracial couples were friends of our family. My piano teacher was in an interracial marriage. So was our plumber. When I was young, I was proud to be part of an interracial family. I remember walking down the street holding my mother’s hand on one side and my father’s on the other and wanting people to see us: Look at us! Black and white people can live together! I thought of myself as being both black and white.
By the time I was in seventh grade, I’d become interested in the civil-rights and antiwar movements, and I began to think of myself as a black person living in a racist country. I also felt a duty to do something about racism.
Leviton: Do you feel the civil-rights movement made you “choose a side”?
Roberts: Maybe. Also, my mother had dark skin, and even though I was intellectually close to my father and would talk to him about ideas all the time, when it came to racial identity, I was closer to my mother. I don’t think I’ve quite figured out myself exactly when I decided to identify as black and not biracial! [Laughs.]
As I became more and more aware of racial injustice, I started to question my father’s view that an increase in intimate relationships between blacks and whites by itself could overcome racism and white supremacy.
Leviton: You argue that race is not a biological condition but a “political invention.”
Roberts: Right. I’m not saying that race is a natural division of human beings that can lead to unjust hierarchies. I’m saying that the very concept of race was invented to create and enforce such hierarchies.
Leviton: How old is this political invention?
Roberts: Certainly hundreds of years old. The term “race” came into use to distinguish human groups in the sixteenth century when Europeans began to conquer other peoples and enslave them. To justify capturing Africans and turning them into property, Europeans came to describe them as a separate kind of human being — or even not human at all.
As soon as people invent the concept of race, they rank races into a hierarchy. Some people think it’s harmless to believe in biological differences between races as long as we don’t value one over another, but the whole point of dividing humans into races is to value some more than others. The inventors of the biological concept of race said that Africans were naturally meant to be enslaved, that it was for their own good, that they were better off being slaves! These ideas were written into law in the United States during the slavery era.
Medicine played a big part in promoting racial thinking. Doctors claimed that people of different races had peculiar diseases, or experienced common diseases differently, because they had innately different bodies. In 1851 Dr. Samuel Cartwright argued before the Medical Association of Louisiana that black people had lower lung capacity than white people, and forcing them to work was therefore good for their health. It would “vitalize” their blood and “free them from barbarism.”
Leviton: But is it fair to say that, before colonialism, people did notice differences in skin color, eye color, and hair texture?
Roberts: Yes, and those differences were seen as significant. For centuries groups of people thought that other groups — often distinguished geographically and by physical appearance — were inferior to them. Aristotle thought the Greeks were superior to the barbarians. But those differences in status could be erased. Barbarians could become civilized. Tribal membership could change through marriage. Race is seen as universal and immutable: from the moment of birth you belong to one group and cannot change your nature or status. Even if some black people can “pass” as white, they still possess some essence that makes them naturally black.
First comes the desire to conquer another people and take their land or enslave them. Then follows classifying human beings into races to justify and manage it. Racism isn’t a product of race. Race is a product of racism.
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