Scholar speaks about the intersection of race, science and injustice

Scholar speaks about the intersection of race, science and injustice

March 29, 2019

The History Makers and African and African-American Studies (AAAS) program welcomed Dorothy Roberts, an internationally recognized scholar and social justice advocate, to speak about the intersection of race, science and justice in the African American community.

Roberts spoke on the history of race, science and injustice in the African American community since the dawn of humanity and challenged the concept of race and biological differences that separate groups of individuals.

Robert is the author of “Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty,” first published in 1997, and “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century,” published in 2011, which was reissued for a 20th edition special. A majority of Roberts’ work focuses on “transforming public thinking and policy on reproductive health, child welfare and bioethics,” according to her biography.

The first part of the talk focused on the misconception that biological differences inherently produce social inequality between races and the “Scientific Invention of Race/Racial Identity.” According to Roberts, when the definition of race was first introduced in society in the 1700s, scientists believed that some force of nature created race, not God. “They claim that nature created race, and they could discover just how many races there were,” explained Roberts. In contention to this, she believes that “they [Enlightenment scientists] wanted to justify the domination of Europeans over other groups.”

She highlighted that a lot of the definition of race was based on the desire for white control in society to “justify their brutal subordination over other groups of people,” she said. “Science was invented by race. The concept of race helped to shape science.”

Roberts spoke about the oppression of black slaves, specifically women and the enslavement of their children. The colonists needed to define what the status of children born to a black woman and a white father was and determined that their “political investment in the power of whiteness” out-ruled the fact that the child was half white.

“In doing that, they made black women’s childbearing not only the subject or regulation but that they could control the production of the birth of new people to enslave but also the very idea that race is naturally reproduced and that the status of black children is naturally reproduced by their mothers,” said Roberts. She went on to say how black babies’ enslavement from the womb of their mothers justified the sterilization of thousands of black women. “The most dangerous place for an African American child is in the womb,” said Roberts, quoting a billboard that was posted during this time period.

Roberts shifted her gaze towards comparing the old and new “biosocial” science. The old section focused very heavily on the works of Nicholas Wade, a science writer for The New York Times, and the controversial nature of his work. Following the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, Wade claimed that “the new frontier of genomics was to look for genetic differences between the principal races.”

Wade determined that there are three distinct groups of races based on the differences in social values and creating different social institutions: White, Asian and African. White people were defined as being the most creative and able to develop democratic institutions. Asians were a conforming group of individuals, which would be suited for developing authoritarian institutions. “African people never evolved from the ancestral homeland and therefore are prone to violence and chaos and that’s why Africa is a tribal conflict and impossible for Africans to have a democractic institution,” Roberts said, referencing the works of Wade.

Roberts further explained that the reason that his work was gaining prominence was because he was citing actual scientific studies that were racist towards groups of individuals. “Scientists defined race as a genetic grouping that the reason why this science was so popular and supported by our tax dollars, funded by the NIH was because it provided an explanation, medical explanation, for continued racial inequality and in a supposedly post-racial society,” said Roberts.

The new “biosocial” science challenged the preconceived notions that black people were more likely to contract certain diseases because of their race. This science combined areas of science such as biomedical research, epigenetics and sociogenomics.

“Race is not a biological category that naturally produces health disparities because of genetic differences,” Roberts said, quoting her book, “Fatal Invention.” “Race is a political category that has staggering biological consequences because of the impact of social inequality on people’s health.” She further went on to explain that the biological differences seen between races are not caused by “innate differences” but by social inequality.

All members in academia, whether it be the humanities or the sciences, have biases that constantly change the definition of race, Roberts explained. “Biologists define race and social scientists interpret and determine how it plays out in society,” she said.

Roberts finished her presentation by saying how racial inequality cannot be explained without institutional racism. “The very concept of race as a natural division of human beings, that idea is a product of racism,” explained Roberts. “You only need to justify racism as the reason why race was invented in the first place.”

“We should embrace the values of a value of affirming our common humanity by working to amend the structural inequality preserved by the political system of race,” Roberts said in closing.

Professor Siri Suh (SOC), who teaches SOC 191A, Health, Community and Society, focuses a lot on the topics that Roberts spoke to. “I think that she’s doing incredibly important work in terms of forcing us to think about how science is conducted,” Suh told The Brandeis Hoot. She also said that young scholars, especially ones going into science, need to hear scholars like Dorothy Roberts “who actually trace the historical importance of racism in science and make us think about solutions within science itself as an enterprise, as a field and how those kind of solutions or what those solutions have to do with social justice.”
Roberts is the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor and George A. Weiss University Professor of Law & Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. She received her B.A. from Yale University and her J.D. from Harvard Law School.

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