Not So Black And White
An Interview with Dorothy Roberts on The Myth of Race
There is no such thing as black genes or white genes; the concept of race is purely a political invention designed to enforce unjust hierarchies.
Law, Africana-studies, and sociology professor Dorothy Roberts describes 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’ 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.”
MARK LEVITON: What was it like growing up in a biracial family?
DOROTHY 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.
MARK LEVITON: Do you feel the civil rights movement made you “choose a side”?
DOROTHY 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.
MARK LEVITON: You argue that race is not a biological condition but a “political invention.”
DOROTHY 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.
MARK LEVITON: How old is this political invention?
DOROTHY 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.”
MARK LEVITON: But is it fair to say that, before colonialism, people did notice differences in skin color, eye color and hair texture?
DOROTHY ROBERTS: Yes, 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.
MARK LEVITON: Doesn’t our skin color come from our genes?
DOROTHY ROBERTS: There is genetic variation in the human species. In Africa alone we could divide people into a thousand different “races” if we wanted to, based on various genetic differences. But there would be no point in having a thousand races. If you divide humans into just a few groups, however, then you can build a social hierarchy around those divisions. Besides, skin color varies within races and is consistent between some people of different races.
The biological concept of race has been refuted by evolutionary biologists and geneticists and genomicists for decades. The scientists who led the Human Genome Project made a point of saying human genetic variation isn’t divided into races. There’s no such thing as black genes or white genes. You might have genes that can be traced to a certain population somewhere on the globe, but there’s no point at which you can draw a boundary line and identify one race on one side and a different race on the other.
All humans originated in Africa and then migrated outward in groups, each carrying a subset of the genetic variation in Africa. No one has identified a point in human history at which time these migrating groups evolved into discrete and homogeneous “races.”
MARK LEVITON: You’ve written that during U.S. slavery there were many laws and tests to determine who belonged to what race, and these laws changed over time.
DOROTHY ROBERTS: Mixtures had to be dealt with. Human beings, regardless of race, can have children together. That’s always been a problem for the biological argument. At first some European naturalists believed that men and women of separate races couldn’t produce progeny. When it turned out they could, the naturalists claimed that the offspring would be sterile, like mules. That’s where the word mulatto comes from, by the way. And when that turned out not to be true, the definition of race had to be written into law. The colonists didn’t really care about biological categories except as a means to justify enslaving other people and not people like themselves. The colonists in Virginia needed to determine the race of the children white men fathered with enslaved African women — by sexual assault, since the women had no right to refuse. They also didn’t want these children to have any claim on inheritance from their fathers. Colonial law literally begins with a ruling about “whether children got by any Englishman upon a Negro woman should be slave or free.” British common law said children inherited their social status from the father. In 1662 the white settlers passed a law that, in the Virginia Colony, the social status of children born to black women was inherited from the mother, so they could be enslaved.
By the twentieth century the law of racial inheritance becomes the “one-drop” rule, which says that if you have any discernible African ancestry, from your mother or father, you’re black. You can have seven white great-grandparents and one black great-grandparent, and you’re still black. In American culture white means “pure white.” Blackness can be a mixture, but whiteness cannot. Privilege and entitlement are given exclusively to people who can legally claim to be white. Jewish, Irish, Italian, and Slavic people weren’t always classified as completely white but were eventually able to attain that status. This system is clearly a political invention to establish white supremacy and white dominance.
MARK LEVITON: The Naturalization Act of 1790 prohibited nonwhite immigrants from becoming American citizens. In 1923 an Indian Sikh named Bhagat Singh Thind attempted to have himself categorized as Caucasian, but the U.S. Supreme Court decided his skin color disqualified him.
DOROTHY ROBERTS: The Thind case is a perfect example of how the decision of who gets to be white is not a biological one. Thind brought to court scientific evidence that his ancestors were of the same Aryan blood as Englishmen and white Americans. In fact, he argued that his superior caste position in India made him of purer white descent than white people in the U.S. The Supreme Court basically dismissed his data and said, in effect, “No white man in America is going to think you’re white. Therefore you can’t be.” The legal category of “Asian” was created to identify those who would be excluded. But where’s the border? Is Russia less Asian than China? U.S. law considers Russians to be white but Chinese people to be Asian — because historically Russians were more welcome as immigrants, though not as welcome as the English.
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. People think it’s OK to categorize people by race as long as they’re not racist, but any division of people into supposedly natural races promotes a racist agenda, whether we intend it to or not.
MARK LEVITON: Politically it seems there’s always a need to define some group as a burden on society, undeserving of the resources and advantages upstanding citizens have earned.
DOROTHY ROBERTS: This is a familiar discourse in the U.S. Black women on welfare. Mexican immigrants. They are costing taxpayers too much. We need government policies to control them: welfare rules that deny benefits to women who have another child; immigration laws that keep Mexicans from giving birth on American soil. To me this is the language of eugenics, even if the people espousing these policies don’t mention sterilization or genetics. It’s still focused on the threat to society posed by certain people’s childbearing.
And you hear the argument, both in the past and today, that these policies are for the benefit of the disadvantaged people themselves. That 1924 Virginia law mandating sterilization was passed in a package that included the Racial Integrity Act, which criminalized marriages between blacks and whites. That law wasn’t overturned until 1967, in Loving v. Virginia.
One of the creators of the Racial Integrity Act, Earnest Cox, said, “The sane and educated Negro does not want social equality. They do not want intermarriage or social mingling any more than the average American white man wants it. They have race pride as well as we. They want racial purity as much as we want it.” In other words, “We’re doing this for their own good!”
Likewise, Holmes argued in Buck v. Bell that if the government sterilized the mentally ill, it could release them from asylums and let them live freely. Sterilization benefited them! So Holmes framed a violent act as benevolent.
Samuel Cartwright, the nineteenth-century physician I mentioned earlier, argued in a medical journal that blacks suffered from “dysaesthesia aethiopica,” a mental condition that caused laziness and could be cured by forced hard labor. Slavery “unchained the mind” of black people from barbarism and ignorance. These attitudes persist today in the way legislators talk about how to “cure” the problems of the black community. In 1965 Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan issued a report titled The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. It concluded that poverty in black communities was caused by “matriarchal” black single mothers, the poor character of black men, and ghetto culture — not forced residential segregation, substandard schools, and employment discrimination.
The disadvantages suffered by black people today are not due to innate flaws in black people themselves but stem from the institutional racism that’s been practiced over centuries in this country. Our society is unequal because it is engineered to be that way.
Medical professionals, geneticists, criminologists, sociologists, and psychologists who don’t think of themselves as racist still find it hard to conceive of doing their work without categorizing people into natural races. Doctors ask, “How can I treat patients without taking their race into account?” Researchers ask, “How can I do this study without having subjects tick the box to indicate race?” By treating race as if it were an essential, innate part of who we are, they are upholding institutions and ideas that perpetuate inequality.
Avowed white supremacists are aware of their investment in the system. They are dedicated to propping up institutions that favor white people based on a belief in white superiority. But most white people don’t realize the depth of institutional racism. It’s painful for them to confront how they have benefited from these systems. They want to believe they deserve what they have. Because they don’t understand or don’t want to acknowledge how being white confers privileges, they do nothing to dismantle these systems where racism is embedded, and they even support policies and ways of thinking that maintain them.
The myth of biological race keeps many people from seeing that there’s nothing wrong with people who suffer from social disadvantage. What’s wrong is a society that puts people at such social disadvantage because of their race.
MARK LEVITON: You’ve said that government policies that do not overtly specify race still have unequal outcomes from different racial groups.
DOROTHY ROBERTS: Government statutes that appear to be race-neutral often have racial assumptions embedded in them, or they have a different impact on people of color because other institutions have already put those people at a disadvantage. I certainly support universal, race-neutral policies that promote equal access to resources — for instance, Medicare for All. But even if we had that, we would need to recognize that it won’t benefit everyone equally. Residential segregation has put black Americans in neighborhoods with fewer high-quality hospitals, cutting edge technologies, and medical caregivers. Black people have to travel farther to get care, often using substandard transportation systems. Then there are the living conditions that put black people at greater risk of poor health in the first place, like the proximity of toxic-waste sites, air pollution, lead in the water, police violence, and higher levels of stress. Universal access to single-payer health insurance is urgently needed, but it won’t solve those problems. People who live in better-resourced areas, who can buy more-nutritious food and have less exposure to toxic chemicals and other unhealthy conditions, are still going to have a health advantage.
Most of my work looks at institutionalized disadvantage, not individual bias, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of individual bias on the part of police, social workers, employers, landlords, teachers, and health-care providers. Studies show that many doctors falsely believe in biological differences between races, and they incorporate these beliefs — especially negative myths about black people’s bodies — into their medical practices.
One atrocious example is the undertreatment of black patients for pain. Black patients receive less pain medication than white patients for the same injuries, and black people are less likely to get any pain medication at all. A study of children coming into emergency rooms with severe appendicitis found that white patients were more than twice as likely to be given opioids to relieve their suffering than black patients. In some emergency rooms, because of a myth that black people exaggerate their pain, nurses are instructed to give black patients less pain medication than is indicated by how they describe their pain.
MARK LEVITON: But isn’t there any validity to race as a factor in medical studies? For instance, aren’t blacks more likely to get sickle cell anemia?
DOROTHY ROBERTS: We shouldn’t confuse a higher prevalence of a particular genetic variant in a population with a racial disease. It is true that the genetic mutation that causes sickle-cell disease is more prevalent in certain parts of Africa, as well as in other parts of the world where malaria is endemic, because the sickle cell trait provides a protective advantage against malaria. But the trait doesn’t exist only in black people. Nor are individual black people likely to have it just because they are classified as black. There’s also a reliable test to detect the sickle cell gene. Why not use it instead of depending on flawed race classification?
MARK LEVITON: In Fatal Invention you tell a story about Richard Garcia and his childhood friend. What did you learn from him?
DOROTHY ROBERTS: Dr. Garcia is a physician who wrote an article in Pediatrics about how notions of race can lead to misdiagnoses. He used the example of a friend of his, an African American girl named Lela, who from a very young age had suffered from respiratory problems. She kept coming back to the emergency room, and doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her. Her medical chart contained doctors’ notes identifying her illness as “another pneumonia” and a “fever and cough.” When Lela was eight years old, an X-ray technician looked at her X-ray without knowing her race and immediately asked, “Who’s the kid with cystic fibrosis?” She’d had the symptoms from the beginning, but the doctors thought only white people carried the gene for cystic fibrosis.
There is no such thing as a black, white, Asian, or Native American gene. There’s genetic variation among humans, all of whom descended from Homo sapiens on the continent of Africa. Cystic fibrosis may occur more often in a certain population of European descent, but that doesn’t mean that it cannot be carried by someone who is not of European descent or who is not identified as white. And this African American girl could have had European ancestry — in fact, she could have had mostly European ancestry — but doctors still would have identified her as African American because her skin was a certain shade, or her hair was a certain texture, or because her parents ticked the “black” box. In the U.S., “black” means having any discernible amount of African ancestry.
Doctors use race as a proxy for genetic differences because it’s convenient, or because they don’t have time to do genetic tests. But testing for cystic fibrosis is better medical practice than continually admitting a patient like Lela to the hospital. Her race wasn’t considered just a factor; it was considered a categorical exclusion. It meant she couldn’t have cystic fibrosis, even though she had the symptoms of the disease.
Race overwhelms everything else. If you’re a doctor, even when your patient has the clinical indicators and the symptoms are right in front of you — everything you need to make a diagnosis — you might discount it all because of the patient’s race. That makes race a dangerous category for doctors to rely on.
MARK LEVITON: You’ve written about how white women can avail themselves of a system that encourages childbearing, while black women are discouraged from having more children.
DOROTHY ROBERTS: There is a racial caste system in reproduction. Black women in particular have been stigmatized for their childbearing, to the point where it’s seen as a social problem. There’s a long history of punishing black women for having babies, from forced and coerced sterilizations, to the way welfare policy is written, to how black women are prosecuted for drug use during pregnancy. The hysteria over “crack babies” during the Reagan administration was just that: hysteria. More recent, long-term studies have shown that crack use during pregnancy didn’t produce the dire physical and social harms that were predicted. In any case, drug use during pregnancy should have been treated as a health problem instead of a crime. Racism and the devaluation of black mothers were key to this punitive approach. I wrote Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare to highlight how the child welfare system monitors, regulates and mistreats poor families, especially poor black families: investigating parents; forcibly removing children from the home; terminating parental rights. That’s how family needs are addressed, instead of by supporting families.
At one point in U.S. history, the child welfare system was used to separate white immigrant children from their families. Charles Loring Brace’s Children’s Aid Society — founded in 1853 — was created to remove Catholic immigrant children from their families and place them with God-fearing Protestant families. That was at a time when child welfare was only for white children.
MARK LEVITON: How is it different today?
DOROTHY ROBERTS: As black families became involved, the system became more punitive. The child welfare system is run as if black children need to be protected from their innately inadequate mothers. This leads to black children being removed from their homes with greater ease than white children. There’s a widespread belief that black children are better off in imperfect foster care than in their own homes.
There have always been “undeserving poor,” but black mothers are seen as even more undeserving. The mythical “welfare queen” — an inner city black woman — became the face of the welfare system, even at a time when there were more white families receiving public aid. According to a widely held myth, white families used government money to care for their children, whereas black families spent it on frivolous luxury items. Black women were actually thought to be having babies just to get a supposedly generous welfare check.
This all led to the ridiculously titled Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, which President Bill Clinton signed in 1996. The first thing the 1996 law says is “Marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” In other words: You black women need to get married and stop having children out of wedlock. Before 1996 you were entitled to public assistance to care for your children if you had a certain level of need. Since then, Congress has made no bones about the fact that welfare is a behavior modification system. The law doesn’t examine why welfare recipients need public assistance; it is designed simply to get them off public assistance through marriage, fertility control, low-wage work, or cutting off benefits.
MARK LEVITON: So what can be done to change these broken systems?
DOROTHY ROBERTS: We can start with awareness. Everyone should understand that the reason we have mass incarceration of black men and women isn’t because most of them are violent and dangerous. We don’t have a huge foster care population because so many black parents are monsters. Researchers are too often trying to figure out how to “fix” black people. My mantra is “There is nothing wrong with black people.” What’s wrong is structural racism. The systems in place ruin black people’s lives and restrict their opportunities to participate equally in society.
I think if more people understood that the problem of inequality is systemic and institutionalized, it would go a long way toward changing the discussion. These issues are interconnected, and we need all progressives, at least, to see the connections. We need people organizing and protesting in the streets and writing op-eds in the newspapers and putting forward legal challenges in the courts and creating more humane alternatives in their communities. I can be pessimistic about this country ever becoming a nonracist society, but I’m heartened when my undergraduate, medical, and law students ask what they can do to bring about such a change.
I don’t believe we should be “color-blind,” that we shouldn’t pay any attention to race. As a political invention, race continues to determine power arrangements and is not going to just go away. We have to dismantle racist institutions to affirm our common humanity. And to do that, we need to understand how the concept of race really functions.
This interview appeared in a different form in the April 2019 issue of The Sun (thesunmagazine.org). It appears here by permission of Mark Leviton and Dorothy Roberts.
Mark Leviton is supposed to be retired, but it didn’t take. He lives in Nevada City, CA. www.petsoundsmusic.com