Law professor-author Dorothy Roberts

Roberts, a legal scholar and author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, examines the political and commercial incentives for continuing the categorization of people by race.

Dorothy Roberts is a leading legal scholar on the interplay of race, gender and class, focusing on reproduction, bioethics and child welfare. A professor at Northwestern's law school, she's published more than 75 articles and essays in books and scholarly journals, including the Harvard Law Review, and authored three award-winning books. Roberts serves as board chair of the Black Women's Health Imperative and on the board of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. Her latest text, Fatal Invention, is a call to affirm our common humanity.


Tavis: Dorothy Roberts is a professor of law at Northwestern and the chair of the board of directors at the Black Women’s Health Imperative. Her terrific new text is called “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Recreate Race in the 21st Century.” Professor Roberts, good to have you on the program.

Professor Dorothy Roberts: Thank you, thanks for having me.

Tavis: What is the “fatal invention?”

Roberts: Well, fatal invention refers to race in the United States. I say it’s an invention because it’s a political system that was created out of slavery and colonialism that continues to exist today to govern people. It’s not a natural division among human beings.

That’s why I call it an invention, and it’s fatal because it’s caused devastating inequalities that continue to this day.

Tavis: I’m not naïve in asking this question, but if post the Human Genome Project we know that we really aren’t that different, like what was that, .1 percent or 1 percent makes us different?

Roberts: (Laughs) Right, right, yes, yes.

Tavis: What was the number?

Roberts: Well, it was .1 percent.

Tavis: Point one, that’s what I thought, .1.

Roberts: It’s been increased a little bit since then, but it’s still a tiny amount.

Tavis: Tiny, miniscule amount that makes us different.

Roberts: Yeah.

Tavis: If even after that people want to advance the argument that we are genetically different – again, I’m not naïve in asking this – but what’s the reason behind advancing that argument anyway, despite the science?

Roberts: Right. Well, I think there are lots of reasons. One is there are incentives for continuing to claim that race is a biological category, and what I emphasize in my book is that there are commercial incentives today to produce products by race, and they are being based on the assumption – the false assumption – that you can divide up the human species into biological groups called races. There are also research –

Tavis: Before you go further –

Roberts: Sure.

Tavis: Commercial incentives like what?

Roberts: Like race-based medicine. While we wait for personalized medicine to materialize, the promise that one day drug companies will be able to manufacture drugs that are suited to our individual genotypes, that hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, companies and researchers are looking for race-based products that can substitute for individual drugs tailored to our genotype.

Already, the FDA has approved a race-specific drug called BiDil, the first one that it has approved that is marketed specifically to self-identified African Americans.

So there’s a commercial interest in pretending that race is a biological category in order to sell drugs and other kinds of biotechnologies as well. Ancestry testing services, for example, that claim to be able to tell people what percentage of different races they are.

Also some that say they can trace your ancestry to particular groups in Africa or Europe or other parts of the world.

Tavis: Is that a scam?

Roberts: Well, there’s some scientific basis to it, but none of the companies can actually tell you what tribe your ancestors came from because none of them sampled tribes in Africa 300 years ago when your ancestors may have been brought here as slaves. It all depends on their particular samples that they got from contemporary groups in Africa and the way in which they try to figure out how to match you with one of those groups.

But all the companies have different formulas they use, and so if you send in your test, your DNA, your cheek swab to four companies, you may get four different results. (Laughter) Oh, many people have.

So that’s one of the incentives, the commercial incentive. Then also there’s a research incentive, research money that is by Congress required to – it’s required that the researchers divide their clinical subjects according to race, and this was because back in the ’60s and ’70s most of the clinical trials for – the good ones, not the exploitative ones; we know that Black people have been subject to experimentation – but clinical trials to test drugs were primarily done on whites.

So there was a movement to include minorities and women in medical research funded by the federal government, by the NIH primarily. So Congress passed an act requiring that researchers who receive federal funds divide the clinical subjects by race and report the results by race.

Unfortunately, that’s turned into the perception, then, that there are these fundamental biological differences according to race, which is a social category.

Tavis: You’ve said a number of things here I want to go back and kind of unpack.

Roberts: Mm-hmm, sure.

Tavis: Two, specifically. One, the medicine, the medication that you (unintelligible), was it BiDil?

Roberts: BiDil, yeah, mm-hmm.

Tavis: BiDil, aimed specifically at African Americans for what purpose? What is purporting to treat?

Roberts: Okay, so it’s for heart failure.

Tavis: Heart failure, OK.

Roberts: But it’s important to recognize that this drug was developed without any regard to race. It was just a combination of two generic drugs that dilate the blood vessels, so it makes it easier for the heart to pump blood. So it’s a therapy for people who are suffering from heart failure.

Tavis: Why is that a Black thing, though? A lot of white folk have heart failure.

Roberts: Exactly. It became a Black thing because the cardiologist who invented it had to renew his patent, so he had to come up with something new to make this patent distinctive from the prior one, and he added to it the claim that it works better on Blacks based on a review of an old study done in the 1980s that showed some difference between the effectiveness of the drug on Blacks and whites.

But remember, this drug was not developed for Black people, nor was it ever claimed in the original patent to be for Black people. The clinical trial that tested it for FDA approval only involved African Americans, so there was no comparison group to be able to say it works better on Blacks.

Tavis: You’ve made the case clearly that the pharmaceutical industry, exhibit A here, BiDil, the pharmaceutical industry has bought into this for commercial purposes. I get that. I’m grossed out by it, but I get that.

How much of this fatal invention, though, has been bought into by the healthcare industry, specifically doctors, physicians?

Roberts: Well, doctors have always treated patients on the basis of race. Medical students are still taught to take race into account. That’s when they see a patient; they look at the age, the gender and the race of the patient. So that has been a part of medical practice for centuries.

Also the idea that Black people have different diseases peculiar to that, right? That Black people experience disease differently. That has been a part of medical practice for centuries as well.

Tavis: But that’s not true for certain things like – sickle cell comes to mind. That’s not true in certain situations?

Roberts: Well, sickle cell is a disease that is highly associated with a particular genetic mutation, which first of all you have to take into account that that’s unusual. Most diseases like cancer and diabetes, heart failure, that we’re talking about haven’t been linked to any particular genetic mutation.

So sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs, these kinds of genetically associated diseases are exceptional, but they’re not race-based diseases. So sickle cell anemia is present in populations whose ancestors came from places where there’s high prevalence of malaria, and if you look at a map of Africa that shows for prevalence of malaria, you’ll see that it’s present in West Africa but not in South Africa. You’ll also see that there’s sickle cell anemia in other countries where there’s a high prevalence of malaria – India, even some countries in southern Europe.

So it’s not a Black disease at all. It’s a disease that can affect other people whose ancestors came from malaria-prevalent regions. If we looked at someone with ancestry in the Zulu tribe, for example, very unlikely that they’d have sickle cell anemia versus someone from Greece, where the rate would be much higher.

Tavis: What disturbs you most – I’m sure there’s a long list, a litany to this question you can give me. If we had the time you could offer me a list of things. But what troubles you most about the way this fatal invention is being played out politically in the era of Obama? Because if race is a political construct and not a genetic construct, there must be things concerning you about the way it’s playing itself out as we speak.

Roberts: Exactly, exactly, and now you’ve gotten to the heart of my book, which is the politics of this. I argue in the book that there is a new racial politics that’s emerging that treats race as a biological category instead of a political category at the very time that we’re being told America is a post-racial society.

So what we’re seeing is this emphasis on race that’s being real at the molecular level at a time when we’re told it doesn’t matter anymore in society. That is the perfect way to obscure the intensifying racial inequality that we’re seeing in America.

We’re seeing mass incarceration of African American men and women, increase in poverty and the poverty gap between Blacks and whites in this country, the health gap is still extreme, infant mortality among Blacks is still three times that of whites, maternal mortality four times that of whites.

So we see these stark disparities that are continuing in the United States and yet being told race doesn’t matter anymore. So if people believe that these differences come from some innate genetic difference, we are never going to achieve equality in this country. It will hold back the efforts that many of us have been involved in to get rid of the unequal political system of race.

Tavis: Hence the reason, one of many reasons, you’ll want to read the new book from Professor Dorothy Roberts called “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Recreate Race in the 21st Century.”

Before we go, since you mentioned poverty, we will start promoting this more heavily as we get closer but it’s on my mind now. Starting Monday, October 10th through the 14th, the poverty tour that many of you know that Dr. Cornel West and I were on this summer, talking about poverty, and this is poverty for all Americans of all races, colors and creeds, but certainly a whole lot of Black folk we saw and spent time with on this poverty tour.

A week dedicated to poverty, five nights, all week long. Talking about the poverty tour coming to PBS that week, so be sure to check that out.

Again, Professor Roberts, good to have you on the program, and thanks for the book.

Roberts: Thank you. Thank you so much.

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Last modified: September 23, 2011 at 12:01 pm