The Dubious, Dangerous Science of Race Lives On, Says Scholar

The Dubious, Dangerous Science of Race Lives On, Says Scholar

Colorlines: News for Action

Julianne Hing, Reporter/Blogger
Oakland, California

Back in the 19th century, scientists thought it was possible to determine a person’s race, and their corresponding levels of intelligence, based on the size of their skull. In the 20th century, mainstream scientists were convinced that intelligence was genetically determined, and therefore an inheritable trait; they helped spur the now disgraced eugenics movement.

In the 21st century, with racial science’s embarrassing history—and its disgraceful, deadly effects on people of color—seemingly long behind us, it’s easy to dismiss the science of yore as silly and antiquated. But Northwestern University law professor Dorothy Roberts argues this line of scientific inquiry is as alive as ever.

In her new book “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the 21st Century,” Roberts says that scientists are still preoccupied with the problematic questions of whether racial stratification in society is the result of genetic differences. Is race something that’s written into our genetic code? Is there, say, a gene within black folks that makes them more predisposed to cancer and hypertension? Why not use DNA as a forensic tool to predict the race of an unknown suspect?

This obsession, she argues, has led us astray from focusing on the more pressing and legitimate causes of racial stratification: racial inequality that’s deeply embedded in the structures of society. We caught up with Roberts to talk about her new book, and some of the ridiculous, troubling ways this racial science is impacting everyday people’s lives.

You write in the intro that you took on this question looking into the biological reality of race as a personal challenge to yourself, to test your convictions that race is a political category. Can you say more about that?

What motivated me to write the book was that I noticed this revival of the idea that human beings are divided into biological races in genomic science and biotechnologies. I read the headlines, first, of studies that purported to prove that there was a deep structure based on race in the human genome, [of] the approval of race-specific medicine. And I went to a lecture at Northwestern’s medical school where a conservative commentator was invited to talk about race even though he was well-known for his views that biological race determines intelligence. So I was really alarmed that this idea was being resuscitated in new technologies and on the cutting edge of science, and even some liberals were embracing it as a way to address health inequities, without having any sense that there was a danger in this way of thinking about human beings.

So when I say it was a personal challenge it was because I was at first surprised that genomic science was going in that direction and also surprised in the number of people who I talked to who believe that race really is a natural division of human beings and who embrace genetic technologies for a test of identity. To me that really contradicted the political convictions I had, not only about the meaning of race but also the way to fight against racism in America…

Read the entire interview here.

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