Challenging Race as a Genetic Category: A Response to Dorothy Roberts

Race, Gender, and the New Biocitizen video is now available on the BCRW website.

“We’re going to start by defining some of the terms that Roberts uses in her book,” I said to a class of my peers last week, “let’s begin with ‘biological race’.”

My Critical Race Theory class was discussing Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-first Century by Dorothy Roberts, the BCRW’s guest lecturer during that same week. Everyone was eager to chime in – jumping over one another to speak about all the points they had learned from the book and from her lecture the night before about everything from Tay-Sach’s disease to reproductive tourism.

Image of Dorothy Roberts

In the book, Dorothy Roberts knits these examples together to argue that race has not only been created by science in the past, but re-engineered and abused by the same system. She makes the claim that scientific objectivity with regards to race actually masks a fundamentally social issue: if race is a social construction, how can scientists use self-reported race as an independent variable when assessing differences between groups? The question, answered through a combination of critiques on genetic/genomic science and an examination of the political usefulness of race, gave us the underlying structure for our own discussion in class. At that point, summaries failed me.

At the lecture, Roberts talked about how hard it is to challenge our notions of science and to distill it all into an hour-long talk. Her argument is clear-cut and illustrated well by the points she makes about genetic testing, ancestry, and the essentialization of race. The challenge for the reader, however, is to wrap their head around the idea that race isn’t biological – that it’s component parts as laid out by scientific study do not make up the whole. This is not on the part of the author; rather, it is the struggle of challenging a worldview that has been so deeply ingrained into our understanding of race as a categorization, that even those who study it are forced to look critically at their own assumptions.

Though most of the class would agree that race is a socially constructed set of categories, we are socialized also to believe that there are some distinctions within our genes that make us into different races. What Roberts argues is that there is more genetic difference within different ‘races’ than between groups and we know now, thanks to the Human Genome Project, that differences of genes within the entire human population are more than 99% similar. Yet our belief that race must have some biological component runs so deep that we look for differences in those small percentages rather than the similarities – and this, Roberts argues, ultimately determines what research gets done and what drugs are made profitable to invest in.

For a room full of college students reading Dorothy Roberts’ book, it took quite a bit of time to reach this key understanding: science is a social system. And if it is a social system – not just objective fact – then it can be influenced and changed by social perceptions by scientists, participants, and even in the data itself. Though it seems obvious after reading the book and listening to Roberts speak about the effects of capitalism, neoliberalism, and conservative color-blindness on scientific work, when you first challenge the claim that science is objective, confusion ensues. Wasn’t science supposed to get rid of race? Instead, we examined how social race impacts the health of individuals (called ’embodiment’), how self-reported race does not link up to genetics, and how correlational data can lead to new assumptions that make race seem more real than less.

Needless to say, the class took up the full two hours. And even then we didn’t get through all the material.

This is all to say that Dorothy Roberts’ book provides a very engaging and comprehensive critique of science as “the great equalizer,” and her talk masterfully boiled those arguments down to an hour of fundamentals. The task for us is to understand her words and apply it in practice. The new question becomes: how can we challenge our social and scientific systems to proceed with a different framework?

Jordan Alam is a Barnard senior studying English/creative writing and psychology. Video of Dorothy Roberts’ lecture coming soon.

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