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

Northwestern University's Dorothy Roberts warns in a new book that too much mainstream science still accepts the idea that human beings are divided into fundamentally different groups. She explains to why that's a problem.

By Julianne Hing Sep 23, 2011

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.

Can you define what you mean when you say race is actually, instead, a "political category"? 

I mean that the very practice of dividing human beings into large groupings, that the very idea that it’s even important to do that, and that there is a natural way to do it, is a political belief and it creates a political system to govern people. It has political origins in colonialism and slavery.

And so I think when we talk about race we are talking about this political system of classifying people. But many people believe what they’re doing is identifying some natural division, or biological markers for divisions. But I think when you probe it further it’s clear that what they’re talking about are social groups that come out of a system that was established to divide people in a hierarchy for political purposes.

In your book you review some of the horrifying and ridiculous attempts at creating racial typologies, from eugenics to craniometry. Can you say more about science, which has the benefit of being seen as objective and unaffiliated with a political agenda, as an instrument for perpetuating and solidifying these ideas about racial difference?

Part of the reason I included the history of racial science in the book is when you take into account how long science has been instrumental in defining race as a biological category and perpetuating the myth that race is biological, that human beings are divided into biological races, and place the current science that is continuing that myth in this historical context, it’s easier to see that mainstream science has supported racial categories and supported the idea that they’re natural. That has been a key way of pretending that social inequalities that stem from racism are really the natural consequence that flow from innate difference.

The system of racially classifying people is legitimized by a false racial science that’s existed since the 18th century. This is just a new version of a science that uses cutting edge genomic science and biotechnologies. The new version claims that it’s untainted by racial bias, but it’s all based on the same ideology: that human beings are divided into fundamentally different groups of people. There’s no evidence of that in science; that’s an ideology. Some of them don’t realize it. Scientists don’t realize they’re importing racial ideology into their science when they use it as a biological category.

You also say that scientists do crucial work to dispel myths about biological definitions of race. What does research have to offer on this topic?

There’s actually a growing group of scientists, epidemiologists, and others primarily in public health. But also anthropologists are looking at the ways in which the social category of race has real consequences for the lives and welfare of people, including affecting biological processes. So, some of the health disparities we see are not caused by innate genetic differences that make people sicker because of inferior genes; it’s because of the way in which social inequality created by racism affects people’s health. And in addition, some of that research is showing the way in which experiencing racial discrimination produces stress, which has negative consequences for health.

There’s a short discussion in your book about how the idea that black folks are impervious to pain has led to very different medical treatment. It reminded me of this study I’d read that showed that black men are given Advil or Tylenol when they report the same symptoms for which that other people are given prescription painkillers.

I think that’s a good example of how treating people by race is harmful, because it allowed for even subconscious stereotypes to invade medical practice. There are a number of studies that show that blacks are given lower doses of pain relief or no pain relief at all for the exact same injuries that whites have, including things like bone fractures, for example. You’re also right that this was especially true in the case of potentially addictive painkillers as opposed to over-the-counter painkillers like Advil; blacks were even less likely to get those more potent types of painkillers. The reason, some people believe, that this difference in prescriptions exists is a longstanding myth that black people don’t feel pain as much as other people, including a myth that black skin is thicker and therefore they don’t feel pain as much. And no doubt this stretches back to the time of slavery, where the idea was that blacks don’t suffer as much. Thomas Jefferson writes about this in his work, that blacks don’t suffer as much as white people. And clearly that’s just a way to feel comfortable about imposing slavery on black people.

And in the case of narcotic painkillers, it seems to stem from the idea that black people are more easily addicted to drugs and so doctors shouldn’t prescribe potentially addicting drugs to black folks. Both explanations are based on racial stereotypes that have no place in medical practice but continue to affect the way that some doctors treat patients.

There are some other really pernicious ways that race science is being used in the service of these myths. You discuss the use of DNA tracking to determine the so-called "genetic heritage" of unknown suspects in crime. Can you say a little about that?

There’s a company that claims that it can tell the race of a suspect based on a sample, a DNA specimen left at a crime scene, testing semen or hair or blood, and that’s based on technology that’s also used in recreational-ancestry testing that purports to be able to identify race in DNA. It’s based on DNA databases where they look at the frequency of certain gene variance in certain groups of people and predict, based on the presence of those variances in the sample, how much ancestry someone has from particular groups, which map onto race.

This company claims that not only can they identify the race of the suspect but also develop a picture of what the suspect would look like. Based on the racial ancestry they can determine what the suspect likely looks like. There are fundamental problems with this, but just one of them is: they are using a social category of race and confusing it with a genetically identifiable ancestry. … You cannot possibly tell who is African-American based on genetics because who is or isn’t relies on social and cultural and legal definitions.

The other problem is you cannot know for sure what someone’s phenotype will be from just looking at their genes. Genes interact with each other, they interact with the environment. What someone’s phenotype is is interpreted in terms of race by different people. To me, the problem is that they’re confusing a social category and a genetic category.

You say in your intro that there really is only one human race. What will it take for society to actually operate as if that were the case?

What it’s going to take is acknowledging the consequences of racism on society and on people’s lives. The trend we’ve been talking about of redefining race as a biological category is only going to make it harder to acknowledge that. So, defining race as a natural division of people that naturally causes differences in society obscures the impact of racism, which is what we have to fight against in order to ever achieve a society in which people are valued as equal human beings.