A Race to Nowhere

Dorothy Roberts
Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century
(New Press, 2011), 400 pages

Any mildly astute analyst of racial dynamics could have quickly debunked the idea that President Barack Obama’s election represented the dawning of a “post-racial” age for America. A single election could not heal centuries of dehumanizing oppression and close a widening wealth and health gap between black and white Americans. 2011’s racism may lack the stunning overtness of 1951’s, but American towns and cities remain horrifically stratified along racial and economic lines.

On a molecular level, the idea of a “post-racial” society is even more absurd, as Dorothy Roberts meticulously argues in Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century. A decade ago, the Human Genome Project revealed definitively that race has no scientific basis. Peel back the skin and human beings are more than 99 percent alike, with no way, molecularly-speaking, to distinguish among races. There is simply no black DNA, white DNA, or Asian DNA. We share an ancestral homeland in Africa. Chimpanzees and honeybees have races, but we don’t. This means, from a scientific standpoint, a “post-racial” never existed in the first place. Of course, we know that race does exist as a social construction, just not as a biological one.

Roberts, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, is the author of several books about race, including Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. Though not a scientist by trade, Roberts is adept at wielding empirical findings and copious scientific research to defeat what she believes is the most pernicious idea infecting 21st century intellectual discourse: through scientific analysis, racial differences can be proven biologically, and the inequities minority populations face can be linked to biological defects, not the cancerous social and political forces of a society.

Like a chess grandmaster, Roberts devastatingly counters any argument that can be made for a racial view of genetics. She leaps from a discussion of the erroneous and popular quests to discover ancestral racial roots to the far more morally dubious trend toward genetic surveillance. Currently, already extant racial inequities in the justice system are amplified by new state and federal databases that store an egregious amount of minority genetic profiles.

She lays the foundations for her greater argument by first detailing the horrific history of racial science. While the prevalence of eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries may not come as a surprise to people with a casual understanding of history, the extent to which the intellectual elite embraced a marriage of race and science to provide a biological justification for racial oppression is jarring. Harvard professor Louis Agassiz and empiricist Samuel Morton emerge as particular 19th century villains—Roberts quotes Agassiz calling social equality “impracticable” because “it is the natural impossibility flowing from the very character of the negro race.” Morton catalogued the skull sizes of Caucasians, Mongolians, Malays, Native Americans, and Africans, drawing conclusions that Native Americans were “adverse to cultivation” and Ethiopians represented the “lowest grade of humanity.”

Initially, Darwinism was shunned by the academic community in favor of a militant adherence to the scientific theory of polygenism, the belief that the races of mankind each had distinct origins. Eugenic science and Jim Crow laws went hand in hand. As late as 1924, the Virginia legislature approved a hallmark of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization, on prison inmates if they were deemed “feeble-minded.” Like today, prisons had large black populations, and six months after the sterilization statute, the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded approved the sterilization of a 17-year-old girl named Carrie Buck, who was actually white. After appeals, Buck v. Bell reached the Supreme Court where the legendary justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. upheld the law, stating that “it is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for a crime…society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit for continuing their kind.”

The great mistake, Roberts tells us, is assuming that today’s fruitless search for biological differences among races is benign and divorced from the heinous history of racial science. Race-based medicines gained traction when the pharmaceutical industry realized the profitability of marketing drugs to specific racial groups. Marketing a drug as race-based creates a new market for the drug and can be a way of gaining patent exclusivity. Roberts describes the failure of the first race-specific drug approved by the FDA, BiDil, and how its creator Jay Cohn originally designed BiDil as a way to treat heart disease regardless of race, but did not gain FDA approval until he proved that BiDil worked especially well in treating African-American patients.

Cohn, who has verbally sparred with Roberts, does not have a racial vendetta, and came to his conclusions after sampling self-identified African-Americans exclusively (his original study was rejected because the racially diverse sample size was too small). As NPR’s Jad Abumrad has pointed out, a sampling like that is also flawed. After all, we never learn if BiDil works just as well in white patients. Black medical associations and the NAACP rallied around BiDil after news broke that the blacks sampled overwhelmingly recovered from heart failure. Roberts compares this defense of BiDil to the misguided use of sickle cell anemia as a political tool to bring attention to health problems in the black community, despite evidence that there are high frequencies of the disease in Europe and a distinct lack of it throughout most of Africa. BiDil’s financial failures—Roberts speculates poor marketing decisions or the economic collapse of 2008 contributed to its demise—have not stemmed the tide of race-based drugs, and they continue to detract attention from the true causes of minority health problems.

If we continue the hunt for race specific genes, Roberts tells us, we will lose sight of what actually causes blacks and Hispanics to die younger than their white counterparts: unhealthy living conditions and an unequal distribution of resources. Puerto Rican and African-American children have an especially high rate of asthma, but this has nothing to do with genes—a disproportionate number of minority youth live within inner-city communities where air pollution and other environmental allergens can trigger asthma.

“Throughout your lifetime, your parents’ income and education, the neighborhood you live in, the schools you attend, the jobs you hold, your experience of discrimination and privilege, and the resources you and your community have ultimately govern how the genetic hand you were dealt is translated into wellbeing,” Roberts writes, rejecting the simplified idea of genes as a definitive blueprint that dictates how long a person will live, what they will think, and ultimately who they are. The truth is far murkier. A “nature vs. nurture” argument is misleading because it is neither nature nor nurture that exclusively guides human development. As epidemiologist Richard Cooper uncovered in his landmark study that disproved the theory that blacks are inherently predisposed to hypertension, genetic traits are always interacting with the environment in a dynamic and unpredictable process. There is no clear boundary between genetics and the world in which an individual must live every day.

The most sobering example of this might be in Chicago, where black women are dying of breast cancer at twice the rate of white women. Rather than hunt for a “black breast cancer” gene, Roberts points to the unequal access to mammography. Poorer black neighborhoods like Englewood, a community on Chicago’s South Side, have a sole mammogram machine that does not function. The $150 price tag on mammograms can be too great a burden for the poorest of families, and Medicaid doesn’t pay the full cost. If black women receive mammograms, they tend to get them at often underfunded public institutions that rely on older equipment. Neighborhood segregation ensures that the best hospitals with cancer programs are not located in these predominately black neighborhoods. Though studies have debated the usefulness and accuracy of mammogram technology, and Roberts’s analysis might represent an oversimplification of the issue, the underlying point remains intact: inequality is detrimental to physical wellbeing.

Though at times Roberts is too reliant on other experts’ research and a plethora of studies (the endnotes could form a book of their own), her writing does not succumb to academic dryness and detachment. The first person bursts forth several times, and it never feels intrusive. Fatal Invention is not a harangue directed at coldblooded scientists or ignorant conservatives. “The liberal faith in scientific objectivity” and the regressive march toward privatization and austerity that denies the desperately poor much-needed social programs, each play a role in what Roberts identifies as the “new biopolitics.”

Everyone is to blame, and Roberts strikes a firm balance between measured analysis and personal distress. The myth of distinct human races still has not died, even though its funeral is long overdue.


Ross Barkan