On Race, Medicine, and Reproduction: An Interview with Dorothy Roberts
February 2014 (2014-02-14)
Dorothy Roberts is a scholar, professor, author and social justice advocate, and currently the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She has published a range of groundbreaking articles and books analyzing issues of law, race, gender, health and social inequality, including Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997), Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002) and, most recently Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2012). When she visited Brown University to discuss her latest work on race and health inequities, Bluestockings Magazine had the privilege of interviewing Prof. Roberts beforehand.
Sophia Seawell [Co-Editor-in-Chief]: To begin with, I was hoping that for those of us who aren’t able to come to your lecture if you could tell us what you’ll be speaking about and how it fits into what you’ve been working on lately.
Dorothy Roberts: I’m going to be talking about what I’m calling race medicine, which is the practice of treating diseases according to race both by using the notion that people of different races have different diseases and also that they experience common diseases differently. I argue that you can trace that practice in the United States from slavery, where the idea that Africans have different diseases was used to justify enslaving them, and also explained resistance to enslavement as a form of mental illness.
Race medicine has been used to treat social inequality as if it’s natural, and that’s a way to justify repression and to steer attention away from the need for social change. And so I show how those concepts and strategies that came out of slavery continue in contemporary medicine today, and how they’ve in fact been exacerbated by a new resurgence of the concept of biological races in genomic science, biomedical research, and medical practice.
So it’s a little bit of history, but I’m mostly looking at the way that treating disease as race-based and using that as a way to explain social inequality, especially racial inequality, has travelled across the centuries. We can’t believe that today, because we live in a liberal democracy and doctors say that they’re not racially biased, that we shouldn’t worry about it anymore.
SS: The first thing that comes to mind when you talk about race-based disease is high blood pressure in African Americans.
DR: I’ll use that example in my talk. I point out that it’s commonly thought among doctors and biomedical researchers that hypertension is higher in African Americans because of some innate difference—today it’s explained as a genetic difference—but actually these ideas originated before there was even knowledge of genetics, only now they’re cloaked in genetic terms.
I’ll mention a study conducted by a researcher named Richard Cooper who looked at a number of global studies, did a meta-analysis and discovered that in fact across theses studies people of African descent have a lower rate of hypertension than white people. It’s just in the United States that Blacks have a higher rates than whites; Nigerians have a lower rate than the average of people of European descent around the world. That’s pretty strong evidence, and there’s lots of other evidence as well that to the extent that African Americans have higher rates of blood pressure in the U.S., it’s nothing innate. There have been all sorts of biological theories—the salt hypothesis claimed that the Middle Passage weeded out certain genes and so those who survived it had a gene pool that predisposed them to hypertension. It doesn’t make sense! Because first of all, Jamaicans, whose ancestors also crossed the Atlantic, have a lower rate of hypertension than whites in the U.S.
SS: But we just won’t mention that!
DR: And I’ll talk about some other new fangled and ridiculous genetic explanations.
SS: I was also wondering, on a different note, about your experience in academia as a woman of color—specifically, since you do so much writing on race, medicine and science, if your work has ever been criticized because it’s “not objective” because it discusses race, or that you’re trying to “read race” into things.
DR: I’ve certainly gotten that response—pretty frequently in audiences when I talk about my most recent book, Fatal Invention, and especially if I’m talking to a group of physicians or people who are doing biomedical research. With genetic counselors I’ve also gotten a very defensive response. People feel you’re accusing them personally of racism and they want to defend their use of race in their practice and in their research. I’ve found that there’s this desire to hold on to biological racial concepts that is very disturbing to me. There’s a lot of resistance out there.
I’ve also spoken to very receptive audiences, and audiences that weren’t aware of this resurgence of concepts of biological concepts of race in science—what I call a new racial science—and many are very grateful to hear this information; they’re alarmed, but happy to hear about it.
Others believe that race is a political category if not a biological category, and that includes many scientists who understand that. So I’ve also been welcomed by some for my book, but there still is this resistance I’ve met and often the argument is “well, you just don’t understand the science.” But the thing is I’ve read many of these articles that claim to show that there are race-based genetic differences or that racial differences in health can be explained genetically and there’s so many flaws in them. Just simple flaws, like not defining what the scientist means by race…
SS: It’s just understood to be a natural category.
DR: They just use the term! They don’t explain how they decided who among their research subjects gets grouped in which race. Most of them use self-identification or come up with some made-up, invented way of determination… there are just so many flaws. They often control for just one socioeconomic variable and if they continue to see that race has an effect they leap to the conclusion that it must be genetic—which is also bad research, bad science. But the basic flaw is that they’re using a social category as if it was a biological category or a genetic category, and it isn’t. So the very basis of their hypothesis that genes cause health inequities, for example, is flawed. And then the methods of flawed on top of that…
Read the entire interview here.