Dorothy Roberts, a world renowned scholar, public intellectual, and social justice advocate, has been a leader in transforming public thinking on reproductive rights and racial justice. She powerfully challenges commonly-held views about race, calling us to affirm our common humanity by ending the social inequalities that truly divide us.
Dorothy Roberts has devoted her career in law and sociology to challenging injustices in our nation’s major institutions. Her path breaking research and advocacy are internationally recognized for inspiring change in policies related to reproductive health, medicine, scientific research, criminal justice, and child welfare.
Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law & Sociology and the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, a distinguished professorship established to recruit exceptional faculty whose research and teaching exemplify the integration of knowledge across disciplines. At Penn, she holds joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology and the Law School, where she is the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights. She is also the founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society, a cross-campus initiative devoted to transformative approaches to the role of race in scientific research and biotechnological innovations.
Roberts is the author of the award-winning books Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty—considered the “Bible” of the reproductive justice movement—and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, as well as co-editor of six books on constitutional law and gender. She has also published more than 100 articles and essays in books and scholarly journals. Her latest book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, documents and challenges the resurgence of false biological concepts of race in the genomic era. Hailed by actor-activist Danny Glover as “an eye-opening, urgent, and ultimately inspiring expose of the new racial science,” Fatal Invention was recommended by Publishers Weekly as “alarming but not alarmist, controversial but evidential, impassioned but rational,” and by Library Journal as “a must-read for those looking for an enlightened discussion of race in the 21st century.”
Roberts has received many awards for her pioneering work, including fellowships at Harvard, Stanford, Northwestern, and the Fulbright Program, as well as grants from American Council of Learned Societies, National Science Foundation, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Recent accolades include the 2016 Society of Family Planning Lifetime Achievement Award, Harvard Women’s Law Association 2016 “Women Inspiring Change,” Harvard University’s 2016 Tanner Lectures on Human Values, and the American Psychiatric Association 2015 Solomon Carter Fuller Award. Her recent media appearances include Melissa Harris Perry and All In with Chris Hayes on MSNBC, PBS News Hour, The Tavis Smiley Show, and WHYY’s Radio Times.
Fatal Invention: Re-creating Race in the Genomic Era
The mapping of the human genome in 2003 confirmed that race is not written in our genes. As Dorothy Roberts explains, race is a social category that was invented to support an unjust political hierarchy. Yet we are witnessing the re-creation of race in biological terms using cutting-edge genomic science and biotechnologies, such as race-specific medicines and ancestry tests, that incorporate false assumptions of racial difference at the genetic level. Roberts argues that this genetic understanding of race masks the continuing impact of racism in a supposedly post-racial society and she calls instead for affirming our common humanity by working to end the social inequalities that truly divide us.
The Problem with Race-based Medicine
The medical profession has long defined disease and treated patients according to race. Doctors continue to defend this practice by arguing that race serves as a helpful proxy for underlying clinical factors. But Dorothy Roberts traces race-based medicine to false assumptions about innate biological differences and to ugly justifications for slavery and medical exploitation. Today, race-based medicine diverts attention and resources from the social determinants that cause appalling racial gaps in health. Roberts calls for doctors to abandon this backward legacy and to join efforts to end health inequities caused by racism, not by genetic difference.
From Reproductive Choice to Reproductive Justice
Dorothy Roberts is a leading voice for reproductive freedom and has helped to transform advocacy for women’s health and rights. She explains how the mainstream rhetoric of “choice” has privileged women who have the ability to choose from reproductive options that are unavailable to poor and low-income women, especially women of color. “Choice” is a weak basis for claiming public resources that most women need in order to maintain control over their bodies and their lives. Roberts argues instead for a “reproductive justice” framework that includes not only a woman’s right not to have a child, but also the right to have children and to raise them with dignity, taking into account the real world context of reproductive decision making. Reproductive freedom is matter of social justice.