Q&A with Dorothy Roberts

Text by Greg Johnson

Dorothy Roberts
Photo by Peter Tobia

When Dorothy Roberts was 3 months old, she moved with her parents from Chicago to Liberia, where her mother, Iris, had worked as a young woman after leaving Jamaica.

It was the first of Dorothy’s many trips abroad, and one during which her father, Robert, took a bunch of photographs and filmed home movies with his 16-millimeter camera. The Roberts family moved back to Chicago when Dorothy was 2, and she can recall weekly screenings of the 16-milimeter reels from Liberia in the living room.

“I had a very strong interest in learning about other parts of the world from when I was very little,” says Roberts, the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor. “My whole childhood revolved around learning about other parts of the world and engaging with people from around the world.”

Robert was an anthropologist and Iris was working on her Ph.D. in anthropology when Dorothy was born. They raised their daughters as citizens of the world in a home filled with a wealth of books and ethnographies about different cultures, places, and people. The Roberts home stayed connected with the international community, hosting foreign-exchange students and living overseas.

Five-year-old Dorothy had already decided she was going to be an anthropologist—as her parents expected—and would sneak into her father’s office and spend hours reading his books. The family spent two years in Egypt when she was a teenager, reinforcing her status as a global citizen.

Twenty-one-year-old Dorothy, after finishing her undergraduate studies at Yale, including a year in South America, decided she wanted to be a lawyer, and enrolled at Harvard Law School.

“I got a law degree and went into legal practice because I thought that was the best tool for doing social justice work,” says Roberts, who has joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology in the School of Arts & Sciences and Penn Law School. Her work focuses on gender, bioethics, health, and social justice issues, specifically those that affect the lives of children, women, and African Americans.

Roberts began her legal career with one of the icons of the Civil Rights Movement, Judge Constance Baker Motley, for whom she clerked in the early 1980s. After practicing law in the private sector, she started her teaching career in 1988 at Rutgers University School of Law-Newark, an institution known for its history of social justice advocacy. She was a professor at Northwestern School of Law before joining Penn in 2012.

The Current sat down with Roberts in Penn Law’s Golkin Hall for a conversation about her globetrotting, her influential parents, racism in the child welfare system, the degradation of black bodies, the resurgence of race in science, and controversial decisions by the United States Supreme Court.

Q: Of your many trips abroad, is there one place that stands out?
A: One of the most important experiences of my life was when I spent my junior year of college in Colombia studying at Universidad de los Andes. The mother of the family I lived with was a black woman from a remote area called Chocó, which is populated almost exclusively by the descendants of enslaved Africans and indigenous people. I spent a couple weeks there with relatives of hers. At the time, there weren’t even paved roads going all the way to Chocó and it took a very grueling bus ride to get there. The house I stayed at was a cinderblock structure that didn’t have separate bedrooms—there were sheets partitioning the space—and no running water, no toilets. It was materially very different from what I was used to, but I felt such a strong bond with the people there and they were very, very welcoming to me. They brought me into their homes, they fed me, they became friends with me. By that time I spoke Spanish fluently, so we could communicate very easily. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Q: What do you enjoy so much about traveling?
A: Every time I’ve spent a year abroad, it’s such a consciousness-expanding experience. Not just because I’m learning about a different group of people, but because of what those people’s perspectives, their history, their experiences, their ways of thinking teach me about humanity and history in general. Every time I’ve been abroad, I find that the way we think about social relationships, problems, and issues in the United States is limited. It expands your way of thinking when you spend time learning
about the history and experiences of people in other societies and engaging with them. That’s another thing I really am grateful to my parents for teaching me—the value of being more than a tourist and engaging with people in other countries.

Q: You mention your parents often. They must have been very influential.
A: Maybe because they both passed away pretty recently, I’ve been thinking more about what a wonderful childhood they gave me and how they so strongly believed in our common humanity and the ties that bind all human beings. I really value that lesson, although I differ with my father’s perspective. My father believed that if people of different backgrounds just learned more about each other and became more intimate with each other, they would overcome racism and other social prejudices and inequalities. I had a much more political view, even when I was very young. I believed that just learning about or engaging with people wasn’t enough to overcome racism and white supremacy; it took political struggle. But I think underlying my passion and work for social justice is a belief in our common humanity and the equal value of all human beings. My parents and I approached the politics of social inequality differently, but they instilled in me the belief that human beings—no matter where they’re from in the world, no matter how much money they have, no matter what their social position is—are equally valuable. It is important to engage with people from all different walks of life and parts of the world, and what we have in common is greater than our differences. To me, it is differences in power that separate us.

Q: You said your parents expected you to become an anthropologist. What did they say when you told them you wanted to go to law school?
A: They were very proud of me. I was always very studious and did well in school, and my parents expected a lot of me. I don’t remember my parents ever being controlling about it; they encouraged me to explore whatever I wanted. They were supportive of whatever educational path I took as long as it was an educational path. I think they would have loved if I became an anthropologist, but they were very proud that I was going to Harvard Law School and pursuing higher education. When I got the position at Northwestern, my mother thought it was a sign from God because she was a Ph.D. student in anthropology at Northwestern when I was born and never completed her dissertation. She left her dissertation project to take care of me, and throughout my childhood, she told me, ‘You’re my Ph.D. in anthropology.’ I regret that my parents did not live to see me come to Penn where I am a professor of sociology and Africana studies. I feel that the preparation they gave me throughout my childhood to be an anthropologist has now paid off in my being a social science professor at Penn. They would have been very, very happy about that.

Q: You clerked for the Hon. Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman to serve as a federal judge, after law school. Can you talk about your time with Judge Motley?
A: That was a great experience and an honor. Before I graduated from Harvard, I decided I wanted to clerk for a federal judge, and my top choice was Constance Baker Motley. I had read about her as a great civil rights champion and a pioneer, both in terms of race and gender. When she argued cases in the South, she was often the first woman lawyer and the first black lawyer to ever appear in those courtrooms. She was a giant in my eyes and the opportunity to clerk for her was extremely exciting. Judge Motley is kind of a larger-than-life figure, both because of her history in the Civil Rights Movement and her physical presence—she was very tall and stately, and she had a deep, resonant voice—and many lawyers were intimidated by her. But I found her to be very down to earth. Despite her stature, she wasn’t at all elitist, she didn’t put on airs. She was very warm to me and she had a great sense of humor. I remember laughing a lot in chambers and also being very serious about the cases that came before her. I found it to be a very friendly, second home to me.

Q: You left private practice in 1988 to teach. Why did you want to teach law instead of practice it?
A: I got a law degree because I wanted to do social justice work, but all my life I had wanted to be a professor, and I finally realized that I could do both—I could be a professor and work toward social justice at the same time. I also began to realize that I could use my skills the best outside the courtroom by teaching, doing research, and offering new insights on social justice issues, which could then be used by lawyers, activists, and policymakers. Once I realized that, and also became more passionate about social justice issues that I wanted to delve into, I decided to leave law practice and applied to law schools in the New York area. I got an offer from Rutgers-Newark and it was the perfect place to start my law-teaching career.

Q: Your first book, 1997’s ‘Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty,’ addressed how American law—beginning with slavery—has interfered with the right of black women to make choices about their bodies. In it, you write, ‘We are in the midst of an explosion of rhetoric and policies that degrade Black women’s reproductive decisions. Poor Black mothers are blamed for perpetuating social problems by transmitting defective genes, irreparable crack damage, and a deviant lifestyle to the children.’
A: What’s so alarming about that quote is that it applies today with even more intensity. That book is just as relevant today as it was in 1997. ‘Killing the Black Body’ is still taught in gender studies, critical race theory, and health policy classes, and remains one of the most popular books on reproductive rights and politics. I wrote about law enforcement and welfare reform policies in the 1980s and 1990s that degraded black women’s childbearing decisions. We’re seeing the same punitive policies all over again in this century. ‘Killing the Black Body’ was also important to a scholarly and activist movement to shift the framework for reproductive freedom from a focus on individual choice to a focus on social justice. What we now call ‘reproductive justice’ includes the right not only to terminate a pregnancy but also to have and parent a child. It understands reproductive rights as part of a broader struggle for a more humane and egalitarian society.

Q: Your next book, ‘Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare,’ which was published in 2001, addressed racism in the child welfare system. What compelled you to write ‘Shattered Bonds’?
A: When I was doing research on the prosecutions of black women for drug use during pregnancy for ‘Killing the Black Body,’ I became aware of thousands more black mothers whose babies were removed from them and placed in foster care. As I investigated it more, I was shocked to learn that black children were four times as likely to be removed from their homes as white children, were the largest group of children in foster care in many cities, and had the worst outcomes while in state custody. Yet, despite the glaring racial dimension of child welfare, there was very little scholarship about it. In ‘Shattered Bonds,’ I documented the staggering overrepresentation of African-American families in the child welfare system and analyzed the political implications of such extreme state supervision of families and communities. It was the first monograph in three decades to examine the significance of race to child welfare policy and practice, and it helped to spark interest by child welfare researchers, administrators, and policymakers in what is now commonly referred to as ‘racial disproportionality’ in the child welfare system.

Q: Your most recent book, ‘Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century,’ examines the resurgence of biological concepts of race in genomic science and biotechnologies. What is it about?
A: Biological explanations have historically been a powerful way of convincing people that social inequality is natural and, therefore, does not require social change. To me, that is what the eugenics movement, which was prominent in the United States from the 1920s until World War II, was all about. Mainstream science in the United States promoted biological explanations for social inequality, claiming it resulted from differences in people’s inherited genetic traits. That basic ideology continues to this day in what is seen as cutting-edge and sophisticated scientific research. You can tie together all of my work from ‘Killing the Black Body’ to ‘Fatal Invention’ as uncovering the ways in which that basic philosophy—disguising social inequalities as biological ones—continues to fuel unjust social policies and legitimize very brutal practices against the most marginalized people in this country, blaming them for their own disadvantaged status. How can you blame the least powerful people for creating powerful systems of inequality in the United States? But the biological explanation for inequality deludes people into thinking that is possible—that it’s natural for black infants to die at two or three times the rate of white infants; it’s natural for black people to be incarcerated at many times the rate of white people; it’s natural for black children to have lower graduation rates than white children; it’s natural for black people to have a fraction of the wealth white people have. Americans who don’t want to explain these glaring inequities as stemming from institutionalized racism find comfort in explaining them as stemming from a natural order of human beings.

Roberts Dorothy
Photo by Peter Tobia

Q: You say there has been a ‘resurgence’ of this kind of thinking. Why has there been a resurgence?
A: During the eugenics era, mainstream U.S. scientists believed that there were biologically distinct races of people who inherited different behavioral traits, and that the state should encourage procreation by people who had what were considered superior traits and discourage reproduction by people who had inferior traits. That thinking was incorporated in government policies, such as mandatory sterilization laws passed in most states and Congressional immigration restrictions. After World War II, because that way of thinking led to the Nazi genocide of Jews and others deemed genetically inferior, U.S. scientists officially rejected it. Although eugenicist thinking didn’t go away, the view that race is a socially constructed category became more prominent. The current resurgence in genomic and other sciences of the idea that race is a natural grouping seems acceptable because it can be stated in a way that doesn’t sound racist: ‘We are studying racial differences at the genetic level, but we’re not asserting that any race is superior to another.’ In my opinion, that is a false view of humanity and of race. Race was invented as an instrument to promote racism. To me, research that assumes this false and dangerous view of human beings is not where we should be investing public resources for scientific investigation. I launched the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society to bring together faculty and students from across disciplines to investigate the use of race in science and its consequences for society, and to discuss transformative approaches that reject the myth that human beings are naturally divided into races. The antiquated view of race passed down from 18th-century European typologists has been so embedded in U.S. science—both the social sciences and the biological sciences—that it’s hard for many scientists to think outside that framework. Racism does have biological consequences, which should be studied more, but that’s different than mistaking them for genetic distinctions between biological races. Sometimes people like me are accused of importing our racial ideology to distort scientific research. But my goal is to rid scientific research of a flawed view of race that has distorted its findings for centuries. There are cases where you can trace a widely held view about black people’s health, for example, all the way to slavery, and it hasn’t been questioned since it was begun in order to justify enslaving human beings.

Q: Can you give an example?
A: The view that black people have lower lung capacity. That belief comes right out of the 19th century when it was promoted to justify enslaving Africans. Dr. Samuel Cartwright, who was trained at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, reported to the Medical Association of Louisiana on the ‘Diseases and Physical Peculiarities
of the Negro Race.’ One of the main points he made was that it was medically beneficial to force black people to work because their lungs didn’t vitalize blood as well as white people’s lungs. He argued that enslaving black people was good for their health. No one would say that today, but his views that black people have peculiar diseases and their bodies work in peculiar ways continue today in contemporary medical practice and scientific research.

Q: You are the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights at Penn Law. It seems as if during the second half of the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court largely sided with civil rights advocates. Are you worried about civil rights under the current conservative Court?
A: In the last two decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has very consistently issued decisions that threaten to turn back many of the successes of the Civil Rights Movement as incorporated in laws like the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 and court decisions like Brown v. Board of Education. A majority of justices take what is, to me, an irrational position that state classifications based on race that were intended to support Jim Crow and white supremacy are equal to the government’s use of racial classifications to undo the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow. How could you think Jim Crow laws and anti-Jim Crow laws are equally immoral and unconstitutional? The Court has struck down in case after case government efforts to address racial inequality because they used racial classifications. Now I’ve just said race is not a natural category, but it is a very real social category and political hierarchy. In order to dismantle this hierarchy, I believe the government has to pay attention to it. It has to use racial classifications in order to take steps to eliminate the embedded racism in government institutions and policies. The U.S. Supreme Court doesn’t see it that way, and has very significantly hindered federal, state, and local efforts to address institutionalized racism in this country. Many of its decisions—such as the Shelby County v. Holder case that struck down Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act—imply that we have achieved racial equality in the United States and, therefore, the measures that were enacted during the Civil Rights era are no longer necessary. The Shelby holding is belied by evidence that recent state legislation disproportionately keeps black, Latino, and poor people from voting.

Q: As someone who has written proficiently about women’s reproductive rights, are you worried about the Court overturning Roe v. Wade?
A: Yes. The conservative justices on the U.S. Supreme Court have made it clear that they would like to overturn Roe v. Wade and they have upheld state laws that are designed effectively to overturn its protections by making it as difficult as possible for women to access abortion services. In the last several years, states have passed hundreds of laws designed to put hurdles in front of women who are seeking an abortion. States are passing unnecessary regulations in the name of protecting women’s health that are forcing abortion clinics to close. Intrusive informed consent laws are designed to make it as humiliating and uncomfortable as possible for women who seek this medical care. State legislatures blatantly are trying to end the ability of women to get an abortion in their state. In its most recent rulings, the Court has encouraged states to pass these restrictive laws. Some federal district and appellate courts have struck them down, but others have upheld them.

Q: What would be the repercussions if the Supreme Court were to overturn Roe v. Wade?
A: We know that women are going to get abortions if they are not at a point in their lives when they can care for a child. Restrictions on abortions have never stopped abortions from happening; what happens is that women get illegal and unsafe abortions, and we know that women can die from them. If Roe v. Wade were overturned—as is effectively happening in some states like Texas and Louisiana—there will be an increase in deaths and injuries to women from illegal, unsafe  procedures, and those women are going to be mostly poor women and women of color. Wealthy women will find ways to pay doctors to perform abortions for them; it’s poor and low-income women—disproportionately women of color—who have trouble getting access to abortion services and who will resort to other desperate, unsafe measures. The immediate impact is that women will be harmed, injured, killed. But it will also have an impact on women’s ability to function equally in society because they will be less able to manage their childbearing. If this form of health care can be denied, what is that saying about the value of women in our society and the importance of women having control over their own bodies? I think it would be a huge social and public health disaster and a huge human rights violation if Roe v. Wade were overturned, and I think we should be alarmed that this is effectively already happening for many women.

Q: What are you currently working on? I understand you are continuing a research project that was originally started by your father.
A: I’m working on a book using about 500 interviews of black/white couples that my father conducted in Chicago from 1937 to 1980. He was working on a book on interracial marriage my whole childhood but he never wrote it. My father was white and my mother was black. I want to take advantage of this extraordinary archive to study the relationship between the experiences and views of these couples and the intensifying challenge to the racial order that occurred during that period. How did they understand their own marriages in terms of changing race relations and politics in Chicago? I’m very interested in the role interracial marriage has played in perpetuating and contesting racial inequality. While my father believed that interracial marriage could be a key strategy for overcoming racism, I neither glorify nor ignore its political significance. I am investigating interracial marriage from the perspective of black-white couples without assuming an inherently problematic or progressive role in the advancement of racial equality. And I’m very excited to explore what the interviews reveal.

Originally published on .