Racial pseudo-science redux

Fatal Invention:

How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century

IN THE last few years, a number of important books have appeared arguing that the much-trumpeted “post-racialism” of contemporary society is actually a fig leaf for an intensification of racial oppression. The most important of these, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, exposes the gulag system African Americans face in the heart of the “free world,” and the way that supposedly colorblind crime policies work to sustain it.

Yet, as Dorothy Roberts’ new book—Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century—makes clear, the colorblind ideology is only one aspect of contemporary racism. In often chilling detail, Roberts argues that good old-fashioned biological race thinking has made a comeback alongside newer variants on the theme of Black inferiority.

Roberts’s book begins with a short history of the idea of race. She argues, contrary to those who would portray racism as an eternal feature of human society, that race is a comparatively recent phenomenon, arriving on the historical stage only in the early modern era with the advent of European colonialism. In the crucible of American slavery, Blacks and whites were both subjected to brutal forms of unfree labor. Only with the advent of Bacon’s Rebellion, a multiracial revolt by the exploited classes of the colonies, did skin color become enthroned as a mark of ultimate separation between peoples. As Roberts argues, “After Bacon’s Rebellion and similar revolts, it was imperative for European landowners to prevent future interracial solidarity by driving an impenetrable wedge between African and European laborers.” Soon, laws appeared rigidly separating Black and white. Thus was “race” born.

Roberts then moves into the history of racial science, her preferred term for the scientific attempts to classify humans into separate races. From early attempts to locate whites and Blacks on different rungs of the Great Chain of Being through the eugenics movement of the Progressive Era, racial science tracked closely with the prejudices of the age.

This is no less true for the modern age, as Roberts spends considerable time documenting. While assurances that we live in a “post-racial” era abound, Roberts’s investigation shows that genetic scientists have been busy reinventing the theory of race as a biological reality. By associating various genetic markers with “biogeographical ancestry” (a fancy repackaging of the nineteenth-century categories of caucasoid, negroid, and mongoloid), a number of scientists and companies have produced a body of work arguing that race is real at a genetic level.

However, as Roberts shows, these attempts to resuscitate race fail as science. Though a more expanded critique of this work would have strengthened the book, Roberts’s basic point is that there is no nonarbitrary way to divide up the number of races. While one can find a number of genetic traits that point to a division of the races into the groups that correspond with classical racist ideology, if more traits are used, more racial groups are generated. And there is no good reason for preferring the method that uses fewer genetic markers, other than the obvious one that it conforms to racial ideology. Therefore, a genetic marker held to be a “Black gene” could just as accurately be called a “Southeastern African” gene. Yet no one ever attempts to divide the world’s population into these smaller “races,” for the simple reason that they don’t correspond to our ideological common sense about race. Despite this basic flaw, news reports of new studies confirming the links between genetics and race regularly populate the scientific reporting in the press.

Roberts argues that a key driving force behind this new racial science is the desire to market pharmaceuticals on a racial basis. For some companies, this racial marketing has emerged as a way to retain patents, as old drugs are repackaged as new race-specific therapies. The most famous case of this is the heart disease drug BiDil, which was merely a combination of two other drugs already used. The patent on the combination was set to expire, so the drug was rebranded as a treatment for African Americans, despite being just as effective for everyone else. For drug manufacturers, this sort of turn toward race not only serves as a way to preserve patent rights—it also works to create new, more “personalized” markets, cultivating a consumer base around racial identity. Of course, every step of this process also reinforces the idea that there are real biological differences between the races.

One of the strongest aspects of Roberts’s argument is the way she shows how this focus on finding the genetic roots of race covers up the real relationships between race and biology that do exist. It is true, for example, the Black Americans have higher rates of diabetes, heart disease, and other ailments than whites do. However, locating these disparities in our DNA erases the social inequalities that are actually behind them.

Summarizing the work of pioneering antiracist medical researchers like Nancy Krieger and Steven Whitman, Roberts lays out the myriad ways in which racial inequality affects the bodies of its victims. Environmental racism plays a key role in Roberts’s story here, as she cites estimates that up to one-third of children who live in public housing suffer from allergic asthma. At the same time, medical treatment differs according to race. Black women in Chicago die at higher rates from breast cancer not because they get it more often, but because residential segregation makes it harder for them to get to good hospitals, and poverty prevents them from getting mammograms. One of the most disturbing examples Roberts cites is a differential medical treatment concerning the prescription of painkillers for painful bone fractures: a study in 2003 found that doctors prescribe powerful opioid painkillers far more frequently for white patients than they do for Black patients. One suggested explanation of this discrepancy was the stereotype of Blacks as drug addicts.

Though Roberts is brilliant in her exposure of the new racial science, she tends to be weaker in explaining what is driving it. As mentioned above, she suggests that the financial interests of the pharmaceutical industry play an important role in promoting racialized biology. Elsewhere, she argues that new at-home genetic tests for ancestry and disease (which rely heavily on racial science to deliver their results) cohere nicely with the neoliberal ethos of individual responsibility, as people become responsible for learning their genetic profile and buying services accordingly.

However, it seems clear that the revival of racial science is inseparable from the general intensification of racial oppression over the past few decades. Though Roberts is certainly aware of this history, she leaves it largely unconnected to her examination of racial science. Here, the insights of Barbara Fields’s classic essay “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America” would have strengthened Roberts’s argument. Fields argues that “A commonplace that few stop to examine holds that people are more readily oppressed when they are already perceived as inferior by nature. The reverse is more to the point. People are more readily perceived as inferior by nature when they are already seen as oppressed.” Extending this to Roberts’s argument, we could say that the social crisis engendered in Black communities by neoliberalism and mass incarceration necessitates a new science of difference to rationalize it.

Thankfully, however, Roberts’s book will now make that rationalization more difficult for those in power. By exposing the hollowness of the new racial science, and foregrounding the racial health disparities that science hides, she has produced an immensely useful resource for antiracist activists. Fatal Invention belongs on the shelf of everyone committed to overthrowing the new Jim Crow.

Issue #82

March 2012

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