Fatal Interpretation Part I: Believing in Race in the Genomic Age
I heard about a book called Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts and didn’t think much about it. I knew the book was about the age old debate on whether race is a biological or social construct, and that there are hundreds, if not thousands of articles taking either side. Ho Hum. I did not plan to read it.
Then people started talking and typing about how this book changed their lives. How Roberts totally debunks and proves race is now a political construct. Proof?! This I had to read.
I am not a medical doctor, social scientist, politician, or anthropologist, and to be fair, neither is Dorothy Roberts. She is an academic. What really tipped me over the edge was an incident in which a very intelligent person—in my judgment—told me she wished she had never become a bone marrow donor thinking she was potentially helping critically ill multiracial people, and then learned from this book that was incorrect. I was stunned. I bought the book.
I began to read the book and decided to review it with an open mind. If Roberts does in fact make racial classifications, or whatever she chooses to call them, go away, then I might be able to jump on her bandwagon. That would be a good thing. We could all just be humans and races would be non-existent. I have stated from the very beginning of Project RACE that multiracial people should be able to have the option of designating themselves as multiracial as long as there are racial classifications. I have also said I don’t believe that will happen in my lifetime or in my children’s lifetimes, I would be thrilled to be wrong.
I have also decided to interpret Roberts without falling into academic, scientific, mathematic, or anthropologic speak that she uses. I’ll try my best to break it down into things most of us understand and not use footnotes. This is my review, not my book.
The best way to review this book in sections, following the structure of the book, because I doubt many of the people who bought it actually made it past Part I, maybe Part II. I was eager to read everything Dorothy Roberts had to say.
Roberts writes a lot about race being a “political system.” When everyday people think about politics, it usually is thought of as the way we choose government officials and often stretches to decisions about policy. There are many other various definitions. Roberts never really tells the reader what her definition of “political” is, but I can give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she is not writing about the upcoming elections, but rather anything government does on behalf of the general public.
The overall first portion of the book tries to answer such questions as “Where does Race Come From?” Roberts is pretty much all over the place, from definitions to subjugation to slavery to a one-liner on interracial marriage. Suddenly, it pops up that there is no biological test for whiteness and she writes, “White means belonging to the group of people who are entitled to claim white privilege.” I couldn’t find that definition in any dictionary, but I did learn that white is also a word for the drug cocaine.
Then Roberts gets to the census and how different changes have been made in racial categories from 1790 to 2010. That’s when I started to wonder about the “facts” in this book. She makes her case in three pages that the census is responsible for misleading us all into believing in race, and everything they do is bad. I’m no fan of the US Census Bureau, but they did not create what we know as race, they just put them into categories. She also lets readers know that her birth certificate states “Mother—Negro; Father—white.” She apparently blames society for the reason she was as she says in her own words, “born a Negro,” even though her birth certificate did not state a race for her.
But enough about the author. Next we get into Chapter 2, Separating Racial Science from Racism. Enter the Human Genome Project, which determined that human beings are genetically 99.9 per cent the same with 0.1 percent of human genetic difference. Now Roberts goes into how scientists created a racial order.
Again, Roberts quotes academics quoting academics, but mostly ones that agree with her. For the most part of this section, the arguments are old, but Roberts does a good job with the history of race. If you want a good read about DNA, this part could be for you. So now we have Roberts defending that the 0.1 percent human genetic differences are meaningful, but that does not mean race should be organized by the difference. Point taken, but then she drops the ball by throwing around other possibilities. That’s where it ends. Stay tuned for Part II.