Thursday, November 1, 2012


Fatal Interpretation Part IV: The New Biopolitics of Race and Conclusion

We have come so far in the book Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts that we are getting to the end—I promise. We are now at Chapter 11, “Genetic Surveillance.” Did you know the government is going to want your genetic fingerprints or does that sound a bit paranoid? Ask Dorothy Roberts who goes from violent felons to sex offenders to getting a traffic ticket. Yes, some of that is worrisome, but DNA can also be helpful. It certainly is in paternity tests on Jerry Springer’s show. Again, we are talking about policy issues, not whether race is a social construct. Unfortunately, we can’t have it both ways; use our DNA freely and totally protect our DNA.

Uh oh. Roberts says DNA is not infallible. She states, “The genetic material in government databanks has to be retrieved, transferred, transported, identified, labeled, analyzed, and stored by human hands, and there is opportunity at every stage.” I think of DNA as closely related to fingerprints and nothing horrible has happened with those. I’m not sure yet what point Roberts is trying to make. Are DNA samples better than race or what? She attacks law enforcement for being racially biased, but that’s because racism exists. Once again, another old problem with no answers or even suggestions from the author, and once again I see it as policy issues.

The last chapter is “Biological Race in a ‘Postracial’ America.” I think—finally—Roberts and I agree that the United States is not postracial at all. With arguments she makes from conservative color blindness to liberal views, she gets bogged down in her own perspective by writing things like “When racial justice advocates refer to the political meaning of race, however, it is interpreted as an expression of racism orally equivalent to forms of overt white supremacy.” Really? Or maybe we just hang out with different advocates. It takes an entire chapter to say racism is alive and thriving and to think otherwise is just ignorant, but we can’t make race go away no matter what we call it.

Roberts tries to show us ignorant people that government is evil, privatization isn’t the answer, and then she goes into a rant about the prison system, all really to no avail. She does not suggest any ways to make the system different. Anyone can complain; few do anything about it.

FINALLY, the last part of this book on page 309 is “Conclusion: The Crossroads.” Wow. Now I get it completely! Roberts contends she has proven that race is not a biological construct, and it’s not a social construct, it’s a political construct and she lights up the world with this thought. First, it’s nothing new, and has been suggested by many over the years. Second, she hasn’t proven anything. The book is disjointed and is mostly just quotes from other academics (the endnotes of quotation sources is over 50 pages long) with the author trying to tie things together while pandering to her own personal political agenda. The things she decrees…well…you just have to read them for yourselves.

My intuition and over 20 years of advocacy lead me to believe that I don’t know if there is any biological basis for race. Just when I think we really are all the same, something comes up like these:

·        Bone marrow matching is closest with someone of the same race, ethnicity, or whatever you want to call it. So, how can biology not matter?
·        The incidence of high blood pressure is higher in blacks than in any other race. So, how can biology not matter?
·        Deaths from breast cancer are highest in black women. So, how can biology not matter?
·        Asian lung cancer patients have different medical responses to tyrosine kinase inhibitors than white patients. So, how can biology not matter?
·        Diabetes is less prevalent in whites than blacks. So, how can biology not matter?
·        If you are African-American, your eGFR on lab work must be calculated differently because of a difference in muscle mass. So, how can biology not matter?
·        Asthma and bronchodilator drugs response has been shown to vary widely among racial and ethnic groups. So, how can biology not matter?

Roberts doesn’t even mention these things in her book because they don’t fit into her agenda. The danger is that some people believe what Roberts has implied, for example that there is no reason for racially/genetically bone marrow donors for multiracial people. She has not said that, but is guilty by implication and omission and has caused more people than she knows to state that “Dorothy Roberts has found that multiracial people do not have to enlarge the bone marrow donor pool.” It’s just not true. Please read this book carefully and do your own research into what other top medical specialists, think. Look at the clinical studies and research.

The truth is closer to this: we do not know with absolute certainty if race has any biological basis. It really doesn’t matter what kind of construct race is or what we call it, it’s still here, it’s still a problem, and no one knows how to fix it. Roberts rehashing of old problems is not going to help. She is a civil rights professor, and she could really be useful in helping with answers to things like why we’ve been told that multiracial people have no legal standing because they are not a protected group under the law. She would know what to tell the multiracial engineer who was hired as black and fired as white.

I think Dorothy Roberts set out to write an academic tome attacking the pharmaceutical industry, specifically BiDil. However, she never does reveal the other side of the story, and she succeeded best in that. The bigger problem is that certain people began misinterpreting the book, raving that this book solves all the racial problems and must be read because the author proves—finally!—that race does not exist or if it does, it’s not biological at all. The problem is bigger because if we drop “race” out of things like clinical trials and medical testing, people could be hurt and possibly even die.

Race has bred racism; I think we can all agree on that. Rather than spending time on what word(s) to change “race” to, such as “political construct,” can’t we work on educating policy makers? It’s going to take academics like Roberts and advocates like me and the members of Project RACE to make certain that those who make the policies know and understand what’s at stake and how people are similar and different. Isn’t that what diversity is about? We have tackled important issues with policymakers like the need for self-identification, for multiracial people to have a choice, and that no one should be invisible in the healthcare system of this country.

That 0.1 percent difference is actually huge. I think race-based medicine is definitely a dilemma and certainly one I can’t solve, neither can Roberts. Truly personalized medicine could happen with the help of The Human Genome and DNA; wouldn’t it be a tragedy if we never get there because we stop potential medical progress because we are afraid of what we might find out along the way? It could indeed be a fatal invention.


  1. Susan, does Ms Roberts say, anywhere in her new unrace bible, that the "facts" she presents and the "proof" she purports are nothing but opinion and conjecture? Although I have not yet waded through her tome, and will probably not waste my time so doing, I am of the educated opinion that I am allowed to borrow a quote from Vice President Joe Biden, "Malarky!" It looks like we have another academic librarian who is not afraid to voice her opinion but is afraid to call it so. One has to give this librarian credit, however, she is not afraid to use her own words as some others are. Excellent review, Susan. I wish there were more people like you in this world - it would be a much better, and safer, place for everyone.

  2. Ms. Lewis, I agree with everything you said in your comment. Ms. Roberts' book IS only opinion and conjecture! What is upsetting is the people who are being told by the librarians that Roberts' tome is gospel and they are believing that fatal rhetoric. Thanks for you insight and comments.

  3. So how can biology not matter??? EXACTLY!!!