Fatal Invention
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Fatal Invention

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

Dorothy Roberts

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Fatal Invention

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

Dorothy Roberts

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An incisive, groundbreaking book that examines how a biological concept of race is a myth that promotes inequality in a supposedly "post-racial" era. Though the Human Genome Project proved that human beings are not naturally divided by race, the emerging fields of personalized medicine, reproductive technologies, genetic genealogy, and DNA databanks are attempting to resuscitate race as a biological category written in our genes. This groundbreaking book by legal scholar and social critic Dorothy Roberts examines how the myth of race as a biological concept—revived by purportedly cutting-edge science, race-specific drugs, genetic testing, and DNA databases—continues to undermine a just society and promote inequality in a supposedly "post-racial" era. Named one of the ten best black nonfiction books 2011 by AFRO.com, Fatal Invention offers a timely and "provocative analysis" ( Nature ) of race, science, and politics that "is consistently lucid... alarming but not alarmist, controversial but evidential, impassioned but rational" ( Publishers Weekly, starred review). "Everyone concerned about social justice in America should read this powerful book." —Anthony D.Romero, executive director, American Civil Liberties Union "A terribly important book on how the 'fatal invention' has terrifying effects in the post-genomic, 'post-racial' era." —Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, professor of sociology, Duke University, and author of Racism Without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States " Fatal Invention is a triumph! Race has always been an ill-defined amalgam of medical and cultural bias, thinly overlaid with the trappings of contemporary scientific thought. And no one has peeled back the layers of assumption and deception as lucidly as Dorothy Roberts." —Harriet A.Washington, author of and Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself

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The New Press
Believing in Race in the Genomic Age
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The Invention of Race
It is virtually impossible to pass a day in the United States without making use of race. Race is the main characteristic most Americans use to classify each other. It is the first or second thing we notice about a stranger we pass on the street or a new acquaintance approaching to shake our hand. Race determines which church most Americans attend, where they buy a house, the persons they choose to marry, whom they vote for, and the music they listen to. Race is evident in the color of inner-city and suburban schools, prison populations, the U.S. Senate, and Fortune 500 boardrooms. Race rears up every time a police officer is shot or an unarmed suspect is shot by the police. Yet most Americans are hard-pressed to define what race means.
Imagine walking into a room filled with people displaying a wide range of skin colors, hair textures, and facial features. It is likely that the very first thing you do, either consciously or unconsciously, is to identify the race of every single person in that room. Americans are so used to filtering our impressions of people through a racial lens that we engage in this exercise automatically—as if we were merely putting a label on people to match their innate racial identities. But the only way we know which racial designation to assign each person is by referring to the invented rules we have been taught since we were infants. And the only reason we engage in this exercise is the enormous social consequences of classifying people in this way. So we force the mélange of physical features and social clues into a code that tells us how to categorize each person—so as to know where each person fits in our society.
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Aristotle claimed that he could tell if a man was a citizen by looking at him. Most intelligent people today would think it preposterous to judge someone’s citizenship status by physical appearance. Citizenship is a political category, not a biological one. Citizenship doesn’t describe a person’s intrinsic characteristics; it defines her relationship to a nation’s government, to the other people who are citizens, and to noncitizens. Whether someone qualifies as a citizen isn’t inscribed in her body; citizenship is determined by the requirements set forth in the country’s constitution. Even if the constitution stated that only people of a certain height qualified for citizenship, we would still understand it as a political category, a relationship among people that has to do with governing them.
Like citizenship, race is a political system that governs people by sorting them into social groupings based on invented biological demarcations. Race is not only interpreted according to invented rules, but, more important, race itself is an invented political grouping. Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.
This distinction is important because many people misinterpret the phrase “race is socially constructed” to mean that the biological category of race has a social meaning, so that each society interprets differently what it means to belong to a biological race. According to this view, first we are born into a race, and then our society determines the consequences of this natural inheritance. There is, then, no contradiction between seeing race as both biological and socially constructed. Among liberal Americans, recognizing race as a social construction translates into an admonition against racial bias. Some say it is fine to acknowledge the existence of biological races as long as we do not construct them as socially unequal. The problem with this interpretation of race as a social construction is that it ignores its political—and not biological—origin. The very first step of creating race, dividing human beings into these categories, is a political practice.
How do we know race is a political and not a natural grouping?
For a start, human beings do not fit the zoological definition of race. A biological race is a population of organisms that can be distinguished from other populations in the same species based on differences in inherited traits.1 There are no human populations with such a high degree of genetic differentiation that they objectively fall into races. There is only one human race. As Duke geneticist Charmaine Royal explained to me, in a subspecies or race, “all the entities in that group are the same and different from the entities in the other subspecies.” But, she pointed out, humans aren’t like this: “Chimpanzees have races; honeybees have races; we don’t have races.”2
Royal makes a good point: human beings are not divided into races in the biological sense of the term. But we are divided into races in the political sense. In contrast to the title of the excellent PBS documentary refuting the biological basis for race, Race: The Power of an Illusion, race is not imaginary. Race is very real as a political grouping of human beings and has actual consequences for people’s health, wealth, social status, reputation, and opportunities in life. The fact that dividing people into races has biological effects does not change the fact that this division is a political exercise. The distinction between the two meanings of race—as a biological versus a political grouping—is monumentally important. If race is a natural division, it is easy to dismiss the glaring differences in people’s welfare as fair and even insurmountable; even liberals could feel comfortable with the current pace of racial progress, which leaves huge gaps between white and nonwhite well-being. But if race is a political system, then we must use political means to end its harmful impact on our society. So we cannot ditch the concept of race altogether. Paying attention to race as a political system—which is what it really is—is essential to fighting racism.
More important than the biological evidence is the political evidence of the meaning of race. We know race is a political grouping because it has political roots in slavery and colonialism, it has served a political function over the four hundred years since its inception, and its boundary lines—how many races there are and who belongs to each one—have shifted over time and across nations to suit those political purposes. Who qualifies as white, black, and Indian has been the matter of countless rule changes and judicial decisions. These racial reclassifications did not occur in response to scientific advances in human biology, but in response to sociopolitical imperatives. They reveal that what is being defined, organized, and interpreted is a political relationship and not an innate classification.

Where Does Race Come From?

The use of the term race to describe distinct categories of people is surprisingly recent. In 1508, William Dunbar, a Scottish member of King James IV’s court, wrote a poem called “The Dance of Sevin Deidly Sins.” One of the verses listed among those guilty of Envy, “bakbyttaris of sindry racis”—backbiters of sundry races. Some scholars believe this is the earliest use of the word “race” in the English language.3 Dunbar employed race to mean family lineage—kinship groups descended from the male line. He probably borrowed racis from the Spanish word raza, which the Spanish applied to breeds of horses and dogs.
The political origins of race are similarly an artifact of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, as Europeans increasingly tried to impose order on the movement of peoples between Christian and Islamic territories and the “Old” and “New” worlds. The Roman Catholic Church, in particular, found a need to distinguish between believers and infidels; the latter were deemed fit for conquest, capture, and enslavement.4 In 1455, Pope Nicholas V issued a papal directive authorizing the Portuguese to “attack, subject, and reduce to perpetual slavery” all “enemies of Christ” along the west coast of Africa. The authorization included the condition that the captives would be converted to Christianity and then set free. Spanish, Venetian, and Portuguese royalty vastly expanded the importation of dark-skinned slaves and, as the rationale of Christian conversion no longer suited the growing enterprise of perpetual forced black labor, began to evade the papal mandate to emancipate converted captives by describing them as less than human.
It has been argued in defense of a natural concept of race that human classification schemes existed prior to the period of European imperialism. Many millennia before the European age of exploration, for instance, the ancient Egyptians recorded in tomb paintings and hieroglyphs the physical differences between themselves and the lighter-skinned Syrians and the darker-skinned Nubians they conquered. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, known as the father of Western medicine, separated the Scythians, Asians, and Greeks into different body types explained by the typology and climate of the regions they lived in.5 The Bible offers the story of Noah’s sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth, as an explanation for the geographical origins of different groups of people, one that would later be interpreted by white Americans as evidence of a divine justification for slavery.
Believing in the uniqueness and superiority of one’s own group may be universal, but it is not equivalent to race.6 These ancient attempts to describe and explain differences among peoples did not partition all human beings into a relatively small number of innately separable types. Nor did they treat these differences as markers of immutable distinctions that determine each group’s permanent social value. Unlike race, these observed differences did not create a set of discrete categories that every single person in the world must fit into from the day he or she is born. The Spanish and the Portuguese had experienced close contact with North Africa as well as domination by highly cultured Arab invaders for centuries. The Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula in 711, bringing with them several hundred years of cultural influence and ethnic intermixing. Spanish and Portuguese traders did not automatically classify the people from the west coast of Africa as an innately inferior group.7
Historian Winthrop Jordan argues that, in contrast, English travelers immediately distinguished themselves from the dark-skinned people they encountered. “From the first, Englishmen tended to set Negroes over against themselves,” Jordan writes, “to stress what they conceived to be radically contrasting qualities of color, religion, and style of life, as well as animality and a peculiarly potent sexuality.” He goes on to note, however, that this attention to difference acquired a distinctive aspect as the English expanded the slave trade: “What Englishmen did not at first fully realize was that Negroes were potentially subjects for a special kind of obedience and subordination which was to arise as adventurous Englishmen sought to possess for themselves and their children one of the most bountiful dominions of the earth” (my emphasis).8

A Special Kind of Subjugation

What was this special kind of subjugation? It was not the enslavement of Africans alone, for human servitude was far from a novel practice. Societies across the globe had relied on compelled labor for thousands of years to generate wealth for those in power. All captives in the ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires could be enslaved, regardless of their geographic origins. People were also enslaved as payment for a debt or as punishment for a crime, and desperately poor parents in ancient Rome made money by selling their children into slavery. In addition, the inhabitants of regions we now call Europe had been enslaved by foreigners for centuries.9 The word “slave” comes from Slavs, who were held in bondage from as early as the ninth century. The ancestors of people now considered white, who think of themselves as the slaveholding race, were once held as slaves themselves.
Even in the New World, “slave” did not automatically mean “black.” The vast majority of people compelled to work in the fields of the American colonies were vagrant children, convicts, and indentured servants shipped from Britain. As Nell Irvin Painter notes in her history of white people, “before the eighteenth-century boom in the African slave trade, between one-half and two-thirds of all early white immigrants to the British colonies in the Western Hemisphere came as unfree laborers, some 300,000 to 400,000 people.”10 At first, European settlers in the American colonies gave the blacks they shipped from Africa and the indigenous people they captured the same status as white indentured servants.11 Many worked alongside each other for a term of service regardless of color, sharing everyday life together and sometimes forming families. European, African, and Indian servants also joined ranks in a series of revolts demanding better food rations, less arduous working conditions, and rights to property. The few Africans who were able to gain their freedom and purchase land seem to have been treated as equals to other landowners.
By 1700, however, Africans were treated as a distinctly different kind of slave: they were made into the actual property of their masters, a lifelong bondage that passed down to their children. In contrast, the status of white indentured servants was neither permanent nor inherited; whites could work off their bond. Then came Bacon’s Rebellion. In 1676, European and African servants in colonial Virginia joined forces to demand that the royal governor, William Berkeley, move more aggressively against Indian tribes to settle lands on the frontier. Led by wealthy planter Nathaniel Bacon, five hundred black and white men, united by enmity against the Indians, marched into the colonial capital, Jamestown, and burned it to the ground. The uprising continued for several months before Bacon died suddenly and Berkeley was able to restore order, later hanging twenty-three of the rebels.
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.12 The elite class feared black and white servants joining ranks against it more than it desired a brotherhood of servants fighting against Indians. The colonists increased the importation of African slaves, relying more and more on compelled black labor to produce profits. There was an insufficient supply of white servants making the transatlantic migration, and Indian tribes, with a home territory advantage, had mounted a formidable resistance to wholesale capture. Captive Africans, whose skills at farming, carpentry, and metalworking proved immensely valuable to European capitalists, filled the labor gap. But more significant than the numerical shift from white to black exploitation was a monumental legislative effort to differentiate the status of blacks and whites. As officials split white indenture from black enslavement and established “white,” “Negro,” and “Indian” as distinct legal categories, race was literally manufactured by law.
The emerging legal regime set all blacks clearly apart from all whites in terms of power and privilege. Gradually, lawmakers degraded the form of bondage assigned exclusively to Africans. Under a 1705 Virginia statute, for example, white servants received freedom dues, including a musket, money, and bushels of corn, when they completed a term of indentured servitude. Black servants were not entitled to freedom and were banned from carrying firearms. The Virginia racial laws not only treated enslaved Africans worse than white servants, they gave propertyless whites special rights over slaves. Historian David Roediger writes:
Pass laws restricted the movement of slaves; poor whites patrolled to enforce the laws. Laws required public, often naked, whippings of recalcitrant black slaves but set limits on penal violence against even indentured whites. Beatings awaited any “negroe or other [Indian] slave” attacking “any Christian,” according to a 1680 law, putting state power firmly on the side of Europeans in altercations among servants. The term “Christian” increasingly meant “white.” Africans would not be defined as such.13
A South Carolina statute followed Virginia’s example, giving every white man “absolute power and authority over his negro slave,” regardless of religion. Converting to Christianity no longer provided Africans an escape from their condition as the lifelong chattel of their masters.
Laws regulating sex and marriage hardened the lines between the emerging racial categories. Virginia had already outlawed interracial sex in 1662, when the legislature amended its prohibition of all fornication to impose heavier penalties if the guilty parties were “negroes” and “Christians.” In 1691, the Virginia Assembly beefed up its laws against racial mixing by making it a crime for Negro, mulatto, and Indian men to marry or “accompany...

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