The Biggest Lie About Race? That It's Real

Dorothy Roberts says race is a social and political construct, and she won't rest until we know it.

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TR: So no conspiracy theory? Just a deep-seated misunderstanding? 

DR: That's part of it. But also, today, more than ever, profit motivates many scientists, and their research is influenced by the production of commodities that will sell on the market ...

An example of that is the first race-based drug approved by the FDA, which is a heart failure therapy called BiDil that's targeted to black patients. But I would argue that it was targeted to black patients not for any scientific reasons, because it was developed as a drug for anyone who could benefit from it without regard to race.

It was not developed as a drug for black people. And it also had no genetic research associated with it. It morphed into a drug for black people only after its investor needed something to add to the original patent, which was going to expire, in order to get an extension of the patent. In the first patent for BiDil, there's no mention of race. The second patent adds that it is a drug for African-American heart failure patients.

TR: Talk about other findings about the real-life consequences in medicine of treating race as if it were a biological category.

DR: The HIV medication Abacavir can cause a fatal reaction that is thought to differ by race [with higher rates of reactions shown among people who identify as black Americans]. Aid agencies have taken this into account in deciding whether to provide this treatment to Africans.

But one study found, for example, that among the Masai in Kenya, the form of the gene that predicts a severe reaction is 13 percent; it's only 3.3 percent among another tribe in Kenya; and it's virtually nonexistent among the Yoruba in Nigeria. So if you were to make a claim that you could determine whether someone had this [gene form that determines whether a reaction to the drug will occur] based on their race, you would make a mistake in many cases.

TR: How do we talk about the very real issues surrounding race today without perpetuating harmful misunderstandings about what race is? 

DR: I don't think it's that confusing. Some people think there's a contradiction in saying that race is not a biological category but we have to pay attention to race. But race as a political system. We can make a clear distinction between accepting a false view of race as an inherent biological category written in our genes and race as a political system of governance that was invented to perpetuate racism.

TR: So the fact that race was invented and has been perpetuated for reasons that we don't like doesn't mean we want to get rid of it or not talk about it anymore?