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.

Northwestern University/New Press

There's a reason we'll never come to a consensus on the most accurate racial classifications for Barack Obama or Tiger Woods. There's a reason questions about ethnicity on the census and college applications feel impossible to an increasing number of Americans. There's a reason you can be black in the United States, colored in South Africa and something else entirely in Brazil.

According to Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century, it's because, despite centuries of efforts to treat race as if it's a biological category, it is no more than social construction -- created to oppress people -- that changes with place, time and perspective.

The Root talked to Roberts about the profit that's behind the re-emergence of myths about race, the impact for African Americans and health, and how we can continue to talk about it, minus the long-standing lies.

The Root: Fatal Invention is an attempt to correct major misunderstandings and myths about race. Explain what race is and what it isn't.

Dorothy Roberts: I can say very definitively that race is an invented political system; it is not a natural biological condition of human beings. The human species is a single race. It is not biologically divided up into distinguishable races.

TR: If there's no biological basis, why do the groups that we think of as different races look different? 

DR: Race is a political grouping that uses various biological demarcations that help distinguish who belongs to one or another. But those -- skin color, hair color, the shape of the nose or the lips -- are only part of what we use to determine what race someone is.

We also historically have looked at their behavior, we've looked at who their friends are, where they live, to also help determine it. So there's a grab bag of biological, physical, social and cultural clues that we use every day to decide who belongs in what race.

TR: You say that science, politics and big business are all working hard to make sure we continue to think of race as a biological category. How? And why? 

DR: It's such a deeply embedded belief system that I think many scientists just automatically use it in their research. They can't imagine another way of doing research because of how they were taught -- not only as scientists but as citizens who were taught by their parents growing up. Our whole society teaches this. So they're just uncritically importing assumptions about the biological nature of race into their research.