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

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.

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.