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.
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?
DR: Yes, not talking about it doesn't do anything to eradicate it. We know now that intending to be color-blind only leaves in place and allows to expand the institutional inequities that are based on race and continue to affect every aspect of people's lives in this country. Yes, even their health — but it's affected by race because the political division of race affects institutions that treat people unequally, not because there is some natural genetic division among us.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.