“Race is the product of racism; racism is not the product of race” was the message told to students, faculty and community members in the overflowing Klarman auditorium, Wednesday evening.
Prof. Dorothy Roberts, law, University of Pennsylvania, outlined what she said is the complicated, but too often overly simplified, relationship between social inequality, race and genetics.
The dominant conversation in this intersection pushes for a belief that race is biologically founded and proven. This conversation, she argued, has to stop.
However, Roberts drew these supposed biological foundations to their origins. Race, she said, came from “scientists inventing race as an explanation for racial inequality.”
Covering a wide span of disciplines from eugenics to new reproductive technologies, Roberts put science in a societal context.
Arguing for an intersection between the biological and social sciences, Roberts said researchers must root their studies in realized experiences.
“If you really wanna help black children in Philadelphia get a better education … don’t do research on the gray matter of their brains. Do you really think that’s gonna help these children?” Roberts asked, drawing snaps and applause from her audience.
Roberts said policymakers and extremists have been able to seize this idea that there are biologically-explained differences that underlie social problems — such as the theory that poverty reduces cognitive function in the brains of poor, black children.
Seemingly fueled by empirical facts, systematically suppressive policies then prevail, Roberts said.
“Scientists invented race as an explanation for social inequality,” she said. Later, she reaffirmed this and said “there is a whole system designed to keep black children from succeeding, again and again.”
Roberts offered her insight to the overarching question. “What I’ve realized is it’s not so much about … thinking black children are inferior,” she said, “It’s about not wanting to confront white privilege and power.”
In this way, solutions proposed by researchers and policymakers aim toward those affected by the system — often “interven[ing] in the behavior of … victims” or even blaming them on a biological basis, Roberts said.
This approach neglects a reform of the system itself, she said.
“The black baby in the womb is being harmed by structural racism … not his black mother’s ‘bad behavior’ or genes,” Roberts said.