Fatal Invention Book Review
by Kiilu Nyasha
March 19, 2012
Dorothy Roberts’ new book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the 21st Century is a must read for all human beings desiring to witness the beginning of the end of racism.
“We have long had scientific confirmation that race is a political and not a biological category. The recreation of biological race in genomic science today, like its invention by scientists in past centuries, results from an ideological commitment to a false view of humanity,” writes Roberts.
In 2000, The Human Genome Project mapped the entire human genetic code, proving that race could not be identified in our genes, that we are not naturally divided into genetically identifiable racial groups, that there is one human race.
Roberts explains and elucidates race as a political division, not a biological one. And details how the new science and technology of racial genetics is threatening “to steer America on a course of social inhumanity that already has begun to dominate politics in this century.
Government policies that have drastically slashed social services…accompanied by particularly brutal forms of regulation of [so-called] racial minorities: mass imprisonment at rates far exceeding any other place on Earth or any time in the history of the free world; roundup and deportation of undocumented immigrants, often tearing families apart; abuse of children held in juvenile detention centers or locked up in adult prisons, some for the rest of their lives;…torture in police stations and prison cells; and rampant medical neglect that kills.”
In addition to exposing how the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries are developing and marketing products erroneously applied to racial groupings, Roberts alerts us to our own racist tendencies and false assumptions.
Pointing out how we walk into a crowded room of diverse individuals and promptly identify “the race of every single person in that room.
“Americans are so used to filtering our impressions of people through a racial lens that we engage in this exercise automatically – as if we were merely putting a label on people to match their innate racial identities. But the only way we know which designation to assign each person is by referring to the invented rules we have been taught since we were infants.”
“A biological race is a population of organisms that can be distinguished from other populations in the same species based on differences in inherited traits.
There are no human populations with such a high degree of genetic differentiation that they objectively fall into races. There is only one human race.”
Quoting a famous geneticist, “Chimpanzees have races; honeybees have races; we don’t have races.”
“The distinction between the two meanings of race – as a biological versus a political grouping – is monumentally important. If race is a natural division it is easy to dismiss the glaring differences in people’s welfare as fair and even insurmountable; even liberals could feel comfortable with the current pace of racial progress, which leaves huge gaps between white and nonwhite well-being.
But if race is a political system, then we must use political means to end its harmful impact on our society.” [my emphasis]
“It is the belief in fundamental human equality that inspires many people to fight collectively against racism and its dehumanizing practices. Locating the causes of inequality in social rather than genetic structure is liberating because it is much easier to change society than genes.
It is more enlightened to understand the potential for political alliances apart from biological distinctions than to believe we are inevitably divided and shackled by immutable differences programmed in our genes.”
Roberts explodes some of the myths surrounding slaves and slavery. For example, “The word ‘slave’ comes from Slavs, who were held in bondage from as early as the ninth century. The ancestors of people now considered white, who think of themselves as the slaveholding race, were once held as slaves themselves.
“Even in the New World, ‘slave’ did not automatically mean ‘black.” The vast majority of people compelled to work in the fields of the American colonies were vagrant children, convicts and indentured servants shipped from Britain.”
Before the 18th century boom in the African slave trade, between half and two-thirds of all white immigrants came as unfree laborers, up to 400,000 Europeans.
Captured Africans, Europeans and indigenous peoples shared the same status, and worked alongside each other regardless of color, even forming families together. They also joined ranks in a series of revolts, and even the few Africans who gained freedom and purchased land seemed to have been treated as equals to other landowners. (And, yes, there were African slave owners.)
“By 1700, however, Africans were treated as a distinctly different kind of slave: they were made into the actual property of their masters, a lifelong bondage that passed down to their children. In contrast, the status of white indentured servants was neither permanent nor inherited; whites could work off their bond.”
“As officials split white indenture from black enslavement and established ‘white,’ ‘Negro,’ and ‘Indian’ as distinct legal categories, race was literally manufacture by law.”
Whites were subsequently given special rights over Black slaves: Pass laws restricted the latter’s movements and poor whites could enforce the laws requiring public, often naked, beatings of rebellious slaves.
“Christian” came to mean “white,” and laws were established to protect any Christian from being attacked by a “negroe or other” slave.
Anti-miscegenation laws outlawed interracial sex and marriage, “White people were held out as a privileged race that should be protected from contamination by inferior races.” Such laws were also used to protect the property rights and “the great heritage of the white race.”
Laws prohibiting marriage between whites and “coloreds” remained until the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia rendered them unconstitutional in Virginia and 16 other states. South Carolina kept its ban until 1998, and even then was opposed by 38% of voters in the referendum.
The combining of “Africans into a single race eventually obliterated the physical, linguistic, and cultural distinctions that had existed among thousands of ethnic groups on the African continent….W.E.B. DuBois observed that ‘the discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing.’ It was only with the slave trade, Indian conquests and a legal regime that installed a racial order that Europeans assumed whiteness as a personal identity and possession that naturally entitled them to a privileged social position.”
“It is in this acute distinction between the political status of whites and blacks…that we find the origins of race. Colonial landowners inherited slavery as an ancient practice, but they invented race as a system of power.”
“There is no test for whiteness. White means belonging to the group of people who are entitled to claim white privilege.”
Nevertheless, the medical profession has “historically promoted a racial construction of disease that in turn perpetuates a biological construction of race.”
Roberts’ elaboration on the erroneous application of racial theories in medical treatments and therapies should be cause for alarm among all people of color. It reminded me of the racism displayed by doctors in my medical history. For example, a rheumatologist once told me I didn’t have to worry about osteoporosis because I was not a white woman. After changing doctors, a bone test revealed that indeed I did have osteoporosis, a side affect of the drug he was administering to me.
Roberts also disavows as “patently unscientific” the “idea that blacks and whites represent opposite races.” Noting that Africans and Europeans are swimming distance apart, “the intimate intertwining of Europeans and Africans in the ensuing centuries through trade, conquest, enslavement, and migration make it absurd to consider them opposites from a genetic standpoint.”
One of the more fascinating chapters in her book discusses genetic ancestry equated with geographic ancestry. “Believing in race can be compared to believing in astrology. People who have faith in astrology find constant confirmation that horoscope predictions are reliable and that astrological signs determine personality types.”
In clarifying the political nature of our differences, Roberts raises the following questions:
“If races are fixed biological groupings, how can the test defining who belongs in each group change?....[H]ow can a judge officially assign (and reassign) it according to a legal classification system? If race is written in nature, how can people rewrite the rules?”
The very first U.S. census of 1790 counted the number of persons in each household according to the following categories: free white males 16 and older, free white males under 16, free white females, and all other free persons and slaves. Since then, census groupings have changed 24 times. And the 2010 census provides 15 categories as wells as spaces to write in an identity not listed.
“This classification scheme suggests that there is one white race, one black race, one American Indian/Alaska Native race, but an unspecified number of Asian and Pacific Islander sub-races.
The wave of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who arrived between the 1840s and 1930s were among those subjected to the 1924 exclusionary laws passed by Congress. But they threw off their customs, names and accents to assimilate and be granted the privileges of whiteness. Italians, e.g., were called Guineas, an epithet originally reserved for Africans from the West Coast of the continent. Even the Irish were considered to be closer to Africans than to the English, often caricatured as apelike and not full members of the white race 100 years ago. More evidence that “race is a political category that is defined according to invented rules.”
“To this day, the delusion that race is a biological inheritance rather than a political relationship leads plenty of intelligent people to make the most ludicrous statements about black biological traits.
Worse yet, this delusion permits a majority of Americans to live in perfect comfort with a host of barbaric practices and conditions that befall blacks primarily – infant deaths at numbers worse than in developing countries, locking up children in adult prisons for life, the highest incarceration rate in the history of the free world – and still view their country as a bastion of freedom and equality for all.”
In short, “race is the product of racism; racism is not the product of race.”
Quoting anthropologist Deborah Bolnick, Roberts notes, “From a genetic perspective, non-Africans are essentially a subset of Africans.”
Since genetic diversity evolved in Africa, the continent’s populations vary the most, or have accumulated more genetic differences than those people who migrated from Africa and dispersed throughout the world.
“In fact, the entire range of human variation for some genetic traits can be found on the African continent,” writes Roberts. She notes that individuals from Congo, Ethiopia, and South Africa are more genetically different from each other than from French people. “This seems astonishing because we are so used to focusing on a tiny set of physical features, especially skin color, to assign people to racial categories.”
Crediting anthropologist, Richard S. Cooper, Roberts explains, “Sub-Saharan Africa is home to both the tallest (Maasai) and the shortest (pygmies) people, and dark skin is found in all equatorial populations, not just in the ‘black race’ as defined in the United States,” and most genetic variation is found within any human grouping.
“Perhaps the most compelling evidence that race is a political category is its instability.
Since its invention to manage the expansion of European enslavement and the colonization of other peoples, the definitions, criteria and boundary lines that determine racial categories have constantly shifted over the course of U.S. history.
Who qualifies as white, black and Indian has been the matter of countless rule changes and political decisions. These racial reclassifications did not occur in response to scientific advances in human biology, but in response to sociopolitical imperatives.”
“When a South Carolina judge declared in 1835 that ‘a slave cannot be a white man,’ he made clear that racial identity was not a biological fact that could be ascertained with scientific proofs, but rather a socially and legally defined status that rested on a deeper ideological commitment to race, in which white equaled free (civic, responsible, manly) and black equaled slave (degraded, irresponsible, unfit for manly duties).”
“Another set of racial cases involved litigation over the legal question, Who is white? The Naturalization Act of 1790…restricted eligibility [for citizenship] to free white immigrants. Until this racial requirement was abolished in 1952, being either a ‘white person’ or (after the Civil War) a person of ‘African nativity or African descent’ was a prerequisite for becoming a citizen.
The test of whiteness for naturalization became a vital legal issue for nearly a century. Between 1878 and 1952, state and federal judges issued 52 decisions, including two before the Supreme Court in the 1920s. “In these cases, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos, Hawaiians, Afghanis, Native Americans, and anyone of mixed ancestry were not white. Arabs, Syrians and Asian Indians were considered white by some judges and not by others.
“In the wake of the Civil War and the 14th Amendment, Congress amended the law in 1870 to extend naturalization to persons of ‘African nativity or African descent,’ while deliberately denying Chinese immigrants that right on the grounds they posed a risk to American morals and jobs.”
“Congress moved more directly to stanch the ‘Mongolian invasion’ with the Chinese Immigration Act of 1882, barring entry to Chinese workers for 10 years, including the wives and families of immigrants already in the country. Subsequent laws passed in 1917, 1924, and 1934 extended the exclusion to immigrants from Japan, India, and to the Philippines. The supposedly biological category ‘Asian’ commonly employed today was solidified by the series of statutes and court decisions that classified immigrants from each nation as nonwhite. The racial question was ultimately a political question about which groups the federal government deemed qualified for citizenship. Ironically, a Texas judge bestowed white status on Mexicans.
“The infamous one-drop rule, passed in Tennessee in 1910…defined a person as Negro if he or she had…one drop of Negro blood.
A “reverse one-drop rule” (i.e., one white ancestor) applied to Mexicans, permitted them to assume the privileged whiteness.
While these classifications remind us that these racial categories and institutionalized inequities are not natural, when “Americans see black and brown people doing most of the menial jobs, dying younger from most diseases, and filling most of the prison cells, it’s easy for many to see race and believe it must be part of nature.”
Finally, Roberts asked the question I had asked myself when I first learned of the Human Genome Project breakthrough in 2000: “Why, then, do most Americans cling to a false belief that biological races really do exist? Why do they latch on to whatever trivial proof they can muster to confirm their misconceptions about race?
“Children in the U.S. learn to divide all people into racial groups and come to have faith in race as a self-evident truth, like a traditional creation story that explains how the world works.”
“Racism is a faith,” noted George B. Kelsey (who mentored Dr. Martin Luther King).
Roberts continues: “It is the faith in race – the religion of separating human beings into racial groups – that makes it difficult for Americans to think like scientists.”
“Race persists because it continues to be politically useful. It is therefore imperative to evaluate the political function of race at the present time and wage a political assault against it.”
In conclusion, I’m most grateful to Dorothy Roberts for writing this book from which I’ve learned so much. My criticisms are: 1) I felt like she was addressing her academic colleagues, not the general public, making it a difficult read albeit well worth it. 2) As she elucidates the social construction of race, some of her language still reflects old paradigms and ideas, including the use of nonwhite, mulatto, and racial minorities. If we are equally human beings, then no one group should be referred to as a minority.
Even as she points out that whites are about 35% of New York City’s population, she fails to note that whites are a minority.
In California, it’s long been established that “people of color” are the majority, yet one never hears whites referred to as a minority. Obviously, whites are loathe to call themselves “inferior in importance” or “less than” (Webster).
In lieu of this timely contribution to our understanding of race and racism, it’s my hope that we will begin to change our language to reflect the new reality. E.g., we can stop using races, substituting ethnicities or nationalities. We can stop calling people minorities, and we can begin to re-examine our own attitudes, prejudices, and beliefs with the idea in mind of one human race. One step at a time, we must begin to eliminate race as a category as we move toward a planet of peace and harmony.
[This review was published online in “The Black Commentator.”]