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Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century

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A decade after the Human Genome Project proved that human beings are not naturally divided by race, the emerging fields of personalized medicine, reproductive technologies, genetic genealogy, and DNA databanks are attempting to resuscitate race as a biological category written in our genes. In this provocative analysis, leading legal scholar and social critic Dorothy Roberts argues that America is once again at the brink of a virulent outbreak of classifying population by race. By searching for differences at the molecular level, a new race-based science is obscuring racism in our society and legitimizing state brutality against communities of color at a time when America claims to be post-racial.

Moving from an account of the evolution of race—proving that it has always been a mutable and socially defined political division supported by mainstream science—Roberts delves deep into the current debates, interrogating the newest science and biotechnology, interviewing its researchers, and exposing the political consequences obscured by the focus on genetic difference. Fatal Invention is a provocative call for us to affirm our common humanity.

400 pages, Hardcover

First published June 14, 2011

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About the author

Dorothy Roberts

16 books344 followers
Dorothy Roberts is a scholar, professor, author and social justice advocate, and currently the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She has published a range of groundbreaking articles and books analyzing issues of law, race, gender, health, class and social inequality, including Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997), Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2002) and, most recently Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2012).

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Profile Image for Trevor.
1,283 reviews21.5k followers
June 6, 2019
When Bill Clinton announced that they had finally mapped the human genome he also voiced a warning: "We must guarantee that genetic information cannot be used to stigmatize or discriminate against any individual or group."

You see, the problem had been that genetics for a very long time had mostly been used to do the exact opposite. Hitler’s death camps were the natural outcome of theories of eugenics that sought racial purity and to protect the health of the nation by eradicating individuals deemed unfit. The US considers itself the ‘land of the free’ – but Hitler himself praised people like Henry Ford and others in the US Eugenics movement for their disgusting theories he was all too happy to adopt and put into practice.

I’m saying all of this because this should be a warning to us. Science has let us down before in relation to eugenics – all is not forgiven and should never be forgotten. Science can say, ‘yes, that was a gross misuse of the scientific method back then, but now our genetic theories are much better’. But bold statements such as that are not enough. The onus of proof falls heavily on science, not for reassurance, but for guarantees.

I don’t believe that science is a purely objective and disinterested pursuit solely interested in the furtherance of human knowledge. Anyone reading the history of IQ testing, the history of race relations, of medical testing, and of so much more will see that far too often scientific claims and assumed immutable laws have been used as covers for the most horrendous crimes against humanity – in fact, some of the worst crimes every committed by humans to other humans. The science justifying these crimes has often been standard science, not some freakish imitation. The consequences of leaving this to the experts are too grave to be accepted. We need more than mere science involved in making these decisions.

Racism is particularly evil because people are certain that it is a scientific fact – while it is rather a myth. Yes, I know, you’ve seen people with differently coloured skin to yours and you are sure that must prove they are genetically different from you, but actually, we are all just one large, unhappy family and the differences between us in our genes amount to two-tenths of stuff all. Races literally do not exist, at least, not as a biological category of any meaning. They are a social construct and as such they change over time in much the same way that fashion does. Where I was born, we are prepared to kill people we considered inferior – but the difference between them and us was not defined in terms of genetics. On the one side are those who are really, really fond of the little baby Jesus and on the other side are those who like the little baby Jesus, but are also quite fond his mum too – damn heretics! Death to them all! And since 1690 the little baby Jesus followers and mother of the little baby Jesus followers have been at each other’s throats. But even if you don’t need genes to be a turd, genes are so convenient that almost difference between groups ends up being blamed on them eventually.

So, there’s also homosexuality, disability, social class, people who live in the countryside – that is, people who might otherwise expect to be seen as being part of the genetical in-group get pushed out because they were seen as being different, of not living up the high standards we erect for belonging. The history of capitalism has been a history of the blaming of poverty on poor genes. You see, capitalism is a system that is based on merit, so if you don’t succeed it is clear that that must be because you are somehow defective – it surely can’t be due to any disadvantages you faced or any advantages others had – it is a meritocracy after all. At the start of the 20th century researchers at Melbourne University estimated that one-in-ten people in the population were mentally defective, due to their poor genes – how could you argue? They were unemployed, they lived like animals in their poverty…

Genes are convenient in explaining the ills that plague our world. And today we have gene maps that we can scour in search of an inbuilt explanation for homelessness or the angry black male gene, or the welfare cheat gene – and this map has been paid for in taxpayer dollars – and since we also live in a post-racial world, well, the differences we find will prove to be those of a disinterested, objective science.

There is a bit in this book where the author says that black men are more likely to have their testicles removed if they are diagnosed with prostate cancer than white men with the same condition. Yeah, white doctors castrating black men – obviously the doctors would claim this has nothing at all to do with the centuries old, white male panic over the projected sexual potency of black men. But subconscious racism exists, even in the most educated of people. We need to be terrified of the power of stereotypes – they can turn us into monsters.

Black people are the canary in the mine on this one. As the Brown Vs Board of Education case showed with its doll tests (where black children were shown to prefer white dolls over black dolls) having black skin has been subconsciously associated with multiple negative social characteristics (from violence to laziness) and that this has not only been indoctrinated into the consciousness of white people, but into the consciousness of blacks as well. I read somewhere that black households in the US have many more cleaning products than white households – in response to the stereotype that blacks are ‘dirty’. The most frightening thing about stereotypes is how they become subconsciously accepted by the target population of those stereotypes.

Any process that divides medicine into ‘white’ and ‘black’ medicine will almost invariably result in worse health outcomes for blacks. But this book documents exactly how this process is occurring and being given justification via distorted visions of ‘personalised medicine’ genetics is often claimed to be about to deliver us.

There is a bit of this where the author quotes doctors who ‘know’ that black people do not feel pain in the same way that white people do – and so, they can be (and are) treated with either no or reduced doses of pain killers that in white people would cause excruciating pain. This isn’t reported from 1862 – but today. A friend recently sent me a link to a series of memes that police in Phoenix have been posting on their Facebook pages – many about running over black protestors in Ferguson who complain about police killing other black people https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/.... This level of hatred for other people based on skin colour or religion is not limited to police, of course – the fact it is so prevalent in the police force just shows how prevalent it is in the rest of society too. As such, allowing medicine to be divided according to race – that is, a means of dividing the world that has no scientific validity – is really asking for trouble.

I need to stress again, race has no scientific validity. But the argument here is that we can use someone’s reported race as a way of individualising otherwise more generic treatments. For instance, black people in the US often suffer from hypertension – so we can tailor our treatment of them according to this known racial trait. The problems with this ought to be obvious. For instance, Barack Obama is probably the most famous black American – accept, well, given his father was from East Africa and most African Americans were brought to the US from West Africa – and Obama’s mum was white... it all starts to get a little complicated. Fortunately, in the US it seems that any ancestor you have that could be defined as black automatically defines you as black too. Powerful stuff that black blood.

Her take down of the DNA tests – the spit into the test-tube and I’ll tell you stories about your ancestors – is worth the price of the book alone. I worked as an archivist for a number of years, so I have an acquired loathing disease for genealogists, of all the human breeds, the pedigree ones are by far the most boring.

The chapter on BiDil – a drug marketed to treat heart failure in black people – is a textbook case in why this nonsense is so dangerous. As is the story she tells of the young black girl misdiagnosed for years because everyone knows cystic fibrosis is a white genetic disorder. And while we are on cystic fibrosis, I’m going to quote this bit at length:

“She noted that geneticists have long known about the genetic mutations that cause cystic fibrosis, a chronic, progressive disease that causes thick mucus to build up in the respiratory and digestive systems. It used to be common for children with cystic fibrosis to die from lung infections. “There have been great strides made in cystic fibrosis, but none of it comes from the understanding it’s caused by a particular gene or even what that gene does. We have doubled the life expectancy of individuals with cystic fibrosis, but it really has to do with management of the [consequent] infectious disease, Cho says. When I later heard a radio program about a girl suffering from cystic fibrosis whose parents could no longer afford her infection-fighting medications, it seemed clear to me that the public money invested in gene hunting would be better spent using already-proven therapies to treat sick people who aren’t getting the care they need.”

Like I said before – capitalism needs genetic theories to justify its version of meritocracy. Eugenic theories are therefore likely to always find new ways to make a comeback. We need to beware. We need to beware of the ideology that dresses itself as objective science.
Profile Image for Robert Wechsler.
Author 9 books125 followers
December 24, 2018
This was a very frustrating read for me, because there are so many important ideas and so much important information in this book, and yet I found it poorly argued and structured. I was forced to slog (and carefully skim) through too much information, often finding very important information and arguments hidden in the middle of sections. I was sad to discover, in the book’s Conclusion, that I didn’t feel the author had sufficiently supported some of her conclusions and ignored some arguments she had successfully made.
170 reviews1 follower
October 31, 2019
Speaking as someone who works directly with human genomic data and studies evolution in humans, I think this book is essential reading for the field. Even though this book is now several years old it is shockingly prescient, I was continually amazed that a writer thinking through these problems in 2010 would be so readily able to predict what the science and politics of race would look like in 2019. I certainly wasn't able to see the writing on the wall at that time, but Dorothy Roberts did.

Whether you are a scientist, or just want to better understand how science can act to reinforce ideas of race and racism, this book is meticulously researched and will give you nearly everything you might need to know. I was seriously impressed and would really like to participate in a course built around this book.

My one caveat is that it is a dense book with a lot of information, not a quick breezy read. Expect to read a chapter and then take a break to digest. It took me over a month to read it (taking some breaks to read other books), but I kept coming back for the great ideas and insights. Truly one of the best books I've read and super relevant to my work.
Profile Image for Rishab.
16 reviews
January 22, 2021
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the following protests against police brutality, many medical schools took it upon themselves to hold workshops or assign texts addressing racism in medicine. During orientation week at my school, two faculty delivered a presentation on the troubled history of medicine and the barring of women and Black people from the profession. They read excerpts from Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present illustrating the ugly record of experimentation on and exploitation of Black Americans by academic medical centers and public health institutions. Finally, they concluded with the problematic usage of race correction in clinical algorithms. I found these presentations to be informative, and the inclusion of these topics in medical education long overdue.

Just days after orientation, I attended a lecture on how to interpret the CMP lab test, a blood panel that measures your electrolytes and glucose levels. A couple of slides in that lecture covered the normal ranges for two chemical waste products found in our blood, creatinine and BUN, in relation to an equation for estimated kidney function, eGFR. Curiously, one bullet point mentioned that variations of this formula are used to account for age, gender, and race. At the end of the lecture, a student asked for an explanation, and the professor replied: “Serum creatinine levels are higher in people with larger muscle mass…so there is, again, a generality that African-Americans are more muscular…so there is a slight alteration to the formula." After pressed on why such an assumption is even made, my professor could only state they had no part in writing the equation, that it is just a rule of thumb, and as a matter of fact, it is just an estimated equation, so minor differences are not that important anyway. *End lecture*

Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts is an incisive book that gives me a framework to help me make sense of the multiple instances of race being used unclearly or questionably, sometimes as a flat-out stand-in for a genetic category — not just in the past 6 months of school, but throughout all my channels of socialization since birth. I actually started reading this book as part of a discussion group last summer, but it fizzled out halfway through, so I re-read it over the long weekend starting from the beginning.

This is a book about the constant recreation and reification of biological race through (among other avenues) pharmacogenomics, genome sequencing technologies, and direct-to-consumer ancestry testing kits, under stamps of approval from biotech, pharmaceuticals, and academia. Roberts outlines in great detail the practices, assumptions, and overall aim behind redressing race as a biological category, sometimes portrayed as "genetic ancestry" or "geographical race" to escape controversy. The institutional backing from scientific authorities gives credence to a fiction that has otherwise been thoroughly debunked. These developments further codify race as a legal classification system, which is of course arbitrary and molded based on ideological goals of the state. And that is what makes essentialized notions of race so insidious: in the legal arena, the adjudication of race was historically inconsistent, ranging from “familiar observations and knowledge” to faux racial typologies.

Very early on, Roberts describes how woefully misconstrued the phrase "race is a social construct" is to the point where the common interpretation perverts the original meaning. The faulty line of reasoning goes something like this: there *are* inherent differences between so-called races…but that's Ok, Actually — we just need to be mindful of these differences and treat everyone with respect. If you assume a priori that there must be some biological race, then it also okay to use race as a genetic category in research, as long as we employ the proper safeguards and filter out the bigots.

Yet, as Roberts shows throughout the book, these assumptions do not challenge race as a biological concept but only emboldens it further. Humans do not fit the zoological definition of race, "a population of organisms that can be distinguished from other populations in the same species based on differences in inherited traits." There is no racial essence. Rather, certain groups of people become racialized and, as a result, experience very real biological consequences such as disparities in life expectancy, infant & maternal mortality, chronic illnesses, mass incarceration, mortgage lending, etc. i.e. systemic racism.

On that note, try defining racism in your own words. Does it include more than interpersonal discrimination and hate crimes based on psychological in-group out-group bias? For the full picture, Roberts takes us back to the roots of European colonialism and explains how the production of difference as integral to the economic logic of capitalism. To give strategic cover for the Trans-Atlantic slave trade (and more broadly to justify their regime of pillaging and dispossession), English colonizers drew a wedge within the laboring class based on superficial physical attributes like skin color to prevent them from realizing their shared class interests. To enforce stability under capitalism, the ruling class needs ideologies that naturalize hierarchy. Disguising race as an intrinsic attribute is useful in convincing the general public that inequalities in status, wealth, and power across different groups are not only natural but inevitable.

And while critics like to invoke historical examples of natural races as evidence for the “innateness” of racism, it is important to draw a distinction. The social construction of race by English colonizers for the extraction of labor from stolen Black bodies fundamentally differed from, say, ancient civilizations indiscriminately subjugating portions of their populations to slavery or Egyptians’ paintings contrasting skin tones of the Syrians and Nubians they conquered. The former explicitly imposed an ascriptive hierarchy based on perceived immutable differences, while the latter was rooted in immaterial, non-systemic ethnocentrism. Race depends on historically-defined power relations.

Indeed, racial categories vary across temporospatial landscapes. Look at how quickly and fluidly the checkboxes for race on US censuses change: more than twenty times since 1790. Which race you belong to for bookkeeping purposes largely depends on invented rules and where you were born.
"Who qualifies as white, black, and Indian has been the matter of countless rule changes and judicial decisions. These racial reclassifications did not occur in response to scientific advances in human biology, but in response to sociopolitical imperatives."

But if there is nothing inherent or biological about race, why do we instantly sort a room of 100 people into based on appearance? Roberts describes the recurrent tendency to taxonomize as foundational to Western science. The famous botanist Carolus Linnaeus actually subdivided H. sapiens into 4 groups in Systema Naturae, and he took the liberty to assign "H. asiaticus" and “H. afer" disparaging descriptors that undergird racist tropes we see today. Throughout this exercise, Linnaeus drew significant inspiration from the "Great Chain of Being" in Christianity that divides all things in the universe into a hierarchy; the seemingly objective practice of science was in this case rested on divine justifications. This was not an instance of "scientific racism" or "pseudoscience," just science. It is not hard to see, then, how race has become a go-to shorthand in the social sphere.

After laying the groundwork for critical discussions and offers numerous points of reflection, Roberts devotes the bulk of Fatal Invention to expanding on the subtitle’s thesis, demonstrating show science and capitalism continue to uphold racism by disguising a sociopolitical system as an innate marker and obscuring our common humanity. For example, the use of gene cluster analysis software to group variances in polymorphic gene sequences (SNPs and microsatellites) sampled across different geographic regions is necessarily contingent on a preconceived notion of race — because researchers indicate beforehand the number of genomic clusters into which the data should be grouped! In other words, garbage in —> garbage out. And that is all to say nothing of (1) which populations researchers select to sample, (2) the researchers’ sampling methods, and (3) the vast inconsistencies and ambiguities in attempting to turn a social category into a biological one.

I particularly enjoyed chapter 5 “The Allure of Race in Biomedical Research,” in which Roberts challenges the misdirected efforts by minority- and women-led campaigns to include more “diverse” groups in certain research pools. "Claims about justice in scientific research has shifted from protecting socially disadvantaged subjects from unethical practices toward promoting access to clinical trials and biomedical products." She comes from a place of empathy, citing her own loss of connection to her home country of Jamaica. But ultimately, she holds that calling for the inclusion of haplotypes from diverse racial groups in reference databases of genealogy companies can further a paradigm of difference and contribute to racial essentialism. Solidarity, she argues, arises not from a probabilistic result from a genetic test, but a common political struggle against racial oppression.

I noticed many instances in which Roberts would meet personally with scientists and researchers to understand how they were using race in their studies and their motivations for doing so. Often, the well-intentioned person she was interviewing would state that they are not letting racial prejudice influence their research; rather, they are using race the proper way as an objective category. She would then go on to expand on their reasoning, showing that she cared enough to consider each argument carefully before she would proceed to pour kerosene on their false premises with her characteristically polemical tone.

Nearing 10 years old, Fatal Invention was both highly pertinent to its time and prescient of a bleak future yet to come (see Part 4 “The New Biopolitics of Race”). But it does not have to be this way. If we heed its calls to affirm our shared humanity and reject the obsession with using technoscience breakthroughs to address gaping structural problems, we can make a real dent in social inequality.

The one line that made it all click for me was “Race is the product of racism; racism is not the product of race." If you do not fully grasp what she means by this, or if there was ever a point in your life where you have thought race as a biological concept (me until late teen years at the earliest), then I wholeheartedly recommend this book.


Related books
Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life
Race, Monogamy, and Other Lies They Told You: Busting Myths about Human Nature
Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology and Human Nature
The Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease
When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress

For people in medicine, also see
https://www.instituteforhealingandjus... (IHJ has working groups that meet monthly, centering around removing race from eGFR and ASCVD calculations.)
Profile Image for Lisa.
314 reviews21 followers
March 31, 2013
One of those times I wish GoodReads allowed half stars, as I teetered back and forth between 3 and 4 for a long time. In the end I went with three, mostly because some chapters felt repetitive. Perhaps that's the nature of a book like this, but when it gets to the point that I'm tempted to skip the rest of a chapter because I feel like I already read it, it's a bit too much. But Roberts makes several excellent points, primarily that we are still too quick to try to base race on biology when it's increasingly clear that what we call race is a pernicious socioeconomic construct that we're still trying to justify. I will certainly be taking future headlines regarding 'scientific studies' as applied to race with a very large shaker of salt, as I had not realized that researchers (some with a profit motive) were playing so fast and loose with the data.
Profile Image for Danielle.
44 reviews5 followers
September 14, 2020
~4.5/5. There's no arguing that this is an extremely important book that I want to put in the hands of everyone I meet. I did however find the book difficult to follow at times and I fear that someone who isn't committed to finishing it will give up near the beginning during very surface explanations of DNA and alleles that lead into detailed ideas.

That being said, this is an excellent book and 100% worth the read. I thought I was pretty educated on social and racial issues but within the first 30 pages I had already learned so much and had to re-evaluate my own definition of race. There are no easy solutions to the issues going on in the U.S. today and it's quite disheartening to see how things (at least from my perception) haven't improved in the 9 years since the book was published. This book does not tell us how to fix all the racism in the world, but it does equip readers with an improved framework from which to start. The biggest thing I will take away from this book is the difference between the political/social definition of race and the biological/genetic "definition" of race (not really a spoiler: it's *not* the same thing)
Profile Image for Sabrina.
289 reviews351 followers
January 22, 2021
This is an extremely informative and challenging read. I think my major misstep with it was choosing to listen to it on audio. I felt like I was being hit with a tidal wave of information, and was trying to absorb as much as I could as I listened, but I know some of it washed over me. This is the kind of book I wish I had read with pen in hand, really engaging with the test. Instead, I listened to it on audio. I found the narration to be choppy, with a strange emphasis on certain words, or odd pauses in sentences. It was somewhat jarring.

I do appreciate what I was able to get out of this book, which is essentially an argument that race is a political category, subject to change at any time, with no biological precedent. The view of race as an unchangeable category is naive and harmful, leading to disproportionate medical treatment and dangerous assumptions based on the color of someone's skin. It also provides ammunition for why companies like 23 and Me are extremely dangerous and not based in real science. You cannot find out what your race is through a cheek swab, and that data is something that those companies will likely make accessible to law enforcement and government agencies. I learned a lot from this book and will not forget what I learned from it anytime soon. I also think it would be worth revisiting in print.
Profile Image for Alan Daniel.
42 reviews
October 6, 2020
Written from the point of view of a racist black that was raised to hate, and later in life, had that hate inflamed by radical thinkers. I do not agree that the black persons point of view is extra special and no other race can understand blacks and what “has been done to them.” As far as I know slavery does not exist now and has not existed here for over 100 years, that’s five generations. The idea that America just recreates slavery in other ways through culture is hogwash.

Have you been branded with a number? Are you literally in chains waiting to be tossed in a furnace? Do you think for one minute this Nazis would have let one black person live had they won? And you compare America to such evil?

The book pushes a sick ideology of history and America, and it does this with an avalanche of lies.
Profile Image for Andrea.
13 reviews
November 23, 2018
As a medical professional, I think this book should be a required text for those in medicine and scientific research. I’m glad I have had some background reading in similar type texts and podcasts, as it made absorbing and understanding all the research a little easier, but it brings to light a number of essential challenges to the conflation of genes, ancestry, and race that happens regularly even in scientific and medical professionals.
31 reviews1 follower
July 29, 2019
Outstanding resource

This book is incredibly well researched. A tremendous amount of referenced information is presented is a cogent manner. Super great read and so so important in our world.
Profile Image for Ali.
1,256 reviews102 followers
April 6, 2015
For anyone interested in what genetics has to say about who we are, and how we work, this is an extremely important book. With barely concealed frustration, Roberts lays out the ways that our social construction of race combines with the cost-cutting and shortcut-taking to lead to a new enthusiasm for categorising humans into white, black, red and yellow, and pretending this is a biological, rather than a social, set of categories.
Roberts' writing has just the right balance of scientific information, context and the ever-so-occasional anecdote to make a compelling and easily understandable case, which travels from race-based medicine and big pharma marketing, through the increasing racial bias of DNA testing techniques, and the attempts to put racial overlay on ancestry testing. She has interviewed a wide range of participants, and covers various voices on the debates, while never losing a polemical and outraged edge and tone.
There is much to be furious about. Not only the distortion (and dumbing down!) of some of the most exciting science around now, but more fundamentally, our society's refusal to tackle racial inequality at the cause, and constant preference to find explanations rooted in biological or other explanations not rooted in who we are and what we do to each other.
I couldn't give the book five stars (such a silly concept anyway) in the end, just because at times in the latter chapters Roberts fury at the way the technology is used moved into argument that the technologies of genetic testing were inevitably racist, conclusions which felt on much shakier ground, and her conclusions consisted more of boycotting the technologies than establishing how they might be safely used. I would have been very interested in more discussions about how individual genome sequencing (instead of race-based typing) can be used for medical treatment, and how ancestry tracing might be improved and freed from the race-paradigm, to benefit the many peoples who have been forcibly separated from their homelands. Even a discussion about whether DNA testing has a role in crime detection without providing racial distortion would be welcome.
This was perhaps most present during the sections on ancestry testing, where a lot of the problems stem from the uncertain and unknown, being then shoved into a preset racial framework. My particular interest in paleogenetics, and the use of DNA to understand our history better, so I'm almost certainly biased, but as these techniques get better, and the sample sizes get larger, the ability to distort ancestral patterns into archaic ideas of race will diminish - even as I'll concede that people's ability to draw racist conclusions will not (Nicholas Wade's latest book is evidence for that, although it is based on outright distortion of the science, driven by deep-seated beliefs of racial 'difference').
The sharpest point that is driven home, is that we use technology in the society, and shaped by the society, that we live in. So while we have a racist police system, all methods of crime detection will reflect that racism (one of the most challenging parts of the book was realising the short window in which DNA testing worked against racism, by exonerating unjust convictions. That relied, however, on cases built with disregard to DNA - these days police build the techniques in, and in doing so, reflect their own biases). While our hospital and health systems are plagued with racist ideas - ideas which facilitate cost-cutting for services in black areas - the science used will reflect that. So changing or using these technologies safely isn't possible without changing the framework, which wasn't really in the scope of the book.
I can also hear Roberts' frustrated response to someone wondering how to utalise DNA tests for the better - that it is all a distraction from looking at the things we know about racial health disparity - that poverty, stress and being subject to abuse, polluted neighbourhoods and unsafe working conditions are the things we could fix, all before we go looking at our genes for answers.
Profile Image for Becca.
294 reviews26 followers
September 18, 2020
Dorothy Roberts is just brilliant. I need more people to read her so we can talk about her work. Years ago I read Killing the Black Body, and it really challenged my understanding of how racism and classism are used to portray certain women as inherently unfit for and undeserving of motherhood. Fatal Invention is both very different and not at all.

Here Roberts shows how some scientists grasp at straws to “prove” there are biological differences between socially constructed races. In the 21st Century, genomic science in particular has been used to separate humans into biological races, despite the Human Genome Project finding far more genetic variation within races than between races.

Billions are funneled into research that simultaneously 1) desperately hunts for and 2) assumes as incontrovertible truth, genetic differences between races. Instead of helping vulnerable communities access clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and well-funded schools and hospitals, institutional problems are explained away at the molecular level. Genes become a facade for racist policies to hide behind in a supposedly colorblind, postracial society.

Defining race as biological/genetic instead of social/political absolves the state of responsibility to confront racial gaps in housing, education, employment, and healthcare. During a pandemic with racial disparities, this is an especially vital topic. But really, it’s hard to summarize this book. Roberts covers a ton of ground. Her arguments are nuanced and layered. It can get dense, but I find her writing beautiful.

It’ll be interesting to see how Fatal Invention compares to Medical Apartheid, which I’ve been putting off because I’m squeamish and scared. For another book about how science is used to justify social hierarchies and their troubling outcomes, try Delusions of Gender.
Profile Image for Meghan.
Author 1 book9 followers
July 29, 2016
While I agree with many of the arguments presented in this book, I don't feel they are presented as clearly or persuasively as necessary. Definitely as the book progresses, the arguments become clearer, but I found the first section hard to follow with parts unclear.
Profile Image for Chloe.
269 reviews4 followers
June 20, 2021
While this is an extremely important and relevant book, I think my pea brain absorbed maybe 50% of it. My bad for trying to read it via audiobook.

The overall concept is critical and kind of mind blowing as Roberts hashes out the many ways that race is entirely socially constructed as opposed to biologically. Though I had already been exposed to this concept via some university classes, it was interesting to see it broken down so clearly and thoroughly. Lots of really informative and detailed content here.

For me at least, this book's level of detail is also its downfall. In other words, the writing is DENSE and difficult to get through. The key concepts stayed with me, but a lot of the time I felt myself zoning out and missing whole chunks of the book.

Ultimately, very glad that I gave it a read despite the struggle to get through. Reminded me of being back at college and reading Roberts' other book, Killing the Black Body (which I'd highly recommend btw! Felt more accessible and continually blew my mind). A solid 3.5 stars: important book, but a difficult one, in all senses of the word.
30 reviews6 followers
December 12, 2020
She makes a compelling case about how the medical establishment uses race inaccurately, further arguing that not only is the use of race as a proxy for genetics bad science, it's also harmful. Many of her arguments are well articulated; for example, she describes a doctor who keeps researching genetic explanations for why poor, urban children of color are more likely to develop asthma, instead of examining the obvious, which is that poor, children are more likely exposed to environmental toxins resulting in the development of asthma. However, she also has plenty of arguments that fall flat and ultimately do a disservice to her thesis. For example, she tells a case of a Black child with cystic fibrosis, which is taught to be a white disease, and how doctors failed to consider this diagnosis because of his race. She then argues that this is proof that using race when triaging diagnosis leads to and cost ineffective care. But anecdote is not data, and she draws far larger conclusions than can be possible after describing a single case. I found it easy to poke holes in many of her arguments, though ultimately she has a very strong thesis.
Profile Image for Margaret Adams.
Author 8 books18 followers
November 20, 2017
A thorough, dense book on the myth of biologic race (a myth very much alive in contemporary medical education). "Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one. [. . .] there are no biological races in the human species. Period. That conclusion was confirmed by the most ambitious research project on human biology yet undertaken, the Human Genome Project." Roberts reviews a lot of history I'd never heard before, then tackles many of the myths of 'biologic race' that I've heard too many times, from sickle cell anemia as a black genetic disease (a misconception first popularized in the early twentieth century and still taught today, despite the fact that people from central Greece are more likely to have sickle cell than African Americans), to different medicines being more effective in different [socially constructed] groups of people.
Profile Image for Rachel Lee.
37 reviews1 follower
January 2, 2021
So thankful that Ms. Robert was so thorough in her research for this book. She guides us through the US’s history of defining race in scientific forms in order to subjugate black and brown people. It makes me feel more equipped to face potential healthcare challenges; I have a better sense of what questions to ask providers and how to best advocate for myself. At its best, science is extremely helpful, but it seems that scientists have become obsessed with finding something that just doesn’t exist when it comes to explaining differences in our genes due to race. Hopefully we do take the more humanistic approach and close all gaps that lead to gross health disparities.
Profile Image for Nina Keller.
140 reviews1 follower
December 14, 2021
The crux of this book is that race is a social category (made up and perpetuated by people) and not a scientific one(with any genetic basis or implications). Bad science has cited previous bad science to perpetuate the unscientific idea that correlations of health problems and black communities have a genetic basis. The truth is that government policy based on social categories have long imposed conditions for illness and many stereotypes.

Very well researched, simple in its truth, convincing.
Profile Image for Cass.
132 reviews21 followers
December 20, 2021
Alright, I’ve been reading this book for the better part of a year now, and I FINALLY finished. But don’t let how long it took me to read distract from the content. This is a fascinating and, in my opinion, wildly persuasive, discussion on the intersections of race, medicine, science, and politics. I was privileged enough to take a course taught by Professor Roberts in law school, and I will read anything this woman writes.
98 reviews
January 29, 2021
After making it through Parts 1-3 I couldn't spend the time to finish Part 4. This book could easily have been half the length. My frustration about how repetitive it was kept me from taking in the better points.
31 reviews1 follower
May 30, 2021
Could benefit from more explicit and sustained engagement with feminist science studies (eg Haraway) re ontology/semiotics, scientific objectivity, biology/culture, etc.
Profile Image for Chelsie.
37 reviews
May 24, 2022
Pretty eye opening. She lost my interest in the middle. I feel like she tried to delve to deeply into the issues she wanted to discuss. She could have written a book on each topic.
Profile Image for Montana Goodman.
162 reviews9 followers
June 14, 2022
This book is chock full of relevant info despite it being over ten years since its publication; but if there’s one thing I learned from the author it’s that biological race and social race are two different things. Biological race does not exist! And social race does.
Profile Image for Carrie.
18 reviews
February 5, 2023
While I sometimes (minimally) didn’t agree with the author, I thought the arguments were well presented and thoroughly researched. I gained immense insight from the book.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
933 reviews94 followers
August 17, 2020
"Yes, human beings are remarkably similar at the genetic level. But what should link us together is not our genetic unity; we should be bound by a common struggle for the equal dignity of all of humankind. 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. Race is not a biological category that is politically charged. It is a political category that has been disguised as a biological one.

For one thing, blacks in former slave societies like the West Indies do not have the high hypertension rates of blacks living in the United States. Remember, the issue is not whether genes affect health—of course they do—but whether genetic difference explains racial disparities in health.

If you approached health disparities with a completely open mind, with no preconceived assumption that racial differences must be genetic, it would make perfect sense that social groups that have been systematically deprived for centuries have worse health than social groups that have been systematically privileged.

Just wow, an amazing epic feat of scholarship around genetics from a non medical person, and kind of dense and hard to digest. It is an older book, and I would be interested in the current state, but the author schools genetics like there is no tomorrow. It is a 4 due to difficulty, but a 20 for real. This affects my professional life in profound ways, but I have to say I did not get the illumination sought; I am not a scholar enough to know where we go from here, where the medical profession should go. Is it implicit bias or not, since that doesn't seem to have helped to train people in it? Is it 50 years of inaccurate studies that mean nothing and researchers have to go back to the drawing board? If we don't label people, we can't spend money on researching how to stop African American women from dying in pregnancy more than white women. If DNA testing is so faulty, but it has exonerated innocent people, how can we be better?

I think what I most absorbed from her book of amazing, meticulously researched information, is that we are a smart people, we as in human beings, and maybe, just maybe, the humans that identify as white can get on board and do the better thing, invent it, make it happen with all the attention now being devoted to it.

For a start, human beings do not fit the zoological definition of race. 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. These racial reclassifications did not occur in response to scientific advances in human biology, but in response to sociopolitical imperatives. They reveal that what is being defined, organized, and interpreted is a political relationship and not an innate classification.

But more significant than the numerical shift from white to black exploitation was a monumental legislative effort to differentiate the status of blacks and whites. As officials split white indenture from black enslavement and established “white,” “Negro,” and “Indian” as distinct legal categories, race was literally manufactured by law.

There is no biological test for whiteness. White means belonging to the group of people who are entitled to claim white privilege.

While race is not imaginary—it is a very real way our society categorizes people—its intrinsic origin in biology is. Race is not an illusion. Rather, the belief in intrinsic racial difference is a delusion.

At the end of the nineteenth century, American anthropologists, anatomists, and statisticians eagerly embraced the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest to explain the slaughter of American Indians and forced regression of blacks to a servant class.

African populations vary the most because most of human genetic diversity evolved in Africa, and groups living there had more time to accumulate genetic differences. The person from the Congo, a person from South Africa, and a person from Ethiopia are more genetically different from each other than from a person from France. It turns out that the genes contributing to these phenotypic differences represent a minute and relatively insignificant fraction of our genotypes and do not reflect the total picture of genetic variation among groups.

One wonders how genetic scientists using widely varying, inconsistent, arbitrary, and ambiguous definitions of racial categories can possibly rely on or replicate the results from studies dependent on such classifications (or get them published in respectable journals). Published reports of biomedical and genetic studies rarely describe how race was determined or the rationale for analyzing the data on the basis of race. The public and major media outlets assume that researchers claiming to show racial disparities at the genetic level must have used rigorous scientific methods to define racial classifications, identify the race of research subjects, and group them with others in the same category. Nothing could be further from the truth.

This is why Ashley Montagu called race “the witchcraft of our time.” In 1942, he wrote, “It is the contemporary myth. Man’s most dangerous myth.” Science has been responsible for giving racial folklore its superficial plausibility by updating its definitions, measurements, and rationales without changing what the tale is about: once upon a time human beings all over the world were divided into large biological groups called races.

Recent immigrants from Latin America tend to be in better health than white Americans, despite having higher rates of poverty and less access to health care—a curiosity known as the “Hispanic Paradox.” But their health advantage disappears in the generation born in the United States.

Imagine if every single day a jumbo jet loaded with 230 African American passengers took off into the sky, reached a cruising altitude, then crashed to the ground, killing all aboard. According to former surgeon general David Satcher, this is exactly the impact caused by racial health disparities in the United States. Between 1940 and 1999, more than 4 million African Americans died prematurely relative to whites. In Chicago, there is a difference of sixteen years between the white neighborhood with the highest life expectancy and the black neighborhood with the lowest.

More than one hundred studies now document the adverse effects of racial discrimination on health.30 Three of the main biology-related pathways embodiment researchers have identified are: chronic exposure to stress, segregation in unhealthy neighborhoods, and transmission of harms from one generation to the next through the fetal environment. When stress is relentless and the stress response, known as the allostatic load, stays on. People who experience repeated exposure to stress have constantly high levels of cortisol in their bloodstreams.
Epigenetic influences on children’s health may have fooled some scientists into seeing genetic causes for health disparities that do not exist. Epigenetics may masquerade as genetic difference, but its biological effects stem from the environment, not mutations of the genetic code.

The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world at a magnitude unprecedented in the history of Western democracies. The gap between black and white incarceration rates has increased along with rising inmate numbers. Black men are eight times as likely as white men to be behind bars. One in nine black men aged twenty to thirty-four is in prison or jail. Mass incarceration is a mischaracterization of what is better termed “hyperincarceration” because it targets men of color.

Consider a 2005 study by Princeton sociologists Devah Pager and Bruce Western finding that whites just released from prison fared better in the New York City job market than blacks with identical résumés but no criminal record. This stark racial bias in employment puts into practice the racist notion that blacks are meant to labor in prisons and not in decent jobs. Myths of black criminality are so embedded in the white psyche that it seems perfectly natural to many Americans that blacks are disproportionately stopped for traffic infractions, arrested for drug offenses, swept off the streets for “gang loitering,” and sent to prison. The public, who already implicitly associates blacks with violence, may link together research claiming that genes cause gangbanging and aggression to the disproportionate incarceration of African Americans and the banking of their genetic profiles to reach the false conclusion that blacks are more likely to possess these crimeproducing traits.

Racial minorities have fallen behind whites on every measure, the theory goes, as a result of their own failings, which make them unable to compete with whites in purportedly fair social, political, and economic arenas. Color-blind ideology posits that because racism no longer impedes minority progress, there is no need for social policies to account for race.

Is it so bad if we hold a variety of views about the meaning of race—some seeing it as a biological category, others as a social construct—as long as everyone rejects the view that one race is superior to others? Yes, race as a natural division between human beings that is written in our genes will have devastating political consequences. The unquestioned use of race as an organizing principle for research has hindered scientific progress. I contend that, instead of hamstringing scientists, a focus on both human genetic diversity and its commonality, freed from false and antiquated notions of biological race, would liberate them.By obscuring this coercive control over poor communities of color, the new racial biopolitics permits the growth of a state authoritarianism and a corporatized definition of citizenship that endangers the democratic freedoms of all Americans.
Profile Image for Jason Li.
24 reviews105 followers
March 1, 2022
i expected to read just the first chapter but was ! enraptured !

essential reading from the inimitable Dr. Dorothy Roberts
8 reviews7 followers
August 5, 2019
Highly recommend this book for anyone in health fields. Meticulously documents and then debunks modern attempts at biologizing race, especially with genomics. I learned a lot from this book.
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