Dorothy Roberts urges students across disciplines to combat racism

The acclaimed scholar of race, gender and law presented the 2019 Fran G. & Jean M. Chesley Lecture in Sociology and Anthropology on Tuesday, Oct. 1

Greta Hardy-Mittell '23 Oct. 11, 2019

Every year, Carleton brings outstanding academics to campus for public talks, class visits, and meetings with faculty and students through the Chesley Lectureship program. This fall, the Sociology/Anthropology department chose to invite Dorothy Roberts, scholar of Africana Studies, sociology, and law at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dorothy RobertsAll three of Roberts’ books span these disciplines and others: “Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century;” “Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare;” and “Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty.” She holds the Penn Integrates Knowledge Professorship, which enables her to teach in all three departments, as well.

At a lunch with SOAN students on Oct. 1, Roberts discussed the importance of such interdisciplinary work. She cited her background as an undergraduate anthropology major at Yale who decided to pursue law school to follow a career in social justice, before returning to academia as a professor, realizing that her path was “advocacy through scholarship.” She began as a law professor, but cited social science as a constant influence in her career: “as an interdisciplinary scholar, [I] seek out opportunities for collaboration and integration.”

Indeed, Professor Liz Raleigh, chair of Carleton’s SOAN department, chose to invite Roberts in part because she knew that her work would be “applicable to a wider cross-section of the college.”

Raleigh was right. Roberts’ lecture that evening, entitled “Race, Science, and Justice,” sat squarely at the intersection between sociology, biology and history. She argued that race has defined science ever since it was used to justify slavery, and, even though it is now widely acknowledged to be a social construct rather than a genetic category, it still does today. She cited biomedical research that still tries to isolate race from all sociopolitical factors and use it “as a surrogate for genetic markers,” despite the known fact that race does not have a basis in genetics. She then urged students to denounce this so-called “scientific” view of race.

In a Q&A with Raleigh’s SOAN classes the following day, Roberts emphasized that the first step to doing so in any study—sociological, biological or otherwise—is to acknowledge that “race is not the risk factor; racism is the risk factor.” Only starting here can anyone work to “end structural inequalities preserved by the political system of race.”

Such work, like Roberts, knows no disciplinary boundaries.

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