Dorothy E. Roberts (born March 8, 1956 in Chicago, Illinois) is an American scholar, public intellectual, and social justice advocate. She writes and lectures on gender, race, and class in legal issues. Her concerns include changing thinking and policy on reproductive health, child welfare and bioethics.
Dorothy E. Roberts
March 8, 1956
Roberts is Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, George A. Weiss University Professor, and the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights at University of Pennsylvania. She holds appointments there in the Law School and Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology. Her books include Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Random House/Pantheon, 1997) where she describes the use of Norplant and other contraceptives in population control, and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books/Civitas, 2002), as well as six co-edited works on constitutional law and gender. She has also published over 80 articles and essays in books and scholarly journals, including Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, and Stanford Law Review. Her latest book, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century, was published by the New Press in July 2011.
Roberts received her Bachelor of Arts from Yale University and her Doctor of Jurisprudence from Harvard Law School. She has been a professor at Rutgers and Northwestern University, a visiting professor at Stanford and Fordham, and a fellow at Harvard University's Program in Ethics and the Professions, Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the Fulbright Program. She serves as chair of the board of directors of the Black Women's Health Imperative, on the board of directors of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, and on the advisory boards of the Center for Genetics and Society and Family Defense Center. She also serves on a national panel that is overseeing foster care reform in Washington State and on the Standards Working Group of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (stem cell research). She recently received awards from the National Science Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the 2010 Dorothy Ann and Clarence L. Ver Steeg Distinguished Research Fellowship.
Roberts has published more than fifty articles and essays in books, scholarly journals, newspapers, and magazines, including Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, University of Chicago Law Review, Social Text, and The New York Times. She has written Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Civitas Books, 2002) and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Pantheon, 1997), in which she purports to give "a powerful and authoritative account of the on-going assault—both figurative and literal—waged by the American government and our society on the reproductive rights of Black women." and was the co-author of casebooks on constitutional law and women and the law. Killing the Black Body received a 1998 Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America.
Her article, "Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality, and the Right of Privacy" (Harvard Law Review, 1991), has been widely cited. Fatal Invention (The New Press, 2011) argues that America is once again on the brink of classifying population by race.
She was also a blogger at blackprof.com.
Roberts has delivered several endowed lectures, including the James Thomas Lecture at Yale Law School. She was elected twice by the Rutgers University School of Law graduating class to be faculty graduation speaker, and was voted outstanding first-year course professor by the Northwestern University School of Law class of 2000. She received the Radcliffe University Graduate Society Medal in June 1998. Her current projects concern race and child welfare policy.
In 2002–03, she was a Fulbright Scholar at the Centre for Gender and Development Studies, University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago, where she conducted research on family planning policy and on gender, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean. She is currently conducting research on the significance of the spatial concentration of state supervision of children in African American communities and on the use of race in biomedical research and biotechnology.
Roberts is featured in the documentary film, Silent Choices, about abortion and reproductive rights from the perspective of African Americans. Roberts also served as an advisor to the film.
Roberts has drawn parallels between what she sees as current U.S. "imperialism" and white supremacy. She has asserted that U.S. torture of terrorist suspects is a tool to maintain supremacy just as violence has been used to maintain white supremacy, and has compared the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison to racist lynchings of blacks.
Throughout the years, Roberts has explored topics such as race, reproduction, and motherhood in her scholarship. Additionally, through her writings she has taken her analysis a step further to examine the interconnectivity of these issues, specifically in regards to the experiences of black women.
Roberts explores the dangers of the continued research of race in the science and medical fields in her book Fatal Invention. In this book Roberts asserts that genomic science and biotechnology is reinforcing the concept of race as a biological category. She cautions the continued research of race at a molecular level which is being used to hide current racism in the country and continues a racial division by justifying racial differences. Roberts mentions that even after the Human Genome Project proved that race could not be identified in our genes, there is still an interest in race-based genetic variation in medicine. Roberts points out the paradoxical nature of this continued interest as Americans continue to ignore the crushing effects of health disparities and racial inequalities in society.Roberts suggests that when doing research on individuals instead of framing the question as how does it affect different racial groups the question should be framed as how does it affect human beings.
At the beginning of the book, Roberts reviews the history of the invention of race. She argues that race is not just a social construct, it is also politically charged and has been disguised as a biological category to justify racial injustice. Roberts writes, “the problem with this interpretation of race as a social construction is that it ignores its political – and not biological – origin. The very step of creating race, dividing human beings into these categories is a political practice”. She wants to move beyond race just being a social construction and begins her analysis by explaining the political origins of race and how it was utilized for economic means. The purpose of recounting the history is to emphasize that racial categories are not natural, but that they were created. 
Roberts along with Rhoda Reddock, Sandra Reid and Dianna Douglass study the outbreak of HIV in the Caribbean in Sex, Power, And Taboo: Gender and HIV in the Caribbean and Beyond. Using an interdisciplinary view, the authors research how different factors like gender, norms, and power affect HIV. Gender is emphasized in order to better understand the outbreak of HIV because the authors believe gender impacts sexuality. Roberts, Reddock, Reid and Douglass argue that by looking at HIV through these different lens people will be able to create programs to end the spread of HIV. Sexuality and gender is also explored in order to be used to end HIV and AIDS epidemic through academics, public health and policy professions.
Sex, Power and Taboo incorporates the research presented at a conference at the University of the West Indies with the theme of gender, sexuality and HIV. The authors for this book come from different parts of the world and from different types of academic fields. The authors in this book attempts to shape gender and sexuality in the Caribbean in a different view from the perspective of the Global North.
Roberts gives a Ted X talk titled "The Problem with Race Based Medicine" which was posted online on February 2016. In this TedX talk Roberts addresses the practice of race based medicine and finds it hurtful to patients. Roberts uses her own observations and talks with medical professionals to conclude that race is used to prescribe, treat, and diagnose patients. The use of race in the medical field is used as a shortcut and as a result can become a distraction by relying on a social construction in order to make biological determinant. Roberts gives an example of a medical test, GFR (glomerular filtration rate), that takes race into account when testing patients. Another problem that Roberts brings up with race medicine is that it relies on bias and stereotypes that can negatively affect patients and cites the example of the stereotype that people of color can handle more pain. This negative stereotype that people of color can handle more pain can lead to patients not receiving the medication they need. Roberts says that race medicine can contribute to social inequality by continuing the racial discrimination.
In her piece "Racism and the Patriarchy in the Meaning of Motherhood," Roberts offers insight into the intersecting roles of racism and patriarchy and their deep effects on motherhood for black women in society. Roberts opens the article, broadly discussing an explanation of how women differ in their gendered experiences based on their race, as the intersectional oppression that black women face varies than their white counterparts. She then delves into the impact of racism and the patriarchy, their complex relationship to each other, and argues that racism and patriarchy cannot be separated in their impact on the lives of black women, specifically in regards to how they feel about motherhood and how society perceives black mothers. She explains that there are shared experiences amongst all mothers, but that raising black children in a racist, patriarchal society poses its own pain and struggle. Roberts argues that the social construction of motherhood, which was made by those in power, leads to the stigmatization of mothers who do not fit this mold. Roberts article goes on to outline a brief history of black mothers experience dating back to slavery, through the 19th-century "Cult of Domesticity", and into modern-day discourse surrounding poverty. Roberts concludes with a call to understand the interplay of racism, sexism, patriarchy, and how ending racism is a necessary step in the feminist fight to end sexism.
In her piece "Race and the New Reproduction," Dorothy E. Roberts outlines scientific developments regarding reproduction, more specifically focusing on in vitro fertilization or IVF as well as surrogate/contract pregnancies. Roberts notes that many feel that advancements in the field of reproduction work to provide new technologies that are beneficial to those desiring to become parents. Roberts argues that while these new advancements in reproductive technologies offer individuals who are shut out of reproducing without the aid of reproductive technology the opportunity to have children, they still ultimately conform to societal norms that are annexed onto family. Her evidence outlines that the majority of individuals who use and benefit from IVF or other forms of reproductive technologies tend to be heterosexual couples due to social, racial, cultural, economic, as well as legal implications. She argues then that the idea of the nuclear family consisting of a mother, father, and children remains intact due to who is accessing these resources. Roberts uses a feminist perspective to argue that patriarchal norms are invoked with new forms of reproductive technology, as married men strongly benefit from these practices, and that they continue to play into a hierarchy system in the United States that is categorized by race. Roberts finds that IVF is predominately used by white individuals and that legal cases and stories surrounding the mistaken use of sperm or eggs from black donors in IVF treatments are often highly sensationalized in the media. She notes that black individual’s lack of access to reproductive technologies is a reflection of issue of their lack of access to healthcare more generally. She additionally notes that sometimes black individual’s cultural norms, which stress the importance and significance of familial blood ties, which she argues is linked to a history of slavery and patriarchy, become barriers to accessing these types of technologies. Roberts concludes by noting the serious racial disparities that exist between black and white individuals in their efforts to use these reproductive technologies.