Book Discussion: Fatal Invention by Dorothy Roberts

Hello there! It has been a while since I’ve written a book discussion post (or a post at all…), so I wanted to share with you some thoughts on a very interesting and informative book I’ve been reading—Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century, by Dorothy Roberts.

You can purchase the book here and here, among other places online.

The Overall Theme

“Race applied to human beings is as political division: it is a system of governing people that classifies them into a social hierarchy based on invented biological demarcations.”- Dorothy Roberts, Fatal Invention

In this book, Dorothy Roberts deconstructs ideas of race as a biological truth and explains how race has been created and evolved overtime to fit political and social agendas, especially white supremacy. She also describes the ways in which beliefs of biological race are still prevalent in U.S. American society, and how these ideas perpetuate inequality.

Fatal Invention deconstructs ideas of race as a biological truth and explores how these ideas affect modern life in the U.S. (Photo by Chokniti Khongchum on Pexels.com) Photo description: Metallic microscope set illuminates a glass slide.

DNA, Geography, and Race: Everything is Not as It Seems

The rise in popularity of at-home DNA testing kits has encouraged the idea that humans can easily be separated into racial categories, or that we are each defined by what percentage of each race we are. For example, an ancestry DNA test may categorize a person as something like “40% Northern European, 32% Sub-Saharan African, 12% Native American, 10% Southern European, and 6% East Asian,” depending on the company and the geographic groupings they use.

But the science behind the geographic ancestry of DNA is not as simple, or as scientific, as it may seem.

As Roberts explains, many scientists working to sort genes into geographically specific regions likely begin their work with social ideas of racial categories already in mind. In Chapter 3, Roberts examines a well-known study led by Noah Rosenburg, which concluded that human DNA could be clearly sorted into “‘six main genetic clusters, five of which correspond to major geographic regions.’” Upon closer examination, the “distinctions between populations were so miniscule that it took a highly advanced statistical computing program surveying many accumulated differences to make reliable guesses about the geographic origin of the people sampled.” (Roberts)

The link between race, DNA, ancestry, and geography is not as simple as we may believe. (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com) Description of image: Glowing world-map globe with a dark background

In addition, many genetic studies fail to consider regions of the world where people do not easily represent our pre-conceived notions of race. As Roberts states, “geographic areas with high levels of intermixture—North Africa, Spain, the Middle East, and the Balkans, for example—are rarely included in genomic studies.”

And of course, concepts like language, traditions, and beliefs are not coded into a person’s DNA. A few years ago, I remember seeing a TV commercial for an ancestral DNA testing service. The commercial features a woman who finds out for the first time that she is some percent Navajo, and as a result, starts a collection of traditional Navajo pottery pieces. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to learn about your ancestors and your heritage, but this commercial comes uncomfortably close to drawing a false connection between DNA, culture, and race. Culture is real and important, but it doesn’t come from the sequence of one’s genes or the color of one’s skin. Such assumptions can be at best, silly, and at worst, dangerous. It is beliefs like this that have often allowed harmful stereotypes about people of color to be used as justification for violence and oppression.

Other Topics in Fatal Invention

Other topics covered in Roberts’ book include medical stereotyping, the use of genetic surveillance in government and in crime investigations, and how ideas of race are used on the U.S. American political stage. The book is deep and comprehensive—I still haven’t finished reading and absorbing all the content.

Overall, Roberts makes the argument that we should challenge biological notions of race, not only because of their lack of scientific validity, but because of the dangerous ways of thinking that these notions encourage.

So, Race is a Social Construct…What Now?

I’ve written about this in a few of my other blog posts, but I feel this fact can’t be overstated:

Just because race is a social construct, does NOT mean it is not real.

Race is real because society, especially white society, has made it real. A person’s racial identity, both the way they identify and the way society identifies them, has a real impact on their life. Roberts’ book proves this fact in the way that it describes how race is used to divide and discriminate against people of color.  

Ideas of race and identity are complex. Many white Americans (including myself) are still learning about all the ways that a culture of white supremacy has harmed and continues to harm people of color. It is important to recognize that race is not based in biological fact, but also that race has shaped our society at its core. This is one way we can start to move towards a more equitable society.

Roberts says it best when she asks, “Will Americans continue to believe the myth that human beings are naturally divided into races and look to genomic science and technology to deal with persistent social inequalities? Or will they affirm our shared humanity by working to end the social injustices preserved by the political system of race?”

The phrase “shared humanity” keeps ringing in my ears. Because that is what the fight for social justice is truly about.

Let’s work together in our shared humanity. (Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash) Photo description: multi-colored paint splattered artwork with the word “together” in the center

Further reading/watching on this topic:

Race is Real, But It’s Not Genetic by Alan Goodman (Sapiens.org)

What are the consequences of stereotypes? (Hope College Blog Network)

The Dangerous Law of Biological Race (excerpt) by Khiara M. Bridges (Race, Racism and the Law)

5 Dangerous Things About Scientific Racism by Steve Shives (YouTube)

Genes, Race, and Culture in Clinical Care by Hunt, Truesdell, and Kreiner (NCBI)

The problem with race-based medicine (Dorothy Roberts’ TED talk)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s