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Prof. Dorothy Roberts traces the history of race and the regulation of Black women’s bodies in chapter for The 1619 Project

March 24, 2022

Roberts is an acclaimed scholar of race, gender, and the law, and is the founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science & Society in the Center for Africana Studies.

Dorothy E. Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights, recently published “Race,” a chapter in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, “a dramatic expansion of a groundbreaking work of journalism” created by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones for The New York Times Magazine in 2020. The award-winning project “reframed our understanding of American history by placing slavery and its continuing legacy at the center of our national narrative.”

Roberts got involved in the production of the book when Hannah-Jones reached out to her to write a chapter on the invention of race as a social and political hierarchy that supported slavery. As Roberts started writing, she said in an interview, she realized that integral to that discussion was the “regulation of Black women’s bodies, and especially their childbearing.”

“[This regulation] played such a central role in the justification for slavery and the way in which it operated,” said Roberts, “that we continue to see its reverberations through to the present day, particularly in the way we think about reproductive justice.”

Roberts’ chapter intertwines the subjects of two of Roberts’ seminal works, Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-Create Race in the Twenty-First Century and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty. Roberts begins the “Race” chapter by tracing the history of “the practice of dividing people into racial categories” which “has become so routine … that most of us don’t think twice about it.”

She recounts the story of a Virginia couple who had to fight for their legal right to marry without specifying their race when applying for a marriage license – in 2019 (they did win). Although the 1967 Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia struck down the state’s interracial marriage ban, “it [had] left intact the racial-classification system itself.”

Roberts observed that colonial-era laws governing sex and race were aimed at controlling interracial sex.

“Though these laws were partly aimed at preventing miscegenation,” writes Roberts, “they also incentivized the raping of Black women by their white enslavers, who could profit from their sexual assaults by enslaving any resulting children.”

This observation provides a pivot point for Roberts to explore how “[t]he laws that invented race also created a regime intent on policing Black women’s sexuality and controlling Black women’s bodies.” The pervasive portrayal of Black women as “sexually licentious, always consenting, and therefore unrapeable,” writes Roberts, became the roots of twentieth-century government programs that attempted to regulate Black women’s reproductive lives – and even led to the promotion of the concept of the “Black welfare queen,” which successfully fueled a political movement to end the federal entitlement to welfare.

Roberts’ upcoming book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families – and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World, further draws on decades of Roberts’ research and scholarship, builds upon her previous groundbreaking book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare, and reveals that the child welfare system is yet another punitive way the government treats Black mothers; Black children are disproportionately torn from their families and placed in foster care, interfering with their education, social relationships, and well-being and driving many to juvenile detention and imprisonment.

Roberts joined the University of Pennsylvania as its 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor with joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. She is the author of more than 100 scholarly articles and book chapters as well as a co-editor of six books on topics such as constitutional law and women and the law.

Torn Apart will be released on April 5.

Learn more about Dorothy Roberts and her pathbreaking work.