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‘Dorothy Roberts Tried to Warn Us’

September 06, 2022

This New York Magazine feature on Prof. Dorothy Roberts asks why more people didn’t listen when she wrote about the criminalization of pregnancy 25 years ago.

New York Magazine recently published “Dorothy Roberts Tried to Warn Us,” noting that “[the] legal scholar and sociologist wrote about the criminalization of pregnancy 25 years ago. Why didn’t more listen?”

From New York Magazine:

One day in 2006, Dorothy Roberts went in for a conference with her youngest son’s teacher. The boy, said the teacher, had too many unexplained absences from his public kindergarten in Evanston, Illinois, most egregiously missing the class’s Thanksgiving activities. “All the other children made Indian headbands out of paper and feathers,” the teacher chided, according to Roberts. “Before I could respond, the teacher gave me a strict warning: ‘If your son continues to miss school, I’m going to call a truancy officer to visit your home.’”

Roberts’s son, her fourth child, had actually been accompanying his mother — a law professor and public intellectual who has helped provide the theoretical and historical backbone of the reproductive-justice movement — to a lecture she was giving in England. Five years earlier, Roberts had published the first of two books arguing that what she calls family policing, more commonly known as the child-welfare system, singles out Black mothers for investigation, sanction, and separation. At their next meeting, Roberts told me, the teacher’s suspicion, even contempt, had disappeared: “She must have looked me up and seen that I was a Northwestern professor.”

Roberts tells this story in a book she published in the spring, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World; she recognizes that her class and education prevented further inquiry into her son missing school. “I don’t think I deserved any special treatment,” she told me recently. “I see it as the disparaging of Black mothers who don’t have the credentials I have.”

An acclaimed scholar of race, gender, and the law, Dorothy Roberts is the George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights.

She recently published Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families — And How Abolition Can Build a Safer World​ (Basic Books, 2022). Roberts is also the founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science & Society in the Center for Africana Studies and her other books include Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (New Press, 2011); Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (Basic Books, 2002), and Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Pantheon, 1997). She also recently penned “Race,” a chapter in The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story, focusing on race as a political construct and the historical regulation of Black women’s bodies.

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 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.

Read the full piece about Roberts at New York Magazine.