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Prof. Dorothy Roberts on use of race as biological category

October 15, 2012

In a video interview about her research exploring the relationship between race and science, Dorothy Roberts, the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) professor who also holds appointments in the Department of Sociology and at the Law School, where she is the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander ED’18, GR’21, L’27 Professor of Civil Rights, discusses her interdisciplinary work at Penn.


My name is Dorothy Roberts and I am the fourteenth Penn Integrates Knowledge (PIK) Professor; George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology; and the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights at the Law School.

My most recent research has been about the resurgence of the use of race as a biological category in social policy, especially in policy related to biomedicine and biotechnology.

There are large gaps in health in the United States along racial lines, and what I would like to do in my current research is bring together people from various disciplines to think about the best ways to address these gaps, and not to rely on the concept of race that sees people from different races as different genetically, and that relies on a genetic explanation for gaps in health. Because we know that race is a social category, is a political category, and race does have biological consequences. Not because of differences at the molecular level, but because of the effect of social inequality on people’s health.

I think that people working in the life sciences, sociology, anthropology, and other of the social sciences, as well as law, can very productively come together to try to address this very serious issue and also think about how do we define race in America in the twenty-first century.

Part of what I want to do at Penn is start a new program on race, science, and society that brings together people from around the University that are doing related research – people in law, in philosophy, bioethics, in the life sciences, genetics, anthropology, sociology – who are interested in the relationship between race and science and also want to see people from all these disciplines work together toward a more equitable view of what race is, and how we should address the inequalities along racial lines that continue in America.

Transcript edited for length.