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Transcript from IMKC "What Slavery Engendered:An Intersectional Look at 161‪9‬"

Kim Crenshaw: I'm so excited to start the new season with this episode thinking through the 1619 project, thinking through reparations, thinking through revisiting our history from an intersectional lens. So it's an exciting time because we are now talking about things that academics, activists have talked about a lot, but really get very little traction in society. The fact that African American life is still shaped by its historic introduction into this country as enslaved people. So this is a good time. This is an important conversation. And at the same time it's important that that conversation be enacted through an intersectional lens. We have to think about black life, black history as one that is gendered in particular ways. So intersectionality is a way of reminding us that the story isn't complete unless we're talking about the way slavery impacted black women and the way black women were impacted by slavery.


So I couldn't think of a better person to talk to this about than Dorothy Roberts. Dorothy has been on the forefront of thinking about these issues from a historical lens, from the very beginning, and linking that history to today.


My first article that I ever read by Dorothy Roberts took up the question of punishing black women who were addicted to drugs. In that article, Dorothy made it clear that the carceral punitive approach to a drug addiction played a particularly harsh role against African American women and not as simply a contemporary matter, but as an extension of a long history of black women's child rearing being framed as suspect as being framed as lesser than.

So with that historical understanding, my hunch was that she would be the perfect person to ask, well, what does a revisioning of history look like when we put black women at the center of it going all the way back to slavery?


Kim Crenshaw: My guest today is my sister in the law, Dorothy Roberts. Dorothy is a leading scholar on race, gender, bioethics, and the law. She's a triple threat. She holds appointments in the Africana studies, law, and sociology departments at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also the founding director of the UPenn program on race, science and society. Her work has been central to the development of black feminist thought and she is the author of award winning books such as Killing the Black Body, Shattered Bonds, and Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Recreate Race in the 21st Century. Dorothy, welcome to Intersectionality Matters.


Dorothy Roberts: Thank you. It's so good to be here.


Kim Crenshaw: So let's start with the 1619 Project. I guess I want to frame it this way. One of the reasons that I think there's so much excitement about 1619 is there is a sense that we would talk and think about racial inequality, anti-black racism, and what needs to be done with it very differently if history actually started with 1619, so there is a lot of energy behind that sort of reframing. What does intersectionality bring to that project? So if we were to actually be robust in 1619 bringing black women's history into it, what are some of the things that would be front and center in this conversation?


Dorothy Roberts: Well, one of the things that would be front and center is the way in which the regulation of black women's childbearing played such a central role in the justification for slavery, the way in which it operated, and its reverberations continuing to the present day. It's such a powerful trope that black women, that our reproduction, our childbearing is dangerous, is depraved, is the source of problems. Very little attention is paid to how those very notions are rooted back in 1619 and the way in which slavery formed a foundation for the American nation.


Kim Crenshaw: There is something that I do think in what you're saying really requires us to pause and think a little bit more about what is missing from our historiography on slavery. I guess I would put it like this.

I took Racism and the Law from a famous jurist, and he was trying to get the class, largely Harvard students, to think about what the experience of slavery must have been like. Okay, so I was all ready to have this conversation. He turns as inevitably one must to the experience of black women being bred, but the way he talked about it was this. Imagine what it must have been like to be forced stand by and watch while your daughter, your wife, your sister, your mother, your aunt, your grandmother was forcibly taken in order to reproduce the slave population. Imagine what that must have been like.

I remember thinking, "As bad as that was, it couldn't have been as bad as being the grandmother who was forcibly taken." There was something in this moment that suggested that the gaze upon which the story of slavery's brutality is told from is still a masculine advantage point like, "I was not able to protect. I was not able to avenge." What is that telling us about what is missing from the narrative?


Dorothy Roberts: I think that is such an insightful story about what's missing because it leaves out entirely the experience of enslaved women who were being raped and forced to have children for the interests of slave owners. It doesn't address the violence to the bodies of black women but also the problem with the oppression of controlling someone else's body in order to achieve the interest of white elites. And you can see how leaving that out has harmed the very way we think about reproductive justice for everybody. As something that could be controlled by the government, that was subject to the state policy.


Kim Crenshaw: Right. If we reboot our understanding of enslavement not from a male gaze but from the actual experience of forced reproduction itself, it not only changes, broadens, deepens how we think about the legacy of slavery for black people but also the legacy of forced reproduction and reproductive constraints, lack of freedom for everybody.


Dorothy Roberts: That's right. It's not just that black women's enslavement and forced reproduction paints black women as the scapegoat from all sorts of social problems. That's bad enough, but it also laid the foundation for a whole future, including eugenics, of government policies aimed at controlling the reproduction of people, including forced sterilization in order to improve society.

It just seems natural that the government should be able to regulate the child-bearing of black women because black women are dangerous reproducers, and it's so powerful that you can have stereotypes and images like the black welfare queen who was supposed to have children just to get a welfare check, which is ludicrous. No one would do that because the welfare check isn't enough to support children, but that ludicrous myth that was completely rooted in these notions of black female depravity and dangerous child-bearing was powerful enough to fuel a movement to end welfare.


Kim Crenshaw: And successful.


Dorothy Roberts: It was successful.


Kim Crenshaw: To add on top of that, because we're now in a moment where ... There were two projects in the '80s and '90s that reflects the moment of neo-liberal concession. Black people were at the forefront of both of those. One is mass incarceration, which foregrounded black men, and the other was welfare reform, which foregrounded black women. Now we do have a discourse now about how that effort to position black men as the social problem that we need to be able to ramp up carceral strategies to address. We have a critical discourse about that now, not so much about the headlining role that black women played in animating basically the shredding of the social safety net. Why is that?


Dorothy Roberts: Right. Well, I think part of it is because of the way in which this form of oppression is naturalized, so people don't even see it as a form of oppression. Prisons, whether you believe they're good or not, whether you think they solve social problems or not, most people understand them to be punitive. Now, they may see that they are punitive for oppressive reasons, or they may think that they're punitive for justifiable reasons.


Kim Crenshaw: But they get it.


Dorothy Roberts: They get that it's punitive, and it's bad to have to go to prison. With respect to welfare, because it's been naturalized that black women have children in order to rip off taxpayers, that black women's reproduction is dangerous, that black women's wombs produce poverty, it seems to many people that instead it's helpful. It's a good thing to have policies that regulate-


Kim Crenshaw: To control them.


Dorothy Roberts: Right, to control them because black women's reproduction is out of control, and so you need to control it. There's nothing wrong with that. That's good. In fact, welfare reform has been portrayed as something that helps black women and other impoverished women get out of poverty to be able to rehabilitate their lives.


Kim Crenshaw: Shall we say the party that black women helped maintain-


Dorothy Roberts: Absolutely.


Kim Crenshaw: ... their hold on power.


Dorothy Roberts: That's right.


Kim Crenshaw: This isn't just on the others side of the aisle. Welfare reform, for those who were not yet around, was made possible by a democratic president who went on the attack against basically black women.


Dorothy Roberts: That's absolutely right.


Kim Crenshaw: The ability to internalize these stereotypes does not know any political or party limits.


Dorothy Roberts: That's absolutely right. Clinton was the one who signed the bill destroying welfare, eliminating the federal entitlement to welfare and opening up the floodgates to all sorts of state regulation that I call behavior modification projects. They're not designed to support anybody's family. They're designed to modify the supposedly depraved behavior of what now is seen as black mothers who are having too many children and not working hard enough.


Dorothy Roberts: I would just bring into this what an intersectional approach also points out is that the massive skyrocketing of the prison population, which by the way also includes disproportionate numbers of black women, was linked to welfare reform. That whole trend of attaching welfare to prisons began really more in the 1960s, continued to develop, and we can see the expansion of the prison system throughout those decades and then the abolition of welfare as prisons more and more become to be seen as a solution to social problems and to meeting human needs.

I think both prisons and the abolition of welfare are supported by notions of black women's depraved child-bearing and the children they produce as being potential or inevitable criminals and welfare dependents. And then I would just add to it, if that's okay, the foster care system. Another punitive way in which black mothers have been treated is by the disproportionate removal of their children. So when you ask, why is it that Black children are so much more likely to be removed from their homes. Half of black children are subject to some child welfare investigation.


Kim Crenshaw: Half of black children.


Dorothy Roberts: Half, yes. Now, they may not all be removed, but they're investigated at some point.


Kim Crenshaw: That's a level of surveillance that matches the surveillance of police are black men and people driving while black, but that doesn't quite reach the same level of consciousness in anti-racist discourse as other surveillance strategies do.


Dorothy Roberts: Not at all. It pales in comparison.


Kim Crenshaw: And let me set this up, when you were writing about this, and there was a famous article that you wrote that called out this conception that basically black children are just there for the taking, and any laws that got in the way of the free alienability of these black children were actually disadvantaging those black children. Talk about your debate, shall we say, with a law professor who actually made an argument that your position was actually harming black children.


Dorothy Roberts: Yes. I'm not sure exactly which Harvard law professor you're talking about.


Kim Crenshaw: Elizabeth Bartholet.


Dorothy Roberts: Okay, because I've been criticized by many Harvard professors. But yes, I've written articles. I also wrote a book called Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare where I point out that this high rate of removal of black children is actually a form of gender and race intersecting oppression of black people and targeted at black mothers in particular and based on these stigmatizing stereotypes about black mothering, including the idea that black mothers do not have a loving bond with their children. As you pointed out, that idea stems from slavery.


Kim Crenshaw: So if you're going to have an institutionalized pattern of breeding black women and then alienating them from their children, you have to develop a story, a narrative, that says, "You know what, it's not so bad. They're not that attached to it. In fact, it's better for them to be removed."


Kim Crenshaw: So taking black children and selling them isn't done anymore, but, first of all, taking them is still done, and the ideology that makes that taking appear to be reasonable, rational in the best interest of the children and society is directly connected to a continuation of an ideology that was grounded in slavery.


Dorothy Roberts: Exactly. What's important to keep your eye on is that ideology. In the same way that black women aren't being forced to have children like they were during the time of slavery. Instead, they're more likely to be coerced not to have children or even forcibly sterilized, but what connects that is the belief that black women's child-bearing must be controlled and that black women should not have control over their own child-bearing and bodies.

So, the debate that I had with this Harvard professor is the view that taking black children from their mothers is actually helpful to them. Professor Bartholet argued in the book called Nobody's Children and also in direct arguments with me.


Kim Crenshaw: Nobody's Children. Talk about erasure, right?

Dorothy: Talk about erasure.


Kim Crenshaw: -free form, drop from the sky.


Dorothy Roberts: Exactly. They're supposed to be nobody's children in the sense that their mothers do not really care for them. That's-


Kim Crenshaw: Or their mothers are nobody.


Dorothy Roberts: That's true too. That's another way of looking at it. They're nobody, they don't matter, and these children are in need of white homes. They belong. In fact, I was at a conference with somebody who yelled out, "They belong to us." A white woman yelled out, "They belong to us these children." It's this very perverse way of thinking that black children don't have connections.


Kim Crenshaw: They're commodities.


Dorothy Roberts: They're commodities.


Kim Crenshaw: They can be commodified.


Dorothy Roberts: They can be commodified, which again, goes back to slavery, so all of these ideas. We can trace back. And the language is so infuriating and provocative. You mentioned the word free. These people who supported the Adoption and Safe Families Act literally argued that we needed to free black children from their mothers in order to allow them to be adopted. This Adoption and Safe Families Act is an incentive for the speedier termination of parental rights.


Kim Crenshaw: How does it work as an incentive?


Dorothy Roberts: It works as an incentive by telling states that under federal law they have to speed up termination of parental rights, and so one way was to change the law to put time limits on states for the time they needed to petition to terminate the rights of parents whose children were in foster care. That was like the stick. The carrot was to provide financial incentives by giving states money if they increase the number of children adopted in the state.


Kim Crenshaw: That's like a market.


Dorothy Roberts: It really is. Not to mention that also then the adoptive parents get more money than you would get for raising your own children as someone relying on temporary assistance in needy families.

In my book Shattered Bonds I spent a lot of time with a mother whose child was taken from her on grounds of medical neglect. Now, that should be corrected if that was truly a problem. We know also that doctors are much more likely to report black mothers for harms to their children than white mothers. A broken leg, for example, is much more likely to be reported as child abuse. I should add, though, that most children in foster care are there because of neglect that's usually connected to poverty, not because of physical or sexual abuse. But this mother instead of being given help in giving her child the right medical treatment, according to the doctors. She had no interest in harming her child. She wanted to give her child the appropriate medical treatment. They put the child in foster care.


Kim Crenshaw: And gave someone else the resources to provide the medical care.