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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