Book Review: “Killing the Black Body” by Dorothy Roberts

Dorothy Roberts, a graduate of Yale College and Harvard Law School, documents the historical usurpation of black women’s reproductive freedom by systematic, institutionalized decisions based on a confluence of race and gender discrimination. She reviews the process that started with slave masters’ use of black women’s bodies to increase their slave holdings, to racist eugenics policies that resulted in the surreptitious sterilization of thousands of black women, to attempts to restrict the fertility of black women on the grounds that they are inflating the welfare roles.

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She charges that the dominant idea of reproductive liberty is primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women and is focused on the right to abortion. She points out that reproductive freedom is not only a matter of an individual woman’s right to choose, but it also is woven into a larger social context, so that economic exigencies (including access to health care, jobs, child care, medical information, and medical technology) as well as systemic racism (e.g., residential segregation which restricts access to better jobs) play a deterministic role.

Roberts points to many policy proposals holding that “the key to solving America’s social problems is to curtail Black women’s birth rates.” American society, she maintains, is still affected by thought patterns that either consciously or unconsciously imbue whites with positive characteristics (“industrious, intelligent, responsible”), while Blacks are associated with the opposite, negative qualities (“lazy, ignorant, shiftless”). In fact, a study in 1990 found that “78 percent of white Americans thought that Blacks preferred to live on welfare.” Many whites seem unaware of, or unaffected by, the fact that whites make up the greater number of welfare recipients (although the percentage of black recipients is higher). Since 1990 attitudes have not changed much. Most whites are even uncognizant of the passage in 1996 of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) which replaced AFDC. This Act mandates that single mothers who receive welfare find paid work; it encourages them to marry; and it limits their time on aid to a lifetime maximum of five years. Some states have even shorter time limits. PRWORA in effect treats the inability to work as a personal, moral failing and insists that women are better off with men. Thus poor black women must somehow cope with the distances they must travel from their segregated living areas to find work, the lack of child care (so that they must often pull older children out of school to help), and the bottom-of-the-barrel wages they will receive for unskilled work.

A concern for helping the Black community to escape the spiral of poverty has never been a priority. On the contrary, according to Roberts, it is “the huge cost these children impose on taxpayers.” Indeed, the general adherence to a preference for “non-government intervention” by those against “the welfare state” (or as we might say nowadays, “socialism”) gainsays the fact that “negative” liberty only benefits those who already hold money and power. The so-called “neutral” principles adopted by the courts and the government that call for leaving things as they are and letting market forces take over is not neutral at all. It rewards those with the economic positions to take advantage of opportunities to better themselves even more. The fact is that many people, because of unequal social and economic positions, are not actually free to make decisions or take choices that the government claims to be protecting by “non-interference.”

Roberts does an excellent job of detailing the violations committed toward black women over the years. I would take issue with her on the omission of two issues. One is the role black men have played in this racially-tinged misogynist drama. Although attitudes of both white men and white women are discussed, those of black men toward black women are not included. A second issue is the role of men in general in the entire reproductive dialogue. Roberts fully documents the extent to which black women are blamed. But she does not discuss the historical and societal bias toward not blaming men at all for pregnancy. Robert seeks to take blame away from black women and situate it in a socioeconomic context. While this is not an illegitimate request, what about sharing some blame with the ones who make them pregnant in the first place? And more specifically, what about the pressures upon black teenagers of both genders to have sex and/or have babies? Surely some of it has to do with peer attitudes, pressure from other teens, and perhaps even the dearth of love and companionship in their lives. These questions aren’t addressed.

Overall, however, this book is a valuable contribution to the scholarship of race, and should definitely be included as a complement to the many books on feminism that overlook the black woman’s experience. The systemic, societal problems noted with the cyclical entrenchment of poverty must be tackled, rather than focusing all of the nation’s hostility on the black women who have borne so much. As Michael B. Katz and Mark J. Stern write in the Winter 2008 issue of Dissent, “Black poverty and inequality, in the last analysis, are problems of national imagination and will. Surmounting them requires understanding how they work today and finding the resolve to attack their sources. The task is difficult, but, then, the stakes are very high.” Roberts has done a lot of research to help. Now it is up to us.

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