Dorothy Roberts

Kirkland & Ellis Professor, Northwestern University Law School Professor, Department of African-American Studies and Sociology

Dorothy Roberts has written and lectured extensively on the interplay of gender, race, and class in legal issues concerning reproduction, bioethics, and child welfare. She is the author of Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century (The New Press, 2011); Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (Pantheon, 1997), which received a 1998 Myers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America; and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare(Basic Books, 2002), which received research awards from the Institute on Domestic Violence in the African American Community and the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children. She is also the co-editor of Sex, Power and Taboo: Gender and HIV in the Caribbean and Beyond, as well as casebooks on constitutional law and women and the law and has published more than 70 articles and essays in books and scholarly journals, including Harvard Law Review, Yale Law Journal, Stanford Law Review, Signs, and Social Text.

Roberts has been a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Stanford, and Fordham and a fellow at Harvard University's Program in Ethics and the Professions, Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, and the Fulbright Program. She serves as the chair of the board of directors of the Black Women's Health Imperative and on the board of directors of the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform. She also serves on a panel of five national experts that is overseeing foster care reform in Washington State and on the Standards Working Group of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. She received awards from the National Science Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation for her latest book project.

Current and Recent Research

Legal and Political Approaches to Race Consciousness in Biotechnology Research. This Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NSF-funded project uses legal theories of racial equality to analyze the relationship between the emergence of race-based biomedicine and biotechnology and political contests over race consciousness in social policy. Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of scientific interest in race-based genomic variation that has yielded biotechnology research and products that may reinscribe the biological nature of race. This project situates the emergence of race-based biotechnologies within the political struggle over colorblindness and race consciousness, linking debates about the validity and proper use of race as a category in science, law, and social policy. This project will contribute to biotechnology research and to public policy by helping scientists, policy makers, and the broader public better understand the social implications of race-based biotechnologies in the context of political and legal debates about racial equality. The ethical framework it proposes will provide practical guidance to researchers and policy makers charged with determining the proper role of race as a scientific category.

Race and Child Welfare Policy and Practice. Roberts has been studying the racial disparity in state removal of children from their homes, the impact of the child welfare system on black families, and how racial politics helps to shape child welfare policy. Using both statistical analysis and interviews, she focused on the effects of state intervention on family and community life, the impact of recently enacted adoption and welfare reform laws on parental rights, and the role of poverty and racial bias in determining child neglect. The study, which culminated in the book, Shattered Bonds, also proposed ways to improve the child welfare system and considers whether a goal of policy should be to reduce numbers in foster care through either family preservation policies or policies that make adoption easier. Roberts is continuing to research the impact of racial disparities in the child welfare system on black children, families and communities.

Interaction of Welfare Reform and Child Protective Services. Researchers estimate that about half of all cases referred to child protection services involve families on welfare. In Illinois alone, data from the state Department of Child and Family Services indicate that nearly two-thirds of the children placed in foster care had received welfare in the recent past. Roberts believes there is a clear need for more empirical work that examines the actual effect of the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act on families involved with child protective services. Focusing on a subsample of 40 families from the Illinois Families Study, she investigated the impact of welfare reform measures on the actual experiences of welfare-recipient families involved in the state's child welfare system. Using both qualitative and quantitative data, she examined the impact of TANF rules on the timing and type of services received; the type of substitute care; the experience of families with conflicting requirements from welfare and child welfare caseworkers; and outcomes such as reunification of families and termination of parental rights.

Selected Publications


Roberts, Dorothy. Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first CenturyThe New Press (2011).

Roberts, Dorothy, Rhoda Reddock, Dianne Douglas, and Sandra Reid, eds. Sex, Power, and Taboo: Gender and HIV in the Caribbean and BeyondIan Randle Publishers (2008).

Roberts, Dorothy, with Libby Adler, Lisa Crooms, Judith Greenberg, and Martha Minow, eds. Frug’s Women and the Law, 4th ed. Foundation Press (2007).

Roberts, DorothyShattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Basic Books (2002).

Roberts, Dorothy. Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of LibertyPantheon Books (1997).

Articles and Chapters

Roberts, D. 2011. What’s Wrong with Race-based Medicine? Genes, Drugs, and Health Disparities. Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology 12: 1-21.

Roberts, D.  2010. Race and the New Biocitizen. In What’s the Use of Race, ed. Ian Whitmarsh & David Jones, 259-276. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Roberts, D. 2010. The Social Immorality of Health in the Gene Age: Race, Disability, and Inequality. In Against Health, ed. Jonathan Metzl & Anna Kirkland.  New York: NYU Press.

Roberts, D. 2009. Race, gender, and genetic technologies: A new reproductive dystopia? Signs 34:783–804. 

Roberts, D. 2008. The racial geography of child welfare: Toward a new research paradigm. Child Welfare 87(2): 125–50.

Roberts, D. 2008. Race and the new reproduction. In The Reproductive Rights Reader: Law, Medicine, and the Construction of Motherhood, ed. N. Ehrenreich, 308–19. New York: New York University Press.

Roberts, D. 2008. Is race-based medicine good for us?: African American approaches to race, biomedicine, and equalityJournal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 36(3): 537–45.

Roberts, D. 2008. Torture and the biopolitics of race. University of Miami Law Review 62(2): 229-48.

Roberts, D. 2006. Adoption myths and racial realities in the United States. In Outsiders Within: Writing on Transracial Adoption, ed. J. Trenka, J. Oparah, and S. Shin, 49–56. Cambridge, Mass.: South End Press.

Roberts, D. 2004. The social and moral cost of mass incarceration in African American communities. Stanford Law Review 56(5): 1271–305.