Dorothy Roberts: Radical Scholarship, Abolition, and Fighting for a Just World

Dorothy Roberts, Janna Huang and Tiffany Hamidjaja

Dorothy Roberts is a preeminent scholar, activist, and public intellectual whose work breaks through disciplinary molds to inform our knowledge of policing, family welfare systems, bioethics, and medicine. We were deeply honored to sit down with her for an interview, where she shares how her childhood and life experiences shape her principles for abolition in the fight for social justice; why reform is inadequate; how her faith, politics, and scholarship are intertwined; and what it means to pursue radical scholarship within academia. 

Janna Huang (JH): Welcome, Professor Dorothy Roberts. We are so excited to talk to you today. Just to start things off, we were wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your background, your family and community’s background, and how that has influenced your own trajectory?

Dorothy Roberts (DR): Well, I’m a child of the 60s, I grew up in the 1960s in Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, which was a neighborhood that was active in supporting the civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. So, growing up, I was very aware of social justice issues and activism. My parents weren’t activists, but I growing up in that era in a neighborhood that was very diverse, both economically and racially, and that was left-leaning, influenced my interest in social justice from a very early age. My father was an anthropology professor at Roosevelt University, which is a university in downtown Chicago, and that influenced me as well.  From when I was very young, I wanted to be an anthropology professor. I majored in anthropology in college and planned to be a professor. My mother was working on her Ph.D. in Anthropology at Northwestern University when I was born, and she gave up her aspirations of being a professor. My twin sisters were born a year later, and she focused on raising us and eventually became a Chicago public school teacher. With that said, she impressed upon me that I should pick up where she left off. So I was raised to be very interested in social justice issues and very familiar with academic life. My parents emphasized all people’s common humanity and equality among all human beings. My parents were very, very devoted to those principles and applied them in raising me and my sisters in very affirmative concrete ways.

We lived in Liberia for two years and in Egypt for two years while I was growing up. And having those experiences also affected my interests and my perspective on humanity. When I was in my last year of college, I wanted to do social justice work, and I could not figure out how to do that with a Ph.D. in anthropology. I did not have any professors who were engaged in social activism, as far as I knew, or anything other than academic work within the ivory tower. And I thought the only way I could do it was with a law degree. And so I changed course, went to law school, and became a lawyer. But, while I was in law school, I found that I was more drawn to scholarship than the legal profession so, after practicing law for several years, I decided to enter academia after all. I only have a law degree, though many people think I have a Ph.D. And so my only option was to go into law teaching. But my work was from the very beginning, very interdisciplinary. I was interested not so much in legal doctrine as in understanding how legal doctrines and institutions promoted white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, and how the law could be used to change those hierarchies, or the limitations of the law in affecting social change. I began law teaching in 1988, right at the launch of  Critical Race Theory. And I was very influenced by Critical Race Theory, legal feminism, and Black feminism.

And so from the very start, I was not a traditional legal scholar. I always tried to find ways to engage with social scientists which became more possible when I moved from Rutgers Law School to Northwestern Law School where I got a fellowship at Institute for Policy Research (IPR), which is a hub for interdisciplinary, mostly social science, policy research. And, for all of the 14 years I was at Northwestern, I was a faculty fellow at IPR and became very involved with its governance and activities. I learned a lot at IPR about social science approaches, especially sociology. During those years, I also had affiliate appointments in the Departments of Sociology Department and African American Studies. When I moved to Penn in 2012, I was appointed as a Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, a university professorship that is designed to be interdisciplinary. I guess I’m trying to present my sociological credentials, even though I don’t have a Ph.D. in sociology, which I earned on the move as a law professor!

When I started in academia, I was very interested in reproductive justice, especially the long-standing regulation of a Black woman’s childbearing. My first law review article, published in 1991, was a constitutional  argument against the prosecutions of Black women for being pregnant and using drugs. That led to my writing Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, which was published in 1997. And from there, I have written about issues of racism and white supremacy related to family regulation, policing, science, and medicine. I have continued to have a very interdisciplinary approach to those topics, as well as an approach that has always seen my academic and scholarly work as necessarily integrated with activism. I could not have written Killing the Black Body, for example, without being engaged with grassroots reproductive justice activists, and the same is true for all my books up to my latest book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families and How Abolition Can Build A Safer World. That book, again, was only written because of the inspiration and collaboration that I have had with grassroots activists who are working to end the family policing system and replace it with a radically different approach to supporting families and keeping children safe. 

JH: Actually this is the best, sociology through your other interdisciplinary work. That’s the best way I think to do it. This aligns with what we want the BJs to be a platform for so that’s awesome. So our next question, you have actually touched on a little bit. The two of us have read your book, but maybe not all of our readers have read your book. Could you maybe give a little snapshot of your book? How did you get started writing this book and what inspired it?

DR: Sure! In 2001, I published a book about racism in the child welfare system called Shattered Bonds, the Color of Child Welfare. And that book originated in the research I was doing for Killing the Black Body and discovered that Black women were not only targeted for prosecution for being pregnant and using drugs, but also were having their newborns taken from them by child protection services. In fact, there were many more cases of Black mothers losing their babies to the state than prosecutions of Black mothers. Before that point, I had not been aware of how violent and racist and unjust the child welfare system was. This was in the late 1990s that I began to do intense research on the so-called child welfare system, what I now call the family policing system. At that time, I was living in Chicago and teaching at Northwestern and I quickly found that in Chicago, almost all the children in foster care were Black. I began going to court proceedings and immediately noticed that the families that were being separated by judges were virtually all Black families. And it was immediately clear to me that this was a system that was targeting these families and that it was punishing them, not serving them. It wasn’t helping them at all. So, I began to do research on the gross racial disparities in the system, and also to think about the political function of the system that relies on terrorizing families and taking children away with the pretense that it’s supporting and protecting them.

I developed an argument that the system was inflicting a form of racial oppression. I had reached the conclusion, at the end of my research and writing Shattered Bonds, that the system needed to be abolished. In fact, I stated in the book that we should abolish this system. But nevertheless, I worked very intensively on efforts to reform the system. I gave countless talks to multiple audiences, not only to academic audiences, but also to policymakers, child welfare administrators, and social workers. I engaged in trainings for caseworkers who worked for these agencies. I worked for nine years as a court-appointed expert on a panel that was attempting to reform the foster care system in Washington State, after it was sued in a big class action lawsuit for violating the constitutional rights of children in the state’s foster care system. After all of these efforts, I concluded that reform was doomed to fail because the system is fundamentally designed to target the most marginalized families in the nation, to police them, and to punish them as a way of blaming the family caregivers for harms to their children that are actually caused by societal inequalities. Most of the children entangled in the child welfare system—subject to investigations, separated from their families, even losing their legal rights to their families—are impoverished. And the main reason they get entangled is because of accusations having to do with their parents’ failure to meet their needs. The state’s response isn’t to provide the concrete material resources that these families need but to mandate various therapeutic solutions that are based on the idea that the parents failed because of some pathology or deficit.  There’s no attention paid to the structural reasons why the children may have unmet needs. Family separation is also based on biases against impoverished families, Black families, and indigenous families, because the same behaviors that subject these families to state intervention are ignored by child protective services when wealthy parents engage in them. In fact, sometimes it’s treated as a joke, like parents drinking or smoking marijuana to relieve the stress of parenting. Wealthy white parents can even boast about it on blogs and in op-eds without fear of having their children taken.

It’s over 20 years since I wrote Shattered Bonds, where I saw that the problem was the fundamental design of the system, not some flaw in the way it was implemented. I also became more familiar with the movement to abolish the prison industrial complex, and I embraced and adopted its principles. I also became involved with system-impacted parents who were fighting to get their children back and to abolish the family policing system. All these developments came together to inspire me to write another book that pointed out more clearly the family policing system’s fundamentally oppressive design and made the case that reform is not only inadequate, but that it legitimizes this system. We need to abolish it. That means dismantling it and replacing it with a radically different approach to supporting families and keeping children safe. That is an approach that actually supports families and keeps children safe. Instead of writing a new preface for a 20th-anniversary edition of Shattered Bonds, I decided to write a new book, Torn Apart.

It’s over 20 years since I wrote Shattered Bonds, where I saw that the problem was the fundamental design of the system, not some flaw in the way it was implemented… that reform is not only inadequate, but that it legitimizes the system. We need to abolish it. That means dismantling it and replacing it with a radically different approach to supporting families and keeping children safe.

JH: Wow, that’s awesome to hear. I think that’s such a great way of putting it, that reform is not enough that it legitimizes these systems. And that leads really well, actually, to our next question. You write a lot about how these institutions that are meant to, you know, care for the body, whether it’s hospitals, or schools or the foster care system, they end up harming the Black body or the Indigenous body, especially, Black Indigenous women’s bodies. So we were curious to know, obviously, these systems impact all of us but we wanted to know about your own interactions with these institutions as a Black woman, but also as someone who is arguably a public intellectual and an academic that occupies a certain place of privilege in our society. What has that been like? And maybe how has that changed through your life in your career?

DR: Yeah, I’m very aware that I have a social position of both privilege and disadvantage. As I mentioned, I grew up in a middle-class family with an academic father. And my father is white. My mother is Black. Both are highly educated. But I have to say, for so long, until fairly recently, I downplayed the fact that my father was white because I’ve always identified, since I was very young, as a Black girl, a Black woman. And especially when I went to college, I wanted to accentuate my Blackness and I affirmatively hid my father’s racial identity. I saw my decision to identify as Black and not as biracial or mixed or part white as a political decision. But I have also had to come to grips, and maybe I’m still coming to grips, with the fact that I did have the privilege of having a white father who was highly educated and a professional, an academic, which gave me so many advantages. I think, in a way, by obscuring that part of my identity, I may not have given enough attention to the advantages that it gave me.

And that might be why I have always tended to talk about other people’s experiences rather than my own. Only recently, I have begun to talk more about my own experiences as influencing my scholarship. You may know that I was interviewed for a profile in New York Magazine and the journalist delved deeply into my background, and I told her things about my background that I have not shared publicly with a broad audience. For example, she happened to know that I was married to a political prisoner because New York Magazine had profiled him while he was in prison, and she asked me about it. And I told her honestly about that experience of both of us being surveilled by the New York Police and a joint terrorist Task Force, being threatened with prison myself, if I didn’t testify against my husband. I realized that having a husband in prison, while I had two very young children—my oldest son was only two-years-old and my second son was born just three months before my husband was arrested—and having to make the decision to refuse a subpoena to testify against him on threat of being jailed, the lawyering and activist work I did to support him and the other political prisoners, were very influential on my politics. And I’m sure it all influenced my decision to be a prison abolitionist, but I never wrote or really talked about it before then.

I’ve always referred more to my concern about other people who have been incarcerated or policed or lost their children. But even as I think about it now, I don’t feel that it was so much my personal experience of facing prison and having a loved one in prison that influenced me as my concern and care for other people who are in prison. I hope that doesn’t sound like I’m saying I’m some kind of altruistic person; I’m just saying that’s just how I feel. Although it is true that our personal experiences get us involved in struggles that we might otherwise not have been involved in. So certainly my marriage at the time was part of why I even was aware of the struggle of political prisoners and why I visited people in prison. But I also think that it doesn’t explain all of it. I think that the upbringing I mentioned to you earlier also helps to explain even why I made the commitments I made, and why I took a certain stance about my husband’s arrest, incarceration, and trial. So it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly what is the source of one’s principles and commitments. This is an unusual interview, because ordinarily, I wouldn’t be getting into so much personal detail, but you asked!

Another thing that the New York Magazine journalist, Irin Camron, (I should mention her name because she was fantastic) asked me about was my religious background. I am a Christian, and I believe I have certain principles that are related to my spiritual beliefs and faith, which have also influenced my commitments, my scholarship, and my activism. I think that academics rarely talk about the non-academic influences on their work, but certainly, the principles of our equal humanity, of caring and love for other people can shape our work. When I consider why I’m a prison abolitionist sometimes I think the deepest reason is that I am deeply pained by the suffering of people in prison. I can’t explain that by some kind of intellectual analysis. I can explain that more by my spiritual beliefs and the kinds of principles I was raised with from childhood. That didn’t come entirely from my formal education. Of course, it’s also a political position that I have, but it’s hard to disentangle it from my spiritual faith. Often in academia we are steered away from even mentioning anything other than an intellectual process that shaped our scholarship, as if that’s all that influences us.

I think that academics rarely talk about the non-academic influences on their work, but certainly, the principles of our equal humanity, of caring and love for other people can shape our work. When I consider why I’m a prison abolitionist sometimes I think the deepest reason is that I am deeply pained by the suffering of people in prison. I can’t explain that by some kind of intellectual analysis.

This is also one reason why I have been drawn to and so appreciate being involved in grassroots activism. Because I have found that activists, especially Black female activists who are the ones I’ve mostly been involved with, are much more likely to talk about other aspects of their lives, their lived experiences, their faith, their principles, and their ethics. Sometimes people ask me, “How do you remain joyful and hopeful when the issues you study are so depressing?” My answer is, by engaging with people outside of academia who celebrate their victories. Those who have a faith outside of doctrines or databases. That is such a different approach to the very same issues, but it is a much more hopeful approach that relies on a wealth of knowledge and experience, as well as principles and ethics, that are deeper than what we typically see in academic discourse and engagement.

TH: Something I’m curious about is, how do you balance, integrate, and pursue abolitionist practices within academia and its colonial roots? And do you have any advice for other scholars, especially younger scholars, like graduate students, who believe in abolition and who are actively pursuing that in the work that they’re doing, and in that framework, but also may sometimes feel like they’re going up against the grain of how academia has been? 

DR: One way that I’ve navigated what can be a tense relationship between traditional academic approaches and more social justice-oriented or activist-oriented approaches, or other unorthodox scholarly approaches and non-traditional ideas about a subject is to relate the work I’m doing to the dominant body of scholarship to show that the work I’m doing isn’t some completely disengaged, unrelated exercise. It’s important to demonstrate that the work you’re doing, the ideas you have, and the knowledge base you’re creating improves and expands the scholarship that exists, that critiques it and challenges the dominant ideas in a way that is important for others who are writing in that field to grapple with.

I remember my very first law review article, when I was an untenured professor, on the prosecutions of Black women for being pregnant and using drugs. Even though I was at a very progressive law school, Rutgers Law School in Newark, there were still senior colleagues of mine who counseled me not to write on that topic until I got tenure. I was writing about Black women who were smoking crack cocaine while pregnant, and some people thought that wasn’t a legitimate topic, that I wouldn’t get published, that people wouldn’t see it as important or fitting into what law professors were supposed to be writing about. But I nevertheless pursued it because I thought it was an important topic and it was what I was passionate about. I wrote an article that criticized the current constitutional doctrines of equality and privacy for not attending to the reproductive violations that these women were experiencing. I argued that the prosecutions were punishing these women for having children and were therefore unconstitutional. So, I realized that I had to explain why the prosecutions of Black mothers that some of my colleagues thought were completely irrelevant to constitutional law were important to this area of law. I pointed out how the current reproductive rights scholarship was inadequate and made a case that constitutional interpretation had to account for the violations that these women experienced by being prosecuted. I had to explain why these were reproductive rights violations that  should be recognized by constitutional jurisprudence. In the end, my article was published in the Harvard Law Review, which is widely considered as the most prominent law journal, and I think some people were shocked.

I think of that experience as an example of how you can stick to the topic that you want to write about and the argument you want to make, despite its being unorthodox, if you can make a case that it advances the field. You can succeed in the end, even under the dominant criteria, which, as we know, are sometimes amorphous and shifting. I don’t want to suggest that you can completely ignore what advisors are recommending or the criteria you are required to follow for your dissertation to be approved, but I am saying you can hold to your principles and interests and still achieve your goals in academia. You also have to engage in the collective struggles to make academia more open to radical thought and scholarship and not only radical ideas but also radical forms of scholarship. Even with my story about my law review article, I still published it in a traditional law review. What about someone who doesn’t want to publish in a law review in or in the traditional modes of scholarship? We’re now in a critical debate about what should count as scholarship in sociology and in other social sciences. I’ve heard some people argue that what’s called public sociology is less authentic, less authoritative, or less important than more traditional scholarship, and that people engaging in it are less serious scholars., I think that is a wrong-headed way of approaching the significance of public sociology.

Again, I can definitively say that my scholarship would be less impactful, less creative, less significant, less rigorous, and less helpful if I were not engaged with activists and in activism related to the topics I was researching. I think where students and junior faculty may have more difficulty than I did is if they don’t want to publish in traditional forms and venues, but still have their scholarship recognized as significant. For example, I’ve published four well-received solo-authored books, but none of them in an academic press. I made the decision to publish all four of them in trade presses because I thought they would reach a broader audience. It mattered that I started my career in a law school and law professors are far less likely to write books than sociologists. We mostly write law review articles, though that’s changing somewhat. But the fact that I published Killing the Black Body in a trade press didn’t make much difference to my academic stature because I already had tenure based on my law review articles and I wasn’t expected to write a book at all as a law professor. What about an assistant professor in sociology who publishes in a trade press instead of an academic press—should that book be treated the same as one published in an academic press for purposes of promotion and tenure? How should that be weighed? Does it matter what impact that the book had on the discipline, on policy, and on people’s lives? I think that there are strategies that students and junior faculty can use to have their nontraditional scholarship recognized. But I also think, as with everything else political, that it’s going to require collective engagement in these debates about what even counts as scholarship.

JH: So yeah, hearing you talk about remaining committed to your ideals while being in this academic environment is just so inspiring to us. Because I feel like so many like radical progressive thinking young people go into academia thinking that it’s that kind of space, but more often than not, it kind of irons everyone out and or not everyone but irons you out into, like, whatever form is like the best fit for whatever knowledge production academia wants from you. And so it was just so inspiring for us to hear about, you know, just your own experience and navigating that. So I guess, the last question we had was what or who is inspiring you right now?

DR: Well, I’ll tell you what jumps in my head right away. When a journalist was interviewing me recently about Torn Apart, he said, what’s your next step and I was probably supposed to talk about my next book or next article, but that’s not what immediately came to my mind. It’s similar here. What comes to mind is an activist in New York City whom I write about in my book, Joyce McMillan. Joyce founded an organization called JMACforFamilies and has been strategizing about how to abolish the family policing system, especially focused on the Administration for Children’s Services in New York City. She’s organized efforts to enact legislation that would require caseworkers to inform parents about their rights, stop drug testing of pregnant people and newborns without their consent, repeal the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997, that implemented a swifter timetable for termination of parental rights, and other concrete steps to dismantle the family policing system and to build community-based resources for families. I’m inspired by her work, her bold voice against the violence of the family policing system, and the way she’s turned her own experience of having her two daughters taken from her into a basis for her activism. I love working with her and how our work is so complimentary.  She is the political strategist and she always lifts up my scholarly work as being helpful to hers. We figure out ways of working together to support each other in a very integrated, symbiotic fashion, to enhance each other’s work and to respect the different skills that we bring to this movement. I find that very inspiring.

Ms. McMillan is one of many Black mothers I’ve met who have experienced the system’s violence and are turning their own family tragedy into an avenue for speaking out and making concrete changes for the better for all families. I really admire them and I’m grateful to have a relationship with them. There’s no greater reward than than having a group of people dedicated to social change say that your book is useful to them. That is the best, along with having students who say you inspired them to do work that will make the world better. It sounds corny, but that’s the best reason you can express for why we teach and why we write. I feel blessed to know and work with activists like Ms. McMillan and students like you two who are doing the important work of contesting dominant unjust ideas and structures and figuring out better ways of relating to each other, on all these different levels. 

TH: Dorothy, that is so kind of you to say. We appreciate that so much. Thank you so much for your time!

There’s no greater reward than having a group of people dedicated to social change to say that your book is useful to them. That is the best, along with having students who say you inspired them to do work that will make the world better. It sounds corny, but that’s the best reason you can express for why we teach and why we write.

Dorothy Roberts is the 14th Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor and George A. Weiss University Professor of Law & Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, with joint appointments in the Departments of Africana Studies and Sociology and the Law School, where she is the inaugural Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights. She is also the founding director of the Penn Program on Race, Science, and Society. An internationally recognized scholar, public intellectual, and social justice activist, she has written and lectured extensively on race, gender, and class inequities in U.S. institutions and has been a leader in transforming thinking on reproductive freedom, child welfare, and bioethics. She is the author of the award-winning Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (1997/2017); Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2001); Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2011); and Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black Families—and How Abolition Can Build a Safer World (2022), as well as more than 100 articles and book chapters, including “Race” in the 1619 Project.