Profs Dorothy Roberts and Melissa Murray Headline Second Annual Eunice Carter Lecture, “Policing Black Families and Bodies”


Award-winning author and expert Dorothy Roberts discussed her career-spanning examination of the “closely entangled” connections between the child welfare and criminal legal systems at Fordham Law School on Feb. 1. Professor Roberts was invited to the Law School to give this year’s Eunice Carter Lecture, in which she discussed her most recent book, Torn Apart: How the Child Welfare System Destroys Black FamiliesAnd How Abolition Can Build A Safer World (2022). Professor Roberts holds a distinguished university professorship, as well as a named chair in the Law School, along with appointments in the Africana Studies and Sociology Departments at the University of Pennsylvania. She talked about the trajectory of her life’s work, which includes research into how contemporary treatment of Black women is linked via law and policy to an earlier era of enslavement and movements to abolish those systems. Professor Roberts also explained how her work on family policing relates to police surveillance, carceral logics, and abortion bans, and reflected upon the residual effects of slavery on Black Americans’ lives today.

(L-R) Catherine Powell, Dorothy Roberts, and Melissa Murray

The visit also served as a warm welcome back to Fordham Law for Professor Roberts, who previously spent time there as the 2006 Bacon-Kilkenny Distinguished Visiting Professor. The author was interviewed by Professor Melissa Murray, Frederick I. and Grace Stokes Professor of Law and faculty director of the Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Network at NYU Law, and was introduced by Fordham Law’s Professor Catherine Powell, a leading scholar at the intersection of race, gender, and economic precarity at home and abroad.

“The title and theme of this talk, ‘Policing Black Families and Black Bodies,’ echoes so many developments over this last year—really several years—and of this past week with the police killing of Tyre Nichols,” Powell said on Feb. 1. “I can’t think of two better speakers than Dorothy Roberts and Melissa Murray to come join us today, as this talk is very much of the moment.”

Fordham Law School, Fordham Law’s chapter of the Black Law Students Association and the Law School’s Center on Race, Law and Justice, as well as Fordham University’s Office of the Chief Diversity Officer and Office of the Provost, co-sponsored and supported the event.

Threading the Needle

In her introduction of Professor Roberts, Professor Murray revealed to the audience of students and faculty from Fordham Law as well as other Fordham graduate schools that she was taught by Eunice Carter’s grandson, Professor Stephen Carter, at Yale Law, and had created a reading group during her time in law school, which Powell joined as a featured author and speaker. One of the leading Black women scholars Powell suggested that Professor Murray and her colleagues should read was Professor Roberts.

Melissa Murray

“[I remember] we read [Roberts’ 1997 book] Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty, and that was the most mind blowing intellectual experience I think I’ve ever had, to see on the page this trajectory … that links the contemporary treatment of Black women to an earlier era of enslavement,” said Professor Murray. That theme of slavery’s long-tail effects on the treatment of Black Americans is a throughline in Professor Roberts’ work, including books such as Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics, and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-First Century (2011) and Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare (2001), among others.”

Professor Roberts explained she always felt drawn to examining the roots of current policies “that are so dehumanizing and brutal toward Black women and Black mothers in particular.”

Dorothy Roberts

“[In 1988] I was reading about women being dragged out of maternity wards while still bleeding from delivery [and]women who were eight months pregnant having to spend the rest of their pregnancy in jail and … discovered that the vast majority of these women were Black women,” Professor Roberts said of the findings that inspired her to embark on her first law review article, “Punishing Drug Addicts Who Have Babies: Women of Color, Equality, and the Right to Privacy, 104 Harvard L. Rev. 1419 (1991). “Then I started to think not just about how racism made this public health issue into a crime and the importance of seeing the intersection of racism and sexism in those prosecutions, but also about the punishment of Black women’s childbearing and where that comes from.”

The roots, she said, stem back to the enslavement and reproductive servitude of Black women. “I started thinking about all the policies, the trajectory from enslavement to the present, [and how]Black women’s childbearing was seen as a problem and as an appropriate place to focus government policy,” she said. “This idea that Black women’s wombs are dangerous [and]that black women give birth to children who are inevitably going to be social problems …, I think, has dominated public policy of the United States from the very beginning.”

Protecting Families—or Policing Them?

In Torn Apart, her latest book, Professor Roberts exposes the foundational racism of the child welfare system and calls for radical change. Drawing on decades of research, she reveals that the child welfare system is better understood as a “family policing system” that collaborates with law enforcement and prisons to oppress Black communities. Child protection investigations, Professor Roberts argues, ensnare a Black children disproportionately, putting their families under intense state surveillance and regulation. Black children, she adds, are disproportionately likely to be torn from their families and placed in foster care, driving many to juvenile detention and imprisonment.

“These are really brutal, horrible acts of government violence against people [that]are justified as just being a natural consequence of the division of human beings,” Professor Roberts said. “I think that connects … my books as well as other writings I’ve done.”

Professors Dorothy Roberts and Melissa Murray headline the Second Annual Eunice Carter Lecture, titled “Policing Black Families and Bodies,” on Feb. 1, 2023.

Towards the end of the lecture, Professors Murray and Roberts noted that the U.S. states passing laws that limit the teaching of critical race theory and ban certain books are the very same states with the most restrictive reproductive rights policies, the highest rates of Black maternal mortality, and the worst support systems for families.

“I think we have to point out that those aren’t accidents [and]that there is a connection between banning knowledge about [Black] history, about the roots of injustice, and the kinds of policies that perpetuate injustice,” said Professor Roberts.

Honoring Eunice Carter ’32

Eunice Carter

Eunice Carter

The lecture series honors Eunice Carter ’32, one of the first Black women to earn a law degree at Fordham and to pass the New York bar nearly a year later. Carter is most known for playing a critical, behind-the-scenes role in the trial of notorious mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano and his associates in the late 1930s. She linked prostitution in New York City to Luciano’s organization, orchestrated the sting operation that resulted in Luciano’s arrest and imprisonment, and served as the only woman and person of color on Special Prosecutor Thomas E. Dewey’s “Twenty Against the Underworld” legal team. Later in her career, Carter became a legal advisor to the newly formed United Nations, a member of the U.S. National Council of Negro Women, secretary of the Mayor’s commission on conditions in Harlem, and several other national and global organizations.

Fordham Law students meet Dorothy Roberts ahead of the Second Annual Eunice Carter Lecture.


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