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Science, Technology and Society Discussion Series : Racism and Public Health

A new interdisciplinary series featuring scholars from the École Polytechnique and Columbia University will take place alternately in New York City and Paris.  Live streaming video events will be available on the You Tube channel of École polytechnique.

The second lecture, discussion, and reception will be held November 14, 2016 at   Columbia Global Center in Paris.

Registration is free but mandatory :

Organizers : Frédéric Brechenmacher (Professor of history of science, LinX, École polytechnique) & Pamela H. Smith (Seth Low Professor of History, Center for Science and Society - Columbia University)

Keynote speaker

Samuel Kelton Roberts, Professor of History and of Sociomedical Sciences, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University : "An Historiographical note on People of Color, Drug Politics and Research, & a Harm Reduction Perspective"


  •  Soraya Boudia,  Professor of Sociology, Center for Research in Medicine, Science, Health, Mental health, and Society, Université Paris-Descartes,
  •  Renaud Crespin, Research associate Professor in Political Science at CNRS, Center for the Sociology of Organizations / Sciences-Po
  • Bruno Falissard, Professor of Public Health, Faculty of Medicine - Université Paris-Sud,  Member of the National Academy of Medicine

Reception to follow


Keynote lecture

Samuel Kelton Roberts : "An Historiographical note on People of Color, Drug Politics and Research, & a Harm Reduction Perspective"

In this paper I offer an historiographical and methodological note about racialization and ethnic politics in United States drug history since the 1870s. Historical research on the discursive workings of racialization in drug research and political debate makes clear the role of “race” in describing specific drugs as more dangerous than others. These analyses often have the purpose of explaining a set of public policies which putatively targeted undesired drug use but in actuality had the effect of (and often were designed to) limit the social, economic, and geographic mobility of certain stigmatized groups.

This perspective is not unimportant – too few Americans understand the historical role of drug policy in mob violence, lynching, police brutality, and mass incarceration. However, I argue that we have not devoted sufficient attention to ethnic politics in drug history or to the political subjectivities of people who use drugs. In that regard, what I call a “harm reduction” perspective or approach to drug history offers several advantages in that it questions persistent assumptions about “addiction”, proposes an interrogation of the role of stigma in social hierarchy and public policy, and considers active and former drug users as politically viable. There are ethical and political considerations which motivate this approach, but I argue that to the historian the most compelling may be philosophical.


Dr. Samuel Kelton Roberts, Jr., is Director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), Associate Professor of History (School of Arts & Sciences) and Associate Professor of Sociomedical Sciences (Mailman School of Public Health). He writes, teaches, and lectures widely on African-American history, medical and public health history, urban history, issues of policing and criminal justice, and the history of social movements. His book, Infectious Fear: Politics, Disease, and the Health Effects of Segregation (UNC Press, 2009), demonstrates the historical and continuing links between legal and de facto segregation and poor health outcomes. In 2013-14, Dr. Roberts served as the Policy Director of Columbia University’s Justice Initiative, where he coordinated the efforts of several partners to bring attention to the issue of aging and the growing incarcerated elderly population. This work led to the publication of the widely-read landmark report, Aging in Prison Reducing Elder Incarceration and Promoting Public Safety (New York: Columbia University Center for Justice. November 2015.
Dr. Roberts currently is researching a book project on the history of drug addiction policy and politics from the 1950s to the present, a period which encompasses the various heroin epidemics between the 1950s and the 1980s, therapeutic communities, radical recovery movements, methadone maintenance treatment, and harm reduction approaches.
Dr. Roberts tweets from @SamuelKRoberts.