Sociologist Ruha Benjamin delves into race and technology in eighth Patrusky Lecture
Princeton sociologist Ruha Benjamin (@ruha9), whose work examines how science and technology reinforce racial inequality as they shape the social world, was selected by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing to present the eighth Patrusky Lecture on October 21, 2020. Benjamin’s presentation was one of the virtual events making up ScienceWriters2020, a conference organized jointly by CASW and the National Association of Science Writers. A video recording may be found on the Patrusky Lectures video page.
An associate professor in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University, Benjamin studies, speaks, and writes on the social dimensions of science, technology and medicine, race and citizenship, knowledge and power. She is the founder of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab and the author of two books focused on the tension between innovation and inequity, People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier (Stanford University Press, 2013) and the award-winning Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Polity 2019). Her current work is an investigation of the interaction of human population genomics with race, caste, and citizenship.
Her address focused on the theme of Race After Technology—the ways emerging technologies can reinforce white supremacy and deepen social inequality—with examples related to biomedicine and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the book she presents the concept of a “New Jim Code,” showing how discriminatory designs encode inequity so that technology replicates and amplifies racial hierarchies and division, even when designers aim to fix racial bias.
CASW President Alan Boyle said Benjamin’s insights and pointed critiques are guideposts that can help science journalists follow the example of pioneering investigative reporter Ida B. Wells and expose injustice where it is typically unseen, in the design of technology.
“We’re honored that Ruha Benjamin has agreed to share her insights with science writers during a pandemic that is exposing and deepening systemic inequality in our society,” Boyle said in announcing Benjamin’s selection. “Lafayette College, where she will also talk this fall, calls her work ‘incredibly, painfully timely and widely relevant.’ I can’t put it better. The questions she asks are questions we must ask.”
Born in India and educated in South Africa, Benjamin describes herself as coming from many Souths, giving her a habit “of looking at the world from its underbelly.” A graduate of Spelman College, she earned her Ph.D. in sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, and was a postdoctoral fellow at UCLA’s Institute for Society and Genetics. She has been awarded fellowships by the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Institute of Advanced Studies, and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Program on Science, Technology and Society, among others. At Princeton she is Arthur H. Scribner Bicentennial Preceptor and a recipient of the President’s Award for Distinguished Teaching.
The Just Data Lab is named for the American investigative journalist, activist and researcher Ida Bell Wells-Barnett, who braved threats and mob attacks to expose the barbaric practice of lynching as a tool of white supremacist intimidation and oppression in the U.S. South in the 1890s. The lab brings together students, educators, activists and artists to analyze data within historical and social contexts and deploy such data to advance justice and equality. This year, a Pandemic Portal was launched to collect and contextualize data involving race and COVID-19 and to establish partnerships with community members and organizations combating racial injustice amid a public health crisis.
The Patrusky Lectures
The Patrusky Lectures were launched by CASW in 2013 to honor Ben Patrusky, who served as the council’s executive director for 25 years and as director of the New Horizons in Science program for 30 years. Until this year, they were presented in person during the ScienceWriters conferences. Previous Patrusky Lecturers were George M. Whitesides of Harvard University (2013), Donald Johanson of Arizona State University and the Institute of Human Origins (2014), Jo Handelsman of Yale University and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (2015), Steven Weinberg of the University of Texas at Austin (2016), Susan Desmond-Hellmann of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (2017), and planetary scientist Steven Squyres, lead scientist for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.