Exposing the racist underpinnings of 'neutral' technology

Ruha Benjamin shares a message of resistance and hope at the 38th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation

An African American studies professor at Princeton University, Ruha Benjamin has investigated the ways in which discrimination is hardwired into modern technology. 


Technology is often portrayed as a neutral value or a force of good, but Americans who care about social justice should consider the ways that “smart borders," hiring algorithms, and surveillance practices perpetuate racism. 

Sociologist Ruha Benjamin made this incisive argument during her keynote remarks at the all-virtual 38th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation on Feb. 23.

The convocation celebrates King’s life and legacy, and has attracted a wide array of speakers, including Harvard professor Cornel West; Pulitzer Prize–winning author Alice Walker; Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza; and radical activist and UC Santa Cruz Professor Emerita Angela Davis, who drew one of the biggest-ever crowds to the convocation at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in 2016. For the past two convocations, the ceremony has pivoted to an all-virtual format. 

Benjamin often referred to the misleading “neutral” veneer of cutting-edge tech and how this popular image often disguises oppressive practices. She referred to “smart borders” technology that makes use of the latest surveillance and monitoring technologies including drones, motion sensors, and facial recognition technologies in areas including the U.S. border with Mexico. 

“The power of these technologies rests on a false assertion of neutrality,” Benjamin said. “They count on us believing they are more objective, more humanitarian even, than a scowling border agent wielding a whip.”

An African American studies professor at Princeton University, Benjamin has investigated the ways in which discrimination is hardwired into modern technology. 

Her book, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, examines the relationship between machine bias and systemic racism, analyzing specific cases of “discriminatory design” and offering tools for a socially conscious approach to tech development. 

In a review of the book—which was awarded Brooklyn Public Library’s 2020 Nonfiction Prize—Stephen Kearse of The Nation praised Benjamin for her “withering critique” of tech that sustains or worsens racism. 

In her MLK presentation, Benjamin mentioned technology-based practices such as immigrant databases, digital IDs, and electronic tracking systems. 

“For all the talk of smart borders, which use biometric face verification, aerial drones, and data fusion centers, borders are just becoming more intensive sites of racialized surveillance, displacement, and death,” she said. 

“Smartness in this sense hearkens back to the eugenic underpinnings of both artificial and organic intelligence and its primary directive to categorize and rank humans, eradicating those deemed worthless while propagating those judged worthy,” Benjamin continued.

These smart technologies are also used to repress dissent, Benjamin said. She mentioned “the many different types of surveillance deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters, from police body cams, drones overhead, facial recognition software, and even online tracking technologies like ones produced by [the Wyoming-based company] Shadowdragon, that allows police to suck in your data from social media and other internet sources including Amazon and dating sites.”

Benjamin also examined the historic roots of racism-infused tech practices. 

“Not only did eugenics shape statistics as [mathematician] Aubrey Clayton elaborates in his powerful essay ["How Eugenics Shaped Statistics," Nautilus Magazine, October 2020], but it was considered a progressive science by its proponents and chief architects, many of whom were propped up by the same universities who today hail artificial intelligence as the savior of all of our social ills,” Benjamin said.

In her live exchange with Camilla Hawthorne, assistant professor of sociology and critical race and ethnic studies, she also warned that tech can use the veneer of inclusivity to hide injustice. 

“Diversity and inclusion rhetoric can go hand in hand with maintaining the status quo,” Benjamin said during the Q&A that followed her keynote address. “So you can have an all-Black-and-Latinx design group, but if their mandate is still to build tools for ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] or tools for the police, that diversity just becomes a cover for businesses as usual.

“One of the heartening things is that student organizers are seeing through the rhetoric,” Benjamin said. “They're seeing through the ‘feel good’ pipelines that are being created. There are campaigns now that are encouraging students not even to apply to certain companies if they maintain contracts with the carceral state or with ICE.”

In referencing “the carceral state,” Benjamin was referring to institutions of confinement, including prisons, as well as policies and practices relating to those institutions, including the criminal justice system.

“I am also heartened by young people who are not drinking that Kool-Aid, who are not falling for the inclusive framing when they know that they will just become cogs in this machine and be on the websites and be in the commercials,” Benjamin said.

“There is also a growing awareness that you can’t just trust these [tech] companies to work in our best interest,” Benjamin said. “When we talk about social media, we talk about being connected freely widely, globally, but it also means a whole set of things connecting to us, swallowing our data."

She also praised tech workers “speaking out against corporate collusion in racism.” She mentioned Google employees who urged the company to pull out of an AI project that could be used to make drone strikes more effective. 

She also promoted the handbook Racial Literacy In Tech: Why Ethics, Diversity In Hiring and Implicit Bias Trainings Are Not Enough, and cited organizations including the Immigrant Defense Project, which ‘“take a proactive approach to tech justice.” 

The evening also included an emotional video retrospective of the Tony Hill Award, with Hill’s widow Melanie Stern and daughter Tara Kemp highlighting honorees over the years. This special honor recognizes individuals whose lives and actions exemplify the late Tony Hill's work and legacy. Hill, a longtime advocate for social and economic justice in Santa Cruz County, was known for his skills as a community bridge-builder and mediator. He died in 2007 at age 62.

During the convocation, UCSC Chancellor Cynthia Larive praised Hill and the honorees. 

“I’d like to thank Melanie Stern and Tara Kemp for their work over the past 14 years, and helping us to recognize and celebrate efforts of local change-makers and bridge builders, recognizing those in our community working for social and economic justice, for fairness, and for equity as Tony Hill did. He brought hope to others, and inspired so many.”

Save the date for a series of high-profile events at John R. Lewis College, listed in this link to the Necessary Trouble Series.