Distinguished sociologist and founding director of Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab to headline MLK Convocation

Ruha Benjamin, an incisive scholar of tech-reinforced racism, will address the 38th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation, a virtual event on February 23

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

Ruha Benjamin takes aim at the ways in which cutting-edge tech, from apps to bots and hiring algorithms, can encode and reinforce racist practices. 

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

Benjamin will bring her incisive scholarship and her engaging speaking style to the all-virtual 38th annual Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Convocation, which will take place on Wednesday, February 23, at 5:30 p.m. The event is free and open to the public; those who wish to attend the convocation may register in advance

This annual celebration of King’s life and legacy has become a proud tradition for UC Santa Cruz, with a stunning lineup of speakers over the years, including activist and UC Santa Cruz professor emerita Angela Davis, poet Nikki Giovanni, Harvard professor and author Cornel West, and Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a temporary switch to a virtual format, the conference was held at the Civic Auditorium in downtown Santa Cruz. 

“Gathering annually to reflect on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is important to the campus for the purpose of building community and reinforcing our principles of community, but more so is to move us to action,” said committee chair Judith Estrada, UCSC’s executive director and interim chief diversity officer. 

“More importantly, this year we are focusing on restorative healing due to so much loss our communities have endured,” Estrada said. “We are excited that Dr. Benjamin will be joining us to invigorate our minds and hearts through a heartfelt keynote speech.” 

Benjamin is the founding director of Princeton University’s  Ida B.Wells JUST Data Lab, where undergraduate researchers work on a wide range of projects that expose injustices hidden in statistics. 

In a 2019 interview with the Guardian, Benjamin spoke in depth about the ways prejudice can be encoded or “embedded” in technology, though she also has strong ideas about how tech could be reformed in the name of fairness and equity. 

“Many of these automated systems are trying to identify and predict risk. So we have to look at how risk was assessed historically—whether a bank would extend a loan to someone, or if a judge would give someone a certain sentence,” Benjamin told the Guardian. "The decisions of the past are the input for how we teach software to make those decisions in the future.”

In the same interview, she also talked about discriminatory hiring algorithims, and the “racialized” ways that machines can assess risk. She describes technologies that sustain or worsen racism as “Jim Code,” echoing the term "Jim Crow," the former practice of segregating Black people in the United States.

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. 

“Her inventive and wide-ranging analyses remind us that as much as we try to purge ourselves from our tools and view them as external to our flaws, they are always extensions of us," wrote Kearse. "As exacting a worldview as that is, it is also inclusive and hopeful."

Benjamin is the author of People’s Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. She has studied the social dimensions of science, technology, and medicine and speaks widely on issues of innovation, equity, health, and justice in the U.S. and globally. 

She serves on the Executive Committees for the Program in Global Health and Health Policy and Center for Digital Humanities, and is also a faculty associate in the Center for Information Technology Policy; Program on History of Science; Center for Health and Wellbeing; Program on Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Department of Sociology. Ruha is the recipient of many awards and honors, including the 2017 President's Award for Distinguished Teaching at Princeton.