[AAS21 Podcast] Episode #12: Reimagining Science and Technology

Wednesday, Mar 28, 2018

Podcast Transcript:

(0:00) [background music] 

Eddie Glaude: Welcome to the AAS 21 Podcast. I'm Eddie Glaude, and I'm the Chair of African American Studies here at Princeton University. I'm delighted to have joined us today Professor Ruha Benjamin. She's in Social Professor here in the Department of African American Studies and a Faculty Associate in the Program on History of Science, the Center for Health and Wellbeing, the Program on Gender-- Gender and Sexuality Studies, the Program in Global Health and Health Policy, and the Department of Sociology at Princeton. Her research focuses on the social dimensions of science, medicine, and technology; race-ethnicity and health; knowledge and power. She's the author of People's Science: Bodies and Rights on the Stem Cell Frontier. Where she examines the social dimensions of stem cell science with a particular focus on the passage and implementation of a right to research codified in California. She has three new books on the horizon. Race after Technology which examines the relationship between machine bias and systemic racism by analyzing cases of discriminatory design and offering tools for more self socially-conscious approach to tech development. She has an edited volume immediately coming out entitled Captivating Technology, at least, tentatively titled Captivating Technology: Reimagining Race Resistance and the Carceral Imagination in which she brings together the scholars who work at the nexus of critical race studies and science and technology studies. And finally, there is The Emperor's New Genes, a multi-sited investigation of how human population genomics reflects, reinforces, and sometimes challenges sociopolitical distinctions such as race, cast, and citizenship with the particular focus on initiatives in the US, South Africa, and India. Wow. Her work reflects her wide range and interest and mastery of a number of different fields. And it demonstrates that at the heart of it all is the creativity of an artist that work. Welcome, Ruha.

Ruha Benjamin: (2:00) Wow. Thank you. I feel welcome [laughter].

Eddie: So let's, let's talk about, I mean this is amazing in terms of the scope and breath of your work. Uh, you know, when we talk with, uh, your colleagues, uh, like Terry, we talked about expansiveness of her archive and the like. And really, the expansiveness of- of- of- of what you- the subject matter and- and- and the intersections of- of- of the subject matter that you're working. So talk to me a bit about how you describe, how would you describe what motivates your work. How did you come to this?

Ruha: Mm-hmm. Uh, I-- I can think of two things off the top of my head. One is, uh, just a stubbornness that I've had, um, since starting in the field of Sociology at Spelman College. And, um--

Eddie: Yes. We've got a bigger ups problem.

Ruha: --and continuing on in graduate studies. The stubbornness is around, um, when I'm told that I'm not supposed to study certain things, it motivates me to wanna know why that is. Why is it off- off- off limits. And I think, within the social scientist, at least when I was getting started less so now, when it came to science, um, it was as if this was a rarefied arena that was off limits to- to critical inquiry. It was in a bubble. It was a social, a political. And, um, so that made me wanna know more about it. Why is it for example, even to this day, that when I share kind of what my general, uh, interests are, people- the first question often is, "Well- how- did you study that Life Science?" or, "Did you study that-- that particular technology?" As in, um, you know, "Do you have the necessary expertise to even raise the question?" And that- that responses is- you find it less when people are starting to say, "Economics or politics." People don't say, "Well, do you have a degree in Economics? What? Were you a politician before you started down that line?" Because it's seen as something that, you know, (4:00) is open to social or critical inquiry. Whereas, science and technology, I think the idea is, um, that it somehow hovers above human experience. If you're a human being walking this earth, you are engaging with science and technology every day that allow- it- it sort of allows you certain kinds of experiential knowledge that I think is a groundwork. Not that you shouldn't then sort of pursue other kinds of more technical expertise. But you already have a certain expertise and experience with this arena that then should lend itself to critical inquiry. So there is a stubbornness that says, "Well, I'm gonna do it," because I'm told not to. The second, um, motivation is that I see all around me the way science and technology has very grave life and death stakes. And I-- and I think that we need more varied kinds of expertise, more varied kinds of people raising questions, doing research, um, that- that really push into the social dimensions of science and technology so that, um, so that not simply that more people can consume it and benefit from it as sort of a kind of a commercial enterprise but develop knowledge around it. I think that there's ways that, um, that we have to sort of broaden that base of knowledge.

Eddie: So let's- okay. So we got these two different kinds--

Ruha: Yes [laughter].

Eddie: -- of motivations. Let's talk a little bit about the stubbornness.

Ruha: Yes [laughter].

Eddie: So where does it come from?

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: Right? There is this sense of a, you know. I love that line at the end of, uh, your-- your- your homepage where you talk about, "I come from many Souths." And that you really are interested in understanding the underbelly of-- of things-- of the world itself.

Ruha: Yes.

Eddie: So talk a little bit about from whence this stubbornness [laughter]. So when people tell you, "You can't do something," that you--

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: -- decide you will do it.

Ruha: Yeah. Uh, you know it's hard to know where it kind of comes from. You know, there is probably a line in terms of family, um, experiences. My parents, for example, were very (6:00) stubborn in their own way. In terms of even getting married, um, across various kinds of lines. Um, they had to buck certain traditions and sort of, uh, sort of throw out certain kinds of scripts about what was expected of them. My Dad, um, my-- my-- it's Dad's side of the family that's originally from Little Rock, Arkansas. Moved to Los Angeles in the '70s. He traveled with a group, uh, from Los Angeles just to-- uh, to India, the South India where he met my Mom. And within a month, they were married. The day after they met, they decided to get married. Um, and not-- not simply just kind of ignoring their families but enrolling their families and helping their families to understand why they were bucking certain kinds of traditions. And I'd, so I saw-- I wasn't there yet [laughter]. But I have a feeling that some seeds were planted in terms of just, you know, understanding that we are social beings but our-- our-- the point is not simply to follow the scripts that we inherit but to begin to rewrite certain kind of scripts to make other kinds of things possible both in our interpersonal lives and more-- more important at least, you know, on a-- on a broad-based kind of beginning to transform the narratives whether they have to do with race or gender or class. And so I think that certainly I-- I see as a kind of, um, beginning point of the-- of-- inheriting stubbornness.

Eddie: Well, I-- I see-- I see it in the very way in which you occupy spaces like the university, right, the way in which you move through these sources, spaces that's is really important. Then let's go back to that second point about the life and death stakes of the relationship between science and technology. And we see this in your first book: People's Science. Um, and it-- it's-- it's a fascinating, uh, uh, text right, in which you examined, uh, the California stem cells research and cures initiatives, Prop 71. Talk a little bit about that first book.

Ruha: Sure. So yeah. So I-- in the terms of the seeds of that first book, it actually started when I was an undergrad before I even knew what stem cell research was. And I was just-- I was just interested in-- in medicine and health broadly speaking and how there are certain kinds of conventions about (8:00) what good medicine is, who has access to it, and the life and death stakes around that. And when I was doing my undergrad research around, um, uh, obstetrics and black midwifery, the tradition of black midwifery, in the South, um, um, and it's kinda comparing the-- the more institutionalized kinds of childbirth experiences versus, um, lay, um, lay experiences where people have babies in their homes and so on and which we think is a byga-- bygone area but it is-- has a resurgence. Um, and black midwives have continued that tradition from slavery on. And so, um, you know, during that undergrad research, one of the people that I interviewed, um, was a classmate of mine who had given birth before she came to Spelman as a teenager. She was 17. And during that experience, um, you know, she was having a cesarean section, and she was semi-conscious and overheard the doctor asked her Mother, uh, "While we have her open, should we just go ahead and tie her up?" And so thinking about the long history of reproductive injustice that has been specifically targeted at poor women, black women, um, the fact that this was in the mid 90s and still relevant, still experienced and still to-- to this-- this day and we think about a year or two ago, the case breaking in California about women prisoners being sterilized, about a judge few months ago offering, um, prisoners, I believe in Tennessee, the option to have their sentences reduced if they would be sterilized, except, you know, so this is not something that sort of we got passed. Um, and so thinking about the role of, um, you know, health practitioners, that this is not rogue scientists, things happening in the dark, right, where we think about abuses taking place, races abuses as a product of mad scientist or people on the fringes. What should-- what you find is when you begin to unearth this history, it's often people at the center (10:00) of their fields. People getting huge awards and grants and running big institutions who have been the main protagonists of eugenic practices from-- from a bygone era to today. And so for me, for my students, I say. "We're not gonna talk about this in terms of pseudoscience or kind of fringe science, because that is not doing justice to how it played out."

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: "This was the science of the day." So for me, in terms of People's Science, I'm interested in looking at what is being funded? How are the frames by which people are buying into this and thinking this is a great idea? Let's look at the center of the action and find out how the kinds of harms and exclusions that are baked into that that aren't gonna sort of jump out of people's. They're not gonna make a headline like, you know, "Racist scientist do X." Because that's not how it played out in each era, right. It was people who were respected getting, you know, awards and all kinds of things. So I thought, "Okay. Let me go to the center of action." So when I moved from, you know, Atlanta for a graduate school in Berkeley, you know, soon after I got there, the State of California was pouring three billion dollars into, um, investment in stem cell research. And it just happened that one of my, uh, graduate advisers was an Ethics Adviser to the process. And so I became enrolled in the process that kind of insider fellow there being trained both in the science and in the ethics. And so I began to study this qualitatively. What, um, what are the frames by which this is got pop-- the popular vote in-- in-- in 2-- in the mid 2000s. And at the same time, what we found was the-- the majority of people who voted saying, "Yes. We want to invest in this future. We see regenerative method stem cell research. This is wonderful," which it-- it-- you know, maybe it is. But at the very same time, the majority of people who voted, voted down a bill that would have funded basic healthcare for the majority of Californians. That means something that we could do yesterday in terms of access to basic (12:00) healthcare was voted down at the same time that the future has vision of what the science can produce, um, was-- was, uh, and you know, um, got all the resources. And so for me, it's those types of tensions and juxtapositions, you know, how innovation and inequity can go hand in hand.  It's-- they're not necessarily working at odds [laughter], right?

Eddie: Right. Right.

Ruha: And so it's precisely that kind of tension that then is continuing to animate the current work.

Eddie: So-- so let's talk a little bit about methodologically how you attack that problem? So there is a sense in which-- I mean you run passed it pretty quickly.

Ruha: Yes.

Eddie: But you said you were part of the first training cohort.

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: So you're actually learning the science.

Ruha: Right. And so that's right.

Eddie: And so-- and then, there is this insistence on keeping track of social structure--

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: -- understanding historical context--

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: -- right, as you're actually doing this side.

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: So talk a little bit about, um, the methodological intervention you're--

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: -- making in order to pursue this-- this line of anchor.

Ruha: Right. And I think I'm not-- I'm not inventing a new methodology. But it's really about bringing together existing methodo-- mo-- methodologies--

Eddie: The sync-- syncretic kind of a move, right?

Ruha: Right. It's sort of multi-methods.

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: It's really grounded in qualitative approaches but, uh, an insider approach trying to understand this from the perspective of the actors that-- that I'm studying as be- So participant observation is one of them. Um, so developing, you know, in-depth field notes, interviewing as many people as I can. Then triangulating that with the kind of, um, uh, archive of media and documents that are being produced around this initiative. And so it's trying to pull together the various strands. And also, I think one of the things that I'm trying to do then with People's Science and continue to do is to study what is not even raised to the surface as obvious kind of people you could talk to or archives. That is studying what's not being talked about. How do we study the absences, the gaps and so one of the things that People's Science tries to do is to stage a debate (14:00) among various constituencies and actors that never actually happened, because the initiative was passed so quickly and with such pump and-- and-- and, you know, um, um, sort of hype if we will, that certain kinds of debates and frictions never even raised to the surface. Never even happened. So the book tries to put people in conversation and perspectives and conversation that I think should have unfolded, so we could see the various sides and see how thing-- how's-- how-- how certain, um, you know, how-- frictions could have been. So it's interesting as part of the process. One of the-- the recurring themes in the meetings, in the conferences, in the classes around the ethics of stem cell research or any field is the problem of conflicts of interest. Okay. So this idea that people are sitting on a citizen's board making decisions who are the Directors and the-- and the-- and the, um, the people who are running the very same institutions that were gonna get money from this agency, right? And so it's how can you, you know, be a-- a recipient and also be the decision-maker around? So conflict, it was a recurring, recurring, recurring. How do we deal with this conflict? And for me, what was most absent is the lack of conflict when it came to some basic frameworks, idea that, for example, when it came to, um, you know, how this entire thing is gonna affect the disparities in healthcare that already exist, right? They are some of the main protagonists of the initiative. Just saw it as an impediment to worry about those types of things. They would say, "Well, you know, companies are gonna wanna invest in this field if, um, if, you know, we'd put in these requirements." Um, we never heard a full-fledged disability Justice, um, critique of stem cell research as part of the unfoldment on this. So a lack of conflict when it came to some basic frameworks and norms around the science is what the book tries to lay out (16:00) and to say going forward, "The next time this is on the horizon, if these types of issues aren't, um, aren't debated and aren't part of the public discourse around it, then we can't really-- then we were giving lip service to ethics. We're giving lip service to the politics of it. It's, you know, it's basically where ethics, bioethics, becomes a handmaiden to science. It's basically clearing the way to let this but not really raising pointed questions and critiques, right, that-- that should be part of the conversation.

Eddie: And-- and so the takeaway-- I mean-- and-- and this is the first book in-- in--

Ruha: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

Eddie: -- in-- it-- it inaugurates this kind of line of inquiry that-- that is in some ways, um, uh, the final boundaries of-- of-- of your research agenda in-- in very interesting ways, although it's not you're not bound by those boundaries. But there is this kind of underlying political sensibility driving how you approach it. Um, I remember reading the-- the chapter six and you know, this insistence on-- on the essential elements of what you're calling a participatory science, right. And-- and-- and, you know, to my mind and to my ear this is rings of a kind of democratic sensibilities. So talk a little a bit about the takeaway from-- from this mix method this multi-methodological approach where you're looking at what's the gaps and the implications of those gaps. So what-- what participatory science?

Ruha: Right. Thank you for that question. Yeah. I mean I think that the-- the often the-- the-- the-- the knee-jerk response to people who know something is controversial here, something is not right here-- so how do we deal with it is to invoke the rhetoric of, um, um, inclusion. So we need to include as a kind of, you know, vague, multi-cultural platitude.

Eddie: Culturals.

Ruha: Right. And so and often, this inclusion is something that is imagined to happen after everything is set and done, right? We're gonna get the all of (18:00) these framework in place, the science in place. And then, we'll include you. Often, the imagined actor that is being included is a consumer, a downstream that will then be included in the marketplace of scientific and medical goods. And my vision of participatory science is much, much further upstream before the table is set, before the-- the-- the money is invested. When the agenda is, you know-- even just a seed, there needs to be, um, the-- a basis there in which conflict can happen, you know, in which, um, different possibilities for how to invest, for example, three billion dollars.

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: Right?

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: That level of participation, it-- it has implications for, um, K through 12 education, for example. Actually, cultivating citizens who can meaningfully debate and-- and-- and-- and raise their concerns and institutions that can have that kind of decision making and in-- and input. And so so much of what we're talking about could be seen as kind of a rarefied thing in terms of regenerative medicine. But more and more, I see the implications as starting at pre-K-- K. If we want something co-participatory science with respect to stem cell research or genomics, then we have to look at what we're doing in the classroom at the very early level in terms of cultivating a kind of civic, um, democratic sensibility that, um, I don't think is just about individual attributes but about the institutional frameworks that would allow that to happen, right?

Eddie: It makes sense. I mean, you-- it's the, you know, these folks are doing this stuff in labs that will have an impact on the day-to-day living--

Ruha: That's right.

Eddie: -- of folks--

Ruha: That's right.

Eddie: -- right? And to kind of claim it as separate when it's alre-- it's always already involved in the actual lives of people--

Ruha: Absolutely.

Eddie: -- from a--

Ruha: And what happens is lip service towards that greater impact is often there at the grant-making when you're trying to get a grant (20:00) when you're trying to win public support. Then the implications are broad. Then this is gonna impact everyone. But as soon as everyone or  it'll at least some said wants to have a meaningful sort of input, then the gates come up in terms of the boundary between--

Eddie: Check to science.

Ruha: Yes. And--

Eddie: Expertise. It's...

Ruha: Right. And so that-- that-- it's a very porous bound. You win it's-- it's-- when it benefits the people doing the-- the science or-- or soliciting the grants, then implications are brought. In fact, the National Science Foundation has requirements that to get a grant, you have to express how this is gonna impact all of these different groups. But then, in the day-to-day, work-a-day, kind of environment, um, that space is seen as a social, a political--

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: -- right?

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: And so that's what we have to question is what, you know, the-- the-- the kind of strategic use of democracy, strategic use of social impact, um, and who would benefit ultimately.

Eddie: I think that's a great transition to the new edited volume coming out with Duke. It's captivating technology. I mean, uh, where you-- where you edit this, you-- you gather this extraordinary group of scholars to think about, right, the complex intersection of critical race studies and science and technology studies--

Ruha: Right.

Eddie: -- um, the aim of which is what?

Ruha: Yes.

Eddie: I mean, what-- what-- what do you take this edited volume? What do you take it's--

Ruha: Right.

Eddie: -- aim and objective to be?

Ruha: So I think there's a few things going on. One is a kind-- a way in which I'm asking us all to think about our-- our-- our ideas about what racism is, how it operates, how it's reproduced. I think, um, what I want-- I'm trying to do is to show how innovative racism is. It's not a backwoods ideology. It's not something that just happens, you know, um, in terms of nooses and signs and, you know, racial slurs. I want us to look for how (22:00) racism is misquoted into the things we see as modern, as post-modern, as part of our future. And so there's a sensibility I'm trying to cultivate that has that look for it in different places, not simply on a Texas highway where a-- a Sandra Bland is, you know, is, uh, unjustly targeted. But look for it in our textbooks. Look for it in our new policy documents. Look for it in the visions for smart cities. Um, because I think oh-- and I'm not saying look away from the--

Eddie: The loud races doesn't work.

Ruha: -- kind of the-- yeah-- the obvious, uh--

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: But let's look at the way that it's coded and not simply coded as metaphor but coded literally into our computer infrastructure. So within the field-- the social sciences. we have this idea of, you know, structural racism or the way in which inequality is structured into the fabric of our lives,whether it be in legal codes, economic codes. And what I'm saying is let's also look at computer codes, right? And so so much that's happening in terms of, um, the new Jim Crow or carcerality, broadly speaking, um, that critique is now well-known in terms of mass incarceration the way it is a human rights crisis of our time. So those various kinds of responses and reforms and things that people are trying to do to, um, make it less harsh, right? And then so much of that reform is technologically mediated whether we have to do with ankle braces, whether we have to-- all kinds of new gadgets and systems are being developed to manage the crisis. And what I'm saying is-- and what the volume is trying to do is to show how, you know, this is a new Jim code we will-- we might say, right?

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: It is the coupling of, um, ah, si-- si-- automated systems, all kinds of technological infrastructure that has these built-in biases but coupled with the notion that this is more objective than a previous era. So it's that coupling of (24:00) deeply encoded, much more subtle forms of bias with the allure of objectivity that then makes it seem-- because so much of it is presented like this. "Well, yes, we know these judges are racists. Yes, we know these officer." So let's take it out of their hands, and let the computer decide whether you should go on for parole. Let's the-- let the-- let that-- the software decide how long you should do this and so on. And so whether it has to do specifically with carcerality but what the volumes says is we're even shortchanging our critique if we stop with obvious forms of incarceration and prison and policing, because these same technologies are being used for cre-- to determine credit worthiness, are used in hospitals, are used to de-- decide whether to hire or fire teachers, or use it all kinds of domains of social life that are not about simply prisoners and policing. And so the same kinds of biases that are festering here are-- are basically then penetrating all areas of social life but seen as more objective.

Eddie: Yeah. I mean I was sitting here thinking as you were talking Ruha, uh, um, about a recent, uh, New York Time's piece about how the NYPD is trying to use predictive, uh, policing, right, using various kinds of formulations to kind of anticipate where crime will happen, when it will happen. Almost, uh, an attempt to fulfill the Minority Report. Remember that movie--

Ruha: Yes.

Eddie: -- with Tom Cruise?

Ruha: Absolutely.

Eddie: Um, and then I was thinking about that in relation to, um-- and this is me jumping around because it's--

Ruha: No, please.

Eddie: -- so-- it's so generative. I'm thinking about Black Mirror, right, the Netflix series where you see, uh, this attempt to, um, to think through the complexity, the-- the moral--

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: -- ambiguity--

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: -- of technological advance.

Ruha: I love that show.

Eddie: Does that make sense?

Ruha: Yes. Absolutely. And so, um, it's precisely that question of what is our ethical, political relationship with technology? And so this next stage of work, both Captivating Technology and then the next book that's gonna come out. They're-- it's not saying to turn our back on technology. It's to say-- so in the same way that with our children (26:00) if you don't talk to your children process racism and inequality with your child they will inherit the default settings. Their worldview the way that they see, it's going to mirror the status quo if you don't process it with them right, similarly with our baby robots. I see a certain kind -- We have to raise our robots ethically politically with a certain kind of sensibility otherwise they will inherit the default settings that have to do with these forms of bias and so, what we're trying to engender throat the through this volume and through the next book that I'm working on is how to cultivate this kind of ethical political relationship not to turn our backs on it but also and which is the dominant paradigm not to assume that it's gonna magically solve all our problems so much of our crisis with respect to incarceration and other social problems are being outsourced to technology we're saying let- let- let the software figure it out we're so bad at this. We're so subjective we know we're bias all the discourse about implicit bias, right? So, that in many ways is an escape hatch it's saying, “We're not gonna deal with it. We're gonna let this do.” But we have designed this, this doesn't float out of the air, right? Our worldviews our norms and biases and existing inequalities are mapped onto this when you deal with predictive policing. The justification- so much of the justification there's a- We're no longer policing people. We're policing geographic space. These places that are high crime that gets folded into the algorithm. So, it justifies you spending more time there, questioning more people, stop and frisk or whatever. How do you think that place got like that? What- our- our geography does the work of laws of a previous era in terms of codifying inequality and racism and so, we- we use geography as a basis for this new round of decision-making. It's- we're mapping it right into it, right?

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: And so, this is the idea that we need (28:00) um, historians. We need literary scholars. We need social scientists to be part of the design and imagination process. It's too important to leave it simply to the technologists and the people who have the technical expertise because all of these other sensibilities that would raise the question about the history of- say, that's never raised, right?

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: Only after the fact it's like oh, whoops.

Eddie: [chuckles] right.

Ruha: So Facebook last- last year here before um, got called out because um, you know, when we're on where on online we get these targeted ads on the side and so, ProPublica did an investigative report and showed how, if you're a business and you go and you want to buy an ad you can according to the way that the algorithm way that the forms are set up. You can exclude particular racial groups from seeing your ads. So, if you have a housing ad and you don't want these black and Latino customers to see your ad you can just -- you click a few things and they won't see your ad. So, it's a kind of high-tech redlining --

Eddie: Exactly.

Ruha: -- um, that then people are so surprised at you know, and it's kind of thing where well you know, you could have seen that coming if you had certain kinds of um, you know, certain kinds of um, expertise being you know, part of the process.

Eddie: So, I mean this takes us to- to- to the you know, you mentioned the new work. I mean you have uh, race after technology and you have the emperor's new jeans and-and- and both of those books are amazing in- in the generate and their initial stages. I mean I'm thinking about race at the technology particularly in the context of the debates and there and- and- and anxious debates around AI, right. I mean, artificial intelligence I mean we're talking about coding and computers.

Ruha: Yes.

Eddie: I mean artificial intelligence this, those things --

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: It's that's like Model T compared to, to what’s coming down the pike, right?

Ruha: Yes. Yes.

Eddie: I mean there's that, there's a technological revolution that's happening now.

Ruha: That’s right.

Eddie: So, talk a little bit about how these previous (30:00) racial regimes and the knowledge is that flow from them are shaping. You've already alluded to this are shaping, right? These techno-technological advances and how your work intervenes in this?

Ruha: Yes. So, I've seen even in the last year, year and a half, uh, kind of, these kind of waves of public sensibility going from um, kind of shock that uh, these you know, AI and our-are-, I called our racist robots a kind of shock around our racist robots to, um, a sensibility like of course they're racist you know, because more sensibility around the design process um, but now a kind of I see more and more, um, both from the commercial side and the social justice side a real genuine grappling that what- what we make of this? How do we design differently? So, for example there was an inaugural conference back in November at MIT that was uh, uh, a confluence of um, activists and technologists and social scientists and all kinds of community organizations called data for Black Lives. And this was you know, this is part of an attempt to think about um, how to marshal artificial intelligence out of automated decision making in ways that can be more revealing of racist structures rather than sedimenting them. So, it's a way of trying to use and redesign technologies for social justice, right. And so, this is work that is not gonna happen, is not going to come from one or two books. It's part of ongoing collaboration across different sectors and expertise and- and so, I am heartened after this kind of wave of acknowledgment that there are people that are actively trying to think of projects and projects were presented they're having to do with housing and (32:00) finance and healthcare where people are using automation and artificial intelligence um, in ways that I think are supportive of social justice and um, and equity, right? And so, I would encourage those who are listening to go visit the data for Black Lives website and to consider it’s an annual conference now but it's not the only space. There are a number of other uh, initiatives around justice oriented design, right?

Eddie: I think -- yeah, and I think this is a really important point because you know, there's this kind of ongoing skepticism or worry that technological advance will lead to the destruction of human life. Right?

Ruha: Yeah. Yep.

Eddie: We've seen it in the literature you know, folks you know, I Robot. This was the things, right?

Ruha: Yes, yeah. It’s our anxieties around that, yes.

Eddie: It’s our anxieties. So, it’s important to say no, this is a site for us to actually do justice work.

Ruha: Absolutely and so, I would you know, we think about there's the concept of technological determinism, this idea that -- the idea that technology will save us but the idea also that technology will necessarily doom us both are technologically deterministic. It's as if we have no agency. We're either gonna be completely help they're completely harmed both are we are just pawns and puppets and that's not actually nor is it a productive way of thinking but it's not actually how it works. We are agents of this, right. And so, I think about especially for- for you know, in terms of black community and culture we have always been technologists whether it has to do with music what it whatever has to do it this is not something that is external to black culture and black life, right? Many of the ways the inner the innovative practices that you know, we have engineered have been appropriated and seen as coming from some other source or they've been ignored or not valued but I think reorienting ourselves to technology both in terms of the tradition of being in inventors of various sorts and not simply in terms of material goods. (34:00) But one of the things the second book race after technology is trying to do is to broaden our sense of what counts --

Eddie: Right, exactly.

Ruha: -- as technology and invention that are our social relations and the way that we interact um, our sites of invention, our sites of remaking and we- we- we imagining the world and so, I don't wanna us to conflate innovation with simply material invention. That is one sight but I think that we limit ourselves when we wanna stop there.

Eddie: Yeah. I mean you just mentioned a word and it's a word that I-, that-that is so critical to um, what I get from reading you um, reading your work and watching you uh, inhabiting space with you and that is imagination. I'm fond of saying that you know, of quoting this passage from uh, from the sentence from Ralph Waldo Emerson. He says that um, "God speaks to us through our imaginations" and I've always asked I always say to my students if that's true then what is the devil doing? Right?

Ruha: [laughter] oh, yes. I love that.

Eddie: So, imagination becomes a kind of critical category for you in how you even as you're describing and doing all of this work. Imagination comes back all the time. Talk a little bit about that.

Ruha: Yeah. I think one of the one of the things, so --

Eddie: So, I called you an artist didn’t you know --

Ruha: Yeah. So, what is the personal side to this? And that is the- the- the experience of feeling like um, my imagination and creativity was squashed through the process of graduate training. That um, it was an experience of the more expert I became the more scholarly I became. I felt also the pressure to cut off parts of myself. It was a kind of amputation that meant fitting in to a very narrow sense of what it means to be a thinker and so, post graduate work. Being a teacher especially has been (36:00) a space for me to grow back those parts of myself that I felt that I have to cut off and not just grow back it personally but grow it back in terms of how I think and how I produce knowledge that imagination and creativity is part of thinking and so, I am- I am trying to embody that and use it as part of my toolkit but also study it and to understand and respect in the same way that I felt my imagination was disrespected or squashed through my training I am trying to respect in in the power it has over us in terms of the way that we all navigate the world and so, um, yeah, I feel that theoretically we have to center imagination. Not as a kind of Airy fairy you know, think that you know um...

Eddie: That over against reason. It’s not that. Yeah. Mm-hmm.

Ruha: No. It’s not. So, that binary between you know, reason and imagination. I think we have to understand how even to formulate a question even to side of methodology. There are ways in which we are doing all kinds of layers of imagining who is this work for, who is the audience? Um, you know, all types of things and so, I want us to broaden our understanding of how imagination is at play, because as I see it, imagination is a battlefield and right now there's a very dom- several very dominating imaginations that impact all of us and so, if we are not cultivating our own counter imaginary then we are beholden to certain kinds of imagination whether it has to do with economics or politics that you know, we have nothing to respond with, right? And so, we have to do the work of building up counter imaginaries as part of this, this battle.

Eddie: So, I wanna give -- I wanna pursue that a little bit more um, because I want you mentioned teaching and your master teacher. I'm gonna talk a little bit more about that but before I do that, say a little bit about the Emperor's New Jeans. I mean you're working, I mean that project is expansive. (38:00)

Ruha: That project is gonna be about -- we’re gonna be talking about that project for a little while Mr. Chair Person [laughter].

Eddie: I mean, of course, I mean, what, what sparks --

Ruha: I'll tell where that -- yes. Yes.

Eddie: No. I mean, because those are- I mean, it’s like four different-

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: Radically different sites.

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: And it’s the Global South.

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: Am I right?

Ruha: Yeah, but also the U.S., yeah.

Eddie: U.S.

Ruha: Yeah, but it’s not as expansive as it sounds.

Eddie: Okay.

Ruha: When you, when you frame it in terms of countries what it really is are very discrete initiatives that are working along this science. So, it's, it’s the...

Eddie: You know like sovereignty...

Ruha: Yeah. So, it's thinking about how, I mean again, and it ties back to the imagination. So, researchers can be working within the same scientific field but depending on the nation state and the National imaginary that's animating the field of genomics then different racial and ethnic categories are salient in different sites and so, it frames and it shapes the science and so, again, it's thinking about how the and imagination of what counts socially. What groups matter and how that's folded into the production of knowledge within fields that are seen as a social that as universal like no matter where you do this is you're gonna get the same results but that's not what we find. And so, but even stepping back a little bit from that one of the things that got me interested in um this project coming out of the stem cell the people science work was I was looking for a place where some form of participatory science was at play. I wanted to study what the alternative would be from the top down hype driven um, arena where populism was used as a kind of veneer for what was happening to somewhere where it seemed like people were, researchers were genuinely collaborating with groups who they hope to study but hold to also hope to learn with. So, that was partly what animated me was oftentimes our second projects. Our first projects sometimes (40:00) are more cynical and critical then you're like, “I want to study something a little more" you know. In terms of you know, something good that seems to be happening.

Eddie: Right. Right.

Ruha: Not that you don't find certain other critiques at play but that's partly when animated that was to see a place in this case um, you know, it's the first site in terms of South Africa where researchers they're they saw how scientists from other parts of the world would helicopter in get DNA samples fly back out, publish papers, get famous um, give a kind of lip service to collaboration and they wanted to do something differently. As scientists from the world they wanted to- to have a different kind of relationship with um, with indigenous groups and so, on and so, that was the foray into that um, to study what it might look like for participation to happen genuinely but then again then the different sites is more a matter of thinking about okay, how is race ethnicity shaping this field and it's- it's really initiatives. It's not whole countries [laughter].

Eddie: Right [laughter] right. When you see...

Ruha: No. I know. No, don’t be. [laughter]

Eddie: So, so, so, we talked about the arc of the work from, from uh, Spelman to- to Berkeley to uh, to people science to uh captivating technology, race after technology, to the Emperor's New Jeans, um. How, how does it translate into the classroom, um, and into the public life, in your public life. I mean and I bring those two together in the interesting sort of way because when I when, when I, when I see you do your TEDx Talks or when you're engaged in your public, um, speaking or your, your, you're still teaching.

Ruha: Yeah.

Eddie: You’re engaging in that pedagogical enterprise. And then, I know that the students here at Princeton you know, flock to your classes and the conferences you put on. Talked a little bit about um, your philosophy of teaching. And in the various (42:00) spaces in which you enacted.

Ruha: So, again, it comes out of a kind of stubbornness. [laughter] When someone says, “This is what teaching is. This is where teaching happens.” I don't agree. I think that, um, that a classroom and a relationship um, where one is teaching and learning can happen anywhere. And it's not limited to the four corners of the classroom and so, you know, for example if I'm on teaching leave and I need teaching to survive. Teaching is my mental health program. It's the way that I process the world. So, as I'm teaching it's part of processing and when I don't have that outlet I have to create that outlet and so, it in sometimes it takes a form of holding workshops at the public library having screenings at the local theater. It has to do with collaborating with various kinds of organizations in around, um, you know, central Jersey or flying you know, for example a few weeks ago I connected with a group of math teachers in San Francisco. All- they were from all over the country but the- the conference was in San Francisco. Math teachers who are trying to connect math education with social justice and so, for me it's not simply about me going in to teach but to connect with educators who are doing all kinds of interesting work. And so, in terms of philosophy most of the time- when I'm in the traditional classroom, my approach to teaching is that one of conspiring with my students. We are here figure out how to understand better and to change for the better and I teach my students as ambassadors of the material that I'm teaching. I am trying to give them tools and insights and ways of approaching the world and the material so that they can teach other people. If it only stops with them to me is just so limited. So, I'm trying to (44:00) approach them like, “Okay. Now, what are you gonna do with it?” Right? And so, you know, I feel like that it energizes me to know that it is gonna have these ripple effects and then for them I feel like you know, as a semester goes we become not quite peers but more and more aligned in terms of why we're sitting in that room for a few hours a day. Yeah.

Eddie: So, all of this is happening under concrete material conditions. We often find ourselves being called upon to reflect the state of the country, the state of the world. It's a time of uh, ever increasing anxiety and you have to speak to that world and that anxiety is often located in uh, in a number of different way, in number of different spaces, identifying a number of different things. People are worried about how they're gonna keep a roof over their uh...

Ruha: That’s right.

Eddie: They gotta pay their bills. People are worried about automation whether or not they're gonna lose their jobs. So, you know, look Amazon just opens up a store with no one is there, right? I mean. So, you have all of this insecurity anxiety tied to a deepening sense of feeling of precarity. And you're out there. How do you speak to it? How do you sit with it? How do you organize with others to respond to it?

Ruha: Yeah. That’s right. Part of the- part of my reflection on that question and that is a million dollar question, um, is to go back to this idea of really coming to grips with um, our collective power um, within these systems which requires, what- and the word collective is important to me because as individual kind of teachers and professors and intellectuals I think we shouldn't be the center of attention and prognosis. But it's really about um, animating certain kinds of connections so that we can develop (46:00) our collective power to respond to this world that you have, you have described. And I think so, one-one arena you know, one of the buzz words of the last year concerns and anxieties has been around this whole idea of a fake news and science being under attack and the line between what are the facts and what are what's fake and so, on. And, and one- so, so again let's be stubborn. When we're given a choice it's either this or that. I think our first instinct needs to be. What is the third way, the third path that's not being provided as an option? And if there- if we can't immediately see a third way, let's work together to think about what a third way a different possibility is besides either this or that. There are either this line between you know, uh, facts and fiction you know, or everything is everything. There's no reality. It's all subjective. It's all relative. These are the- the two ways. A harden send binary versus everything is everything. What is a third way? What is a different way that we can begin to forge that would give us a better way to actually intervene and the second because I don't think either one of those are adequate and so, when we are presented with the idea of okay. So, right now like science being under attack, facts being under attack. One you know, knee-jerk reaction is to then start policing again the bounds of what counts as sighs let's raise the bar. And what happens with that is that you know, and what we've seen time and again is the more we police the boundaries of the facts and the science, the possibility of who is inside and outside in terms of demographics race, class, demo-, who can produce those facts is also part of what gets hardened, right. And so, certain kinds of inequalities um, in terms of gender and race it becomes solidified. The more we trying to become more insular in terms of science. And what I want to suggest is that (48:00) fictions, the stories that we tell about the world are a necessary sight of knowledge that we have to invest more and we have to respect and they go hand in hand with what we think of as the- the hard and true facts. And I'm gonna give you a quick example.

Eddie: Sure.

Ruha: Just to illustrate this more abstract point. Well, a year, a couple years ago, a team at Stanford they wanted to- they- they wanted to understand how people's understanding of um, inequities in our Carceral System and justice on Carceral System. Um, how that their understanding of it would lead them to either support or not support certain type, types of policies and reforms. So, they approached people coming off the train station in the Bay Area and they, they approached people walking on the streets in New York and so, they presented them with the disparities in terms of the astronomical rate of black incarceration in both these states. And then I California they said, “Okay. You have a sense of these disparities. Would you support reforms in the three strikes law in California?” And New York they said, “Would you support reforms in uh, stop and frisk?”, right. Now that you understand the disparities. And these were all white Americans. And what they were surprised I think to find was that the people who are exposed to the facts. We're less likely to support the reforms in the law- in the three strikes and the stop and frisk. That is the exposure to the facts did not lead in a straight line to social change in any meaningful way right?

Eddie: Right.

Ruha: So, the question is why? What's lost in translation? And what I would suggest is that the stories we tell about the facts. Why that high black incarceration exists at all is as important as seeing some kind of statistics about it, right? Because we can tell stories about why there's inherent criminality in this group. So, they need to be locked up. In fact why would we have less three strikes we need stronger or stricter laws, (50:00) right. And so, just understanding disparities in some flat sense of statistics or graphs is not enough. We have to also invest in the stories and the narratives we're telling as part and parcel of how we begin to develop collective action around social change and so, again this is a case for what we know as the buzzword of interdisciplinarity but I think more meaningfully in terms of knowledge production out in the world. We need our poets. We need our literary folk. We need our storytellers as much as we need our statisticians when it comes to producing data for Black Lives.

Eddie: Absolutely. Well, it seems to me that's a great place to- to end. I want to thank you Professor Benjamin for joining us today with this discussion. Now, I think when -- the takeaway is let's be stubborn.

Ruha: Yes. Let’s be stubborn. Let...

Eddie: Let’s this --

Ruha: Let that be the takeaway. Let’s put it on the t-shirt. [laughter]

Eddie: Additionally, I wanna thank Courtney Bryan for providing the music to this broadcast and to the staff of the Department of African American Studies here at Princeton, our office manager April Peters, our event coordinator Dionne Worthy, our social media specialist Alison Bland and our technical specialist and audio engineer Elio Leo. Remember you can find this podcast and more by visiting our website aas.princeton.edu. Take care.

[background music] (52:00)

[END]

Recent News

Micah Richard Herskind

Buffalo, New York  

Tags:  AAS Students

The Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University announces more than $123,000 in awards to support the summer projects and research of 52...

"Today I'm coming to you live from TEACHx, an annual celebration of experiments in teaching with technology. I am truly honored and humbled to have...
Tags:  AAS Faculty
The man who ushered in a new era of stories by black people, for black people, about the black urban experience.
Tags:  AAS Faculty