Not JUST data

Princeton University

Not JUST Data

Ruha Benjamin exposes the injustice behind the numbers

By Jerimiah Oetting

Dr. Ruha Benjamin
Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies, created the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab to explore how data are misinterpreted or intentionally twisted through stories and narratives. Photo by Cyndi Shattuck

When Ruha Benjamin was 14, she moved from South Carolina to the South Pacific with her parents, educators tasked with curriculum development and teacher training in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. To keep the family entertained, her father brought boxes of VHS tapes filled with “Star Trek” episodes.

“It was my only entertainment for nine months,” Benjamin said. “I became a real Trekkie.”

Later as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Benjamin realized that many of the scientists and engineers she met shared her love of science fiction. Shows like “Star Trek” weren’t just fiction — they were inspirations that led to real innovations and discoveries.

She also noticed that only a small sliver of humanity had the resources and power to translate sci-fi visions into reality — to boldly go where no one has gone before. The rest of the world is forced to “live inside someone else’s imagination,” Benjamin said.

“What motivates me is to radically expand that imagination,” she said.

As the novel coronavirus infiltrates communities of color, and protests erupt over the nation’s long history of police violence against Black Americans, people are increasingly aware that institutions have long failed people of color. Benjamin, professor of African American studies, envisions a path to structural changes and a more equitable future by recognizing the failures of the past. Those failures, she believes, are written in data.

Evidence of prejudice and racial inequality are baked into the numbers coming from institutions such as banks, hospitals, schools and prisons. But data can be misinterpreted or intentionally twisted through stories and narratives. In this era of misinformation, if data are to be used for justice, Benjamin argues, the data alone are not enough. Researchers need to be “as rigorous about the stories as they are the statistics,” she said.

In 2018, when Benjamin created the Ida B. Wells JUST Data Lab, her goal was to shrink the space between data and interpretation by providing context, limiting the ability for stories and narratives to deflect the truth.

“The concept of JUST Data is to highlight that no data are actually objective,” said Cierra Robson, Class of 2019 and a mentee of Benjamin’s. “Instead we need to find ways to make it just — as in justice. We need to identify ways to use data for the social good.”

The disproportionate number of hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 among people of color, for example, should ideally lead to a greater allocation of resources in those communities to help curb the disparity.

Instead, at a press conference in early April, a government official called for people of color to “step up” and avoid tobacco, alcohol and drugs — placing the blame not on systemic failures, but on the very people who are suffering.

“People likely see those numbers and think, ‘What are those people doing to get infected at such a high rate?’” Benjamin said. “It becomes even greater fuel for pathologizing and blaming people who are most affected.”

Benjamin’s efforts are not the first attempts to use data to upend racial injustice. The lab’s namesake is Ida B. Wells, the civil rights leader, suffragette and investigative journalist. In 1895, in the midst of intense racial violence targeting African Americans in the post-Reconstruction era, Wells published the Red Record, a historic effort to quantify lynchings in the United States after slavery.

“This was an early example of using data for anti-racist ends,” Robson said. “It is the tradition from which we come and an exemplar of the work we do.”

Robson is the associate director of the JUST Data Lab’s new Pandemic Portal, which collects, examines and distributes data on the impact of COVID-19 on communities of color. The team formed the portal in response to what Benjamin calls the converging crises of SARS-CoV-2 and police brutality.

“Forty-million-plus people have lost their jobs, but the top millionaires have made money this year,” Benjamin said. “And we’ve deputized police to manage that powder keg of inequality.”

Powered by undergraduates
In summer 2020, about 40 undergraduates worked on the Pandemic Portal with Benjamin, whose goal is to mentor 100 students every year. The students partnered with community organizations working to address racial inequality in the context of the pandemic. They gathered data on the racial dimensions of the pandemic across 10 domains: arts, mutual aid, mental health, testing and treatments, education, prisons, policing, work, housing and health care. The resulting data-based tools and resources are available on the Pandemic Portal website.

“One of the beautiful things about the Pandemic Portal has been realizing that each of these categories, which seemed very separate — police violence and prisons on one hand, and education, hospitals and health care on the other — are actually deeply connected,” Robson said.

Masha Miura, Class of 2021, investigated policing for the Pandemic Portal. Her group worked with Stop LAPD Spying, a coalition of community members in Los Angeles, to investigate how government efforts to track COVID-19 cases could feed harmful forms of surveillance, like predictive policing, or lead to deportations of undocumented people.

This practice can erode trust in medical providers, leading people to avoid seeking care. The researchers created data visualizations that showed how some government contractors had misused data in the past, and provided resources to inform the community about how to protect themselves.

“Ruha has given me a lot of hope for what it means to be a student activist,” Miura said, “and shows how research at Princeton can actually give back to these communities.”

The rest of the world is forced to “live inside someone else’s imagination,” Benjamin said. “What motivates me is to radically expand that imagination.”

Ruha Benjamin, professor of African American studies at Princeton University, discusses her book “Race After Technology,” which explains the biases and social context in how technology is developed, and offers tools for analysis and change. (Video by the Princeton University Office of Communications)