Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 27, 2020

Princeton professor presents a new theory on countering racism at bioethics lecture

By MICHELLE LIMPE | November 2, 2020

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Ruha Benjamin explores the relationship between two major issues that have devastated the nation: COVID-19 and racial injustice.

The Berman Institute of Bioethics hosted Ruha Benjamin as the first speaker in its speaker series “Epidemic/Endemic: Medical Humanities & Social Medicine 2020-21” on Oct. 30. The Department of Sociology and the Center for Medical Humanities and Social Medicine co-sponsored the event, entitled “Viral Justice: Pandemics, Policing and Public Bioethics.”

Benjamin is an associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and founding director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab. In her presentation, Benjamin analyzed the relationship between COVID-19 and police brutality, discussing historical instances of systemic racism in bioethics and health care. She drew from a book she is working on, tentatively named Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want. The book is set to be published in 2022.

Kristin Brig, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the History of Medicine department, was intrigued by Benjamin’s topic of discussion. She found the talk to be very fascinating and relevant, especially considering the University’s historic racial issues. 

“Having this at the medical school — which has perpetuated a lot of harm in the surrounding Baltimore community — is whole other issue itself,” she said. “Talks like these are going to help wake Hopkins medical professionals up to the kinds of harms they could potentially inflict on the surrounding community without knowing it.”

Benjamin touched on the purpose of sociology in recognizing that racism distorts how individuals perceive the racial climate. According to her, it is important to understand how racism affects the everyday lives of ordinary people not shown in the headlines and media.

“It’s about making public issues out of private matters. Racism distorts not only how we read our external reality — institutions and our public infrastructure — but also distorts our interpersonal dynamics and internal reality. It’s about how we understand our own place and worth as human beings,” she said. 

She presented a study conducted at Yale University that analyzed how racism distorts reality, where researchers put eye tracking technology on preschool teachers and had them watch preschoolers play. The teachers were told to look for “challenging behavior.” According to the results, the majority of the teachers’ attention focused on Black children, even though they were behaving in the same manner as the rest. 

She noted that people are not born with distorted views on the world. According to her, these views are a result of centuries of science and ideologies that have underscored and naturalized racism.

“Every single element of the Black body has been dissected as a way to underscore and legitimize Black inferiority: hair, nose, jaw,” she said. “It wasn’t enough for those reporting scientific racist ideas to say in the abstract that white civilization is superior and Black people are inferior but mapping it onto the body creates a veneer of objectivity and a sense that these differences are inherent and God-given.” 

Benjamin showed that even technology is infected with distortions. She flashed two screenshots of Google searches in support of her claim. One image showed a Google search of “professional hairstyles,” which showcased images of straight hair. In contrast, a Google search of “unprofessional hairstyles” led to images of Black women’s natural, curly hair. Here, she illustrated that Black women’s hair was the body element picked apart by technical systems.

She proposed the theory of viral justice as a potential solution of changing the racial climate, noting that two medical traditions exist regarding racist violence: one that opposes it and another that enables it. She named the medical tradition that enables racist violence as “Medicine as Objective Oppressor,” citing the practice as responsible for building the foundations of scientific racism. 

“There is a historic and ongoing collusion of scientists and doctors with the powers of performing sterilizations in U.S. prisons and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] detention centers, enabling torture at Guantanamo Bay, not to mention the everyday neglect and mistreatment of Black, indigenous, Latinx, disabled, femme, poor, trans, imprisoned, veteran, homeless, undocumented and other vulnerable patients,” she said.

In contrast to this, she named the tradition that combats racism to be “Medicine as a Moral Force,” which includes many individuals and organizations that collectively work to transform medical institutions. She praised “White Coats for Black Lives,” an organization of medical students founded in December 2014. 

“The medical institution that historically had racism built into its foundations largely remained silent,” she said. “Medical students of colors and allies across the country participated in die-ins to demonstrate a commitment to dismantling the systems that lead to their deaths. The actions of these students raised an important question to the institution of medicine: Are medical professionals responsible for combating racism?”

Benjamin emphasized that every profession needs a similar moment of reckoning to ruminate on why everyday racism exists. She added that COVID-19 is another element that has added a biological threat to the already present social threats for underrepresented communities. 

She lauded the public health slogan “Viruses don’t discriminate, and neither should we” as a way to oppose the issues of racism and xenophobia.

“The idea that viruses don’t discriminate conceals the fact that the virus is not simply a biological entity but a biopolitical reality that travels along well-worn patterns of inequity captured in the early pandemic deadlines,” she said. “The pathology of American racism is making the pathology of the coronavirus worse.”

She cited international statistics of instances of anti-Blackness. One such instance occurred in France when two doctors stated on live television that COVID-19 vaccines should be tested on Africans, which was instantly received with public backlash. 

In conclusion, Benjamin stated that viral justice is a new theory that can transform the current racial climate into a just system, which requires discerning between performative justice and durable change. 

“We all have the ability to seed new partners of thinking interpersonally, institutionally and internally. We need the loud and voracious world builders as much as the quiet and studious ones. The last thing we need is for everyone to do or be the same thing,” she said. 

Alyssa Newman, a postdoctoral fellow, emphasized that Benjamin’s discussion helped her become more aware of her everyday actions in combating racism. 

“Benjamin did a wonderful job of not just showing us the interlinked connections between the two issues as they’re happening but also that so much of what’s happening is calling attention to the structural nature of inequality and racism,” she said. “This was really great to think about the smaller gestures in everyday life that can counteract and help us work towards a more just future.”

Brig was grateful for the tools that Benjamin shared, which she noted could be implemented in both her academic work and everyday life. 

“The kinds of tools that she was giving to help us think about the actions we could take was one of the bigger takeaways I had from this talk. It was more of a practical thing that I could actually use in my life as well as thinking about it in terms of my own research,” she said. 

Newman recognized that these kinds of webinars create spaces to have important conversations about serious issues. 

“Benjamin’s talk brought race and racial inequality to the fore and that’s wonderful to happen in a moment where there are clear inequalities happening and policy violence is a pandemic,” she said. “But this is something that should be happening not only in these moments of crises but also outside of it.”

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