By Margaret McElwain
Ruha Benjamin, an assistant professor in the center for African American Studies at Princeton University, gave an eye-opening analysis of global health care in this year’s Dr. Gloria Harper Dickinson Memorial Lecture with a talk entitled, “Discriminatory Design: From Park Bench to Lab Bench, Who’s Designing Our Future,” on Thursday, April 9, in the Library Auditorium.
Benjamin received her bachelors from Spelman College in sociology and anthropology and went on to receive her doctorate in sociology from University of California Berkeley. Currently, Benjamin’s work is raising awareness of the obvious flaws in the global health care realm as she encourages a more social atmosphere in these decisions, where concern for everyone’s health is included. She believes that many of the decisions made by people in the field are created with more affluent individuals benefits in mind because the wealthy are typically the ones in control of these decisions.
Benjamin’s lecture began with the catalyst that drove her interest in the makeup of how things are designed for the public: a park bench. While she was sharing her work in California, Benjamin went to lay down on a park bench when she realized she couldn’t because of the arm rests that were placed intermittently throughout the bench. This simple detail, she said, reveals a lot about the culture of America and even that particular region: They are people who value their personal space.
Benjamin displayed various pictures of park bench designs from all over the world to illustrate how, as she said, “There are many ways to design the bench.”
For example, she found that there were single-occupancy benches in Helsinki and caged-in benches in France. Every culture subconsciously designs their systems around their own social norms, which Benjamin said “is imbued with a broad range of social values.”
Benjamin shared multiple examples illustrating the hierarchy involved in our global healthcare system, from Henry Eta Lax’s overlooked fame for her stem cells, to the stories of nonconsensual vasectomies being performed in the 1990s in Georgia.
However, the prison assessment brain scan controversy was particularly provoking. Currently, certain prisons are running “risk assessment” brain scans on their prisoners to test their brain for “impulsivity,” a characteristic they have found correlates with breaking the law. This comes at a huge disadvantage to the prisoners who will be labeled as more of a threat to society, at times even elongating their prison sentence.
Meanwhile, many Wall Street brokers have had a hand in creating a global economic crisis, yet people do not find them eligible for risk assessment brain scans.
“Why prisoners?” Benjamin asked, frustrated by who is labeled worthy of scientific research and who is not. “Let’s take these brain scans and line them up and down Wall Street.”
In the lecture, Benjamin discussed a trend that is coming about in the global health realm that is particularly catastrophic — the world’s interest in genetics as the answer to every problem in health. Humans prefer the idea of genetics as the scapegoat for problems in health because no one is specifically to blame, she said.
Benjamin will soon be studying the caste system in India, where she will be learning about the “biology of castes.” She is interested in finding if genes are racial or if we make them real because we continue to act on them, excluding and racially dividing. Benjamin asks the question, “Genomically the same or are they the same through political and social mapping?” Unfortunately, theories that take the blame away from anyone or anything and places the blame in genetics is more appealing and often receives the grants.
Benjamin wants to create a revolution in how we design our systems, to make sure that the people who create the systems ask themselves, “Who are we designing this system for?” She wants to avoid medical abuse and systemic forms of exclusion.
“(My goal is) a material and social world that includes input from everyone,” Benjamin said. “(Otherwise we) risk steering this ship into (a) future that is even more unequal.”