Regulating Facial Recognition Technology to Reduce Bias

By Khortlan Becton, JD, MTS, The Restorative Education Institute (1)

This blog post is an excerpt from the 2023 Hooks Institute Policy Papers “The Promise and Peril: Unpacking the Impact of A.I. and Automation on Marginalized Communities.” Read more here.

I. Introduction

From unlocking a phone to identifying shoplifters in real-time, facial recognition technology (“FRT”) use is increasing among private companies and having an increasingly large impact on the public. According to one study, the global FRT market is expected to grow from $3.8 billion in 2020 to $8.5 billion by 2025 (MarketsandMarkets, 2020). Domestically, FRTs are a central aspect of artificial intelligence (“AI”) use and development in the U.S. pri- vate sector. The following statistics demonstrate the growing prevalence of FRT use in the U.S. private sector: 72% of hotel operators are expected to deploy FRTs by 2025 to identify and interact with guests; by 2023, 97% of airports will roll out FRTs; excluding Southwest Airlines, most major US airlines currently use FRTs (Calvello, 2019).

This explosion of private FRT use has prompted many professional organizations and community organizers to call for a moratorium on FRT use until the enactment of state and federal regulatory actions. One such group noted that industry and government have adopted FRTs “ahead of the development of principles and regulations to reliably assure their consistently appropriate and non-prejudicial use” (Association for Computing Machinery [ACM], 2020). Among the stakeholders calling for such moratoriums is a concern over the alarming level of bias present within commercial FRT systems. Given the widespread integration of FRTs throughout society, both presently and to come, the presence of bias in FRTs is particularly troublesome as decision-making driven by biased FRT can lead to significant physical and legal injuries. For example, self-driving cars are more likely to hit dark-skinned pedestrians (Samuel, 2019). Biased FRTs also have the likelihood of producing discriminatory hiring decisions, credit approvals, or mortgage approvals.

Though the observable and conceivable consequences of bias in FRTs are virtually boundless, state and federal regulatory schemes have not adapted to the growth of FRTs. A continuing lag in regulations designed to address bias in FRTs will likely lead to a range of discriminatory effects that existing agencies do not have the capacity to prevent or redress. Therefore, a federal regulatory scheme propagated by a new agency specifically authorized to regulate AI technologies will better ensure the governance of private entities’ use of facial recognition technologies to address bias than the current regulatory scheme.

A. The Relationship Between AI and FRTs

In popular usage, AI refers to the ability of a computer or machine to mimic the capabilities of the human mind and combining these and other capabilities to perform functions a human might perform (IBM, 2020). AI-powered machines are usually classified into two groups—general and narrow (Towards Data Science, 2018). Narrow AI, which drives most of the AI that surrounds us today, is trained and focused to perform specific tasks. (IBM, 2020). General AI is AI that more fully replicates the autonomy of the human brain—AI that can solve many types of problems and even choose the problems it wants to solve without human intervention (IBM, 2020).

Machine learning is a subset of AI application that enables an application to progressively reprogram itself, digesting data input by human users, to perform the specific task the application is designed to perform with increasingly greater accuracy (IBM, 2020). Deep learning, a subset of machine learning, allows applications to automatically identify the features to be used for classification, without human intervention (IBM, 2020).

Facial recognition technologies are artificial intelligence systems programmed to identify or verify the identity of a person using their face (Thales Group, 2021). “A general statement of the problem of machine recognition of faces can be formulated as follows: given still or video images of a scene, identify or verify one or more persons in the scene using a stored database of faces” (Chellappa et al., 2003). Face recognition is often described as a process that first involves four steps: face detection, face alignment, feature extraction, and face recognition (Brownlee, 2019).

  1. Face Detection. Locate one or more faces in the image with a bounding box.
  2. Face Alignment. Normalize the face to be consistent with the database, such as geometry and
  3. photometrics.
  4. Feature Extraction. Extract features from the face that can be used for the recognition task.
  5. Face Recognition. Perform matching of the face against one or more known faces in a prepared database (Brownlee, 2019).

Companies are developing and implementing FRTs in new and potentially beneficial ways, such as: helping news organizations identify celebrities in their coverage of significant events, providing secondary authentication for mobile applications, automatically indexing image and video files for media and entertainment companies, and allowing humanitarian groups to identify and rescue human trafficking victims (Amazon Web Services [AWS], 2021). Recently, FRT has been in the news for its application in the investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, Capital riot (Sakin, 2021). Other news stories about facial recognition have centered on the coronavirus pandemic. One business proposed creating immunity passports for those who are no longer at risk of contracting or spreading COVID-19 and to use FRTs to identify the immunity passport holder (Sakin, 2021). A MarketsandMarkets (2020) study estimates that the global facial recognition market is expected to grow from $3.8 billion in 2020 to $8.5 billion by 2025.

The Federal Trade Commission’s (“FTC”) recent settlement with Everalbum, a California-based developer of a photo storage app, exemplifies the growth of FRT use in the commercial sector and the liabilities companies may face for implementing the technology. In its complaint, the FTC alleged that Everalbum, which offered an app that allowed users to upload photos and videos to be stored and organized, launched a new feature that, by default, used face recognition to group users’ photos by faces of the people who appear in the photos (Everalbum, Inc., n.d.). Everalbum also allegedly used, without affirmative express consent, users’ uploaded photos to train and develop its own FRT (Everalbum, Inc., n.d.). Regarding its implementation of FRTs, the FTC charged Everalbum
for engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices, in violation of Section 5(a) of the Federal Trade Commission Act, by misrepresenting that it was not using facial recognition unless the user enabled it or turned it on (Everal- bum, Inc., n.d.). In January 2021, Everalbum settled the FTC allegations concerning its deceptive use of FRTs. The proposed settlement requires Everalbum to delete all face embeddings the company derived from photos of users who did not give their express consent to their use and any facial recognition models or algorithms developed with users’ photos or videos (Everalbum, Inc., n.d.). The company must also obtain a user’s express consent before using biometric information it collected from the user to create face embeddings or develop FRTs (Everalbum, Inc., n.d.). Everalbum’s recent settlement with the FTC underscores the nascency of federal governance of FRTs, as the Everalbum settlement is among the first of few federal agency enforcements targeting commercial use of FRTs (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2019) (2). Signaling the potential for increasing regulation and enforcement in this area, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra noted that FRT “is fundamentally flawed and reinforces harmful biases” while highlighting the importance of “efforts to enact moratoria or otherwise severely restrict its use” (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], (2021).

B. Bias in Facial Recognition Technologies

Although proponents of FRTs boast high accuracy rates, a growing body of research exposes divergent error rates in FRT use across demographic groups (Najibi, 2020). In the landmark 2018 “Gender Shades” report, MIT and Microsoft researchers applied an intersectional approach to test three commercial gender classification algorithms (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). The researchers provided skin type annotations for unique subjects in two datasets and built a new facial image dataset that is balanced by gender and skin type (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). Analysis of the dataset benchmarks revealed that all three algorithms performed the worst on darker-skinned females, with error rates up to 34.7% higher than for lighter-skinned males (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). The classifiers also performed more effectively on male faces (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). The researchers suggested that darker skin may not be the only factor responsible for misclassification and that darker skin may instead be highly correlated with facial geometrics or gender presentation standards (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). Noting that default camera settings are often optimized to better expose lighter skin than darker skin, the researchers concluded that under-and overexposed images lose crucial information making them inaccurate measures of classification within artificial intelligence systems (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). The report also emphasizes the need for increased diversity of phenotypic and demographic representation in face datasets and algorithmic evaluations since “[i]nclusive benchmark datasets and subgroup accuracy reports will be necessary to increase transparency and accountability in artificial intelligence” (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018).

In 2019, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (“NIST”) released a series of reports on ongoing face recognition vendor tests (“FRVT”). Using both one-to-one verification algorithms and one-to-many identification search algorithms submitted to the FRVT by corporate research and development laboratories and a few universities, the NIST Information Technology Laboratory quantified the accuracy of face recognition algorithms for demographic groups defined by sex, age, and race or country of origin (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018). The NIST used these algorithms with four large datasets of photographs collected in U.S. governmental applications (3) (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018), which allowed researchers to process a total of 18.27 million images of 8.49 million people through 189 mostly commercial algorithms from 99 developers (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018).

The FRVT report confirms that a majority of the face recognition algorithms tested exhibited demographic differentials of various magnitudes in both false negative results (rejecting a correct match) and false positive results (matching to the wrong person) (Crumpler, 2020). In regard to false positives, the NIST found: (1) that false positive rates are highest in West and East African and East Asian people, and lowest in Eastern European individuals (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018) (4), (2) that, with respect to a number of algorithms developed in China, this effect is reversed, with low false positives rates on East Asian faces; (3) that, with respect to domestic law enforcement images, the highest false positive rates are in American Indians, with elevated rates in African American and Asian populations; (4) and that false positives are higher in women than men, and this is consistent across algorithms and datasets (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018). In regard to false negatives, the NIST found: (1) that false negatives are higher in Asian and American Indian people in domestic mugshots; (2) that false negatives are generally higher in people born in Africa and the Caribbean, the effect being stronger in older individuals (5) (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018).

Encouragingly, the NIST concluded that the differences between demographic groups were far lower in algorithms that were more accurate overall (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018). This conclusion signals that as FRTs continue to evolve, the effects of bias can be reduced (Crumpler, 2020). Based on its finding that the algorithms developed in the U.S. performed worse on East Asian faces than did those developed in China, the NIST theorized that the Chinese teams likely used training datasets with greater representation of Asian faces, improving their performance on that group (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018). Thus, the selection of training data used to build algorithmic models appears to be the most important factor in reducing bias (Crumpler, 2020).

Although both the “Gender Shades” and FRVT reports identify under-representative training sets as major sources of algorithmic bias, another recent study of commercial facial algorithms led by Mei Wang showed that “[a]ll algorithms . . . perform the best on Caucasian testing subsets, followed by Indians from Asia, and the worst on Asians and Africans. This is because the learned representations predominately trained on Caucasians will discard useful information for discerning non-Caucasian faces” (Wang, 2019). Furthermore, “[e]ven with balanced training, we see that non-Caucasians still perform more poorly than Caucasians. The reason may be that faces of coloured skins are more difficult to extract and pre-process feature information, especially in dark situations” (Wang, 2019).

Between 2014 and 2018, the accuracy of facial recognition technology has increased 20-fold (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018). However, further applications of FRT will almost certainly bring new challenges if the prevalence of bias remains unchecked. According to Jan Lunter, co-founder and CEO of Innovatrics, facial recognition companies can approach the issue of bias using the insights that the biometrics industry has gained over the past two decades. “Any failure to use these techniques,” Lunter warns, “will not only fan public mistrust, but also inhibit the iterative pace of improvement shown over the past five years” (Natl. Inst. of Stand. & Technol. [NIST], 2018).

II. Current State and Federal Regulatory Schemes

Against a backdrop of scant federal regulation of commercial AI use, including FRTs, several states have adopted their own regulatory schemes to govern the emergent technology. Illinois (740 Ill Comp. Stat), Washington (Wash. Rev. Code), California (Cal. Civ. Code), and Texas (11 Tex. Bus. & Com. Code) have each enacted legislation that targets private sector use of biometric information, including facial images. The states’ legislative schemes commonly define biometric identifiers that encompass facial images by describing them as “face geometry” or unique biological patterns that identify a person (Yeung et al, 2020). However, the states each employ vastly different methods of enforcement. In Texas and Washington, only the state attorney general has enforcement power (11 Tex. Bus. & Com. Code). In California, the state attorney general and the consumer share responsibility for taking action against entities that violate privacy protections (Cal. Civ. Code). While, in Illinois, any person has the right to pursue action against firms and obtain damages between $1,000 and $5,000 per violation (740 Ill. Comp. Stat). Consequently, companies such as Google, Shutterfly, and Facebook have been sued in Illinois for collecting and tagging consumers’ facial information (Yeung et al., 2020).

Facial recognition bans, which range in scope, are on the rise at the municipal level. In September 2020, Portland, Oregon, banned facial recognition use by both public and private entities, including in places of “public accommodation,” such as restaurants, retail stores and public gathering spaces (Metz, 2020). The Portland, Oregon ban does allow private entities’ use of FRTs (1) to the extent necessary to comply with federal, state, or local laws; (2) for user verification purposes to access the user’s own personal or employer-used communication and electronic devices; or (3) in automatic face detection services in social media apps (Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP, 2020). Similarly, Portland, Maine passed an ordinance in November 2020 banning both the city and its departments and officials from “using or authorizing the use of any facial surveillance software on any groups or members of the public” (Heater, 2020). The ordinance allows members of the public to sue if “facial surveillance data is illegally gathered and/or used” (Heater, 2020). Importantly, the Portland, Maine ban does not apply to private companies.

The federal government’s national AI strategy continues to take shape with constant new developments. On November 17, 2020, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”), pursuant to Executive Order 13859, issued a memorandum addressed to the heads of executive departments and agencies that provided guidance for the regulation of non-governmental applications of “narrow” or “weak” AI (6) (The White House, 2020). The OMB’s memo briefly recognized the potential issues of bias and discrimination in AI applications and recommended that agencies “consider in a transparent manner the impacts that AI applications may have on discrimination.” Specifically, the OMB recommended that when considering regulatory or non-regulatory approaches related to AI applications, “agencies should consider, in accordance with law, issues of fairness and non-discrimination with respect to outcomes and decision produced by the AI application at issue, as well as whether the AI application at issue may reduce levels of unlawful, unfair, or otherwise unintended discrimination as compared to existing processes.”

Pursuant to the National AI Initiative Act of 2020 (The White House, 2020), the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (“OSTP”) formally established the National AI Initiative Office (the “Office”) on January 12, 2021. The Office is responsible for overseeing and implementing a national AI strategy and acting as a central hub for coordination and collaboration for federal agencies and outside stakeholders across government, industry and academia in AI research and policymaking (The White House, 2020). On October 4, 2022, the OSTP released the Blueprint for an AI Bill of Rights (the “Blueprint”), which “identified five principles that should guide the design, use, and deployment of automated systems to protect the American public in the age of artificial intelligence” (The White House Office of Science and Tech. Policy [OSTP], 2022a).

The five guiding principles are: 1. Safe and Effective Systems; 2. Algorithmic Discrimination Protections; 3. Data Privacy; 4. Notice and Explanation; and 5. Human Alternatives, Consideration, and Fallback.” (The White House Office of Science and Tech. Policy [OSTP], 2022a). The AI Bill of Rights further provides recommendations for designers, developers, and deployers of automated systems to put these guiding principles into practice for more equitable systems. The Biden-Harris administration has also announced progress across the Federal government that has advanced the Blueprint’s guiding principles, including actions from the Department of Labor, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) (The White House Office of Science and Tech. Policy [OSTP], 2022b).

Most recently, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer has spearheaded efforts to manage AI by circulating a framework that outlines a proposed regulatory regime for AI technologies. Schumer declared on the Senate floor, “Congress must move quickly. Many AI experts have pointed out that the government must have a role in how this technology enters our lives. Even leaders of the industry say they welcome regulation.” Schumer’s nod towards industry leaders is likely in reference to the several congressional panels that held hearings on AI with industry experts during the week of May 16, 2023. Most notably, Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI, the company known for promulgating ChatGPT, testified before a Senate committee on May 16, 2023, imploring legislators to regulate the fast-growing AI industry. Altman proposed a three-point plan for regulation that called for: 1. A new government agency with AI licensing authority, 2. The creation of safety standards and evaluations, and 3. Required independent audits. In response to Altman’s plea, Senator Schumer met with a group of bipartisan legislators to begin drafting comprehensive legislation for AI regulation.

The FTC has already taken an active role in regulating private sector development and use of FRT, as evidenced by its recent settlements with Facebook and Everalbum. Further solidifying the FTC’s regulatory stance, acting FTC Chairwoman Rebecca Kelly Slaughter made remarks at the Future of Privacy Forum specifically tying the FTC’s role in addressing systemic racism to the digital divide, AI and algorithmic decision-making, and FRTs (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2019).

On April 19, 2021, the FTC published a blog post announcing the Commission’s intent to bring enforcement actions related to “biased algorithms” under section 5 of the FTC Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2021). Importantly, the statement expressly notes that, “the sale or use of—for example—racially biased algorithms” falls within the scope of the FTC’s prohibition of unfair or deceptive business practices (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2021). The FTC also provides guidance on how companies can “do more good than harm” in developing and using AI algorithms by auditing its training data and, if necessary, “limit[ing] where or how [they] use the model;” testing its algorithms for improper bias before and during deployment; employing transparency frameworks and independent standards; and being transparent with consumers and seeking appropriate consent to use consumer data (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2021).

III. Argument

The fledgling federal, state, and municipal AI and FRT regulations exist in a loose patchwork that will likely complicate enforcement and compliance for private companies. These complications could hamper or, in some cases, de-incentivize the reduction of bias in FRTs as companies could seek shelter in whichever jurisdiction is most permissive. The federal government’s creation of the National AI Initiative Office does not ensure reductions in FRT bias because the Office is primarily authorized to facilitate AI innovation and cooperation between the government and private companies, rather than addressing any inherent biases present in the FRTs. The FTC’s recent enforcements against private use of FRTs and its recent guidelines indicate that it has an interest in addressing the use of FRTs and FRT bias. However, the FTC possesses limited authority in this context and has historically struggled to compel compliance from large corporations. Thus, a new agency, specifically authorized to regulate and eliminate issues of bias that arise from commercial FRT applications, is needed to effectively address the presence and effect of bias within FRTs.

A. The States’ privacy protections for consumers, comprised of a patchwork of state and municipal regula tions, are inadequate to sufficiently address the issues of bias anticipated from the commercial use of FRTs.

In the absence of federal laws that regulate the commercial use of AI, much less FRTs, state and city laws have attempted to fill the regulatory gap. State governments may be regarded and valued as “living laboratories” in some respects, but their collective piecemeal legislation concerning commercial AI and FRT use may negatively impact the reduction of bias in FRTs and could likely lead to a deregulatory “race to the bottom.”

Significantly, three states–Illinois, Texas and Washington—have recognized the urgent need to address the burgeoning use of AI in the private sector and put privacy protections in place for consumers. The Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act, passed in 2008, requires commercial entities to obtain written consent in order to capture an individual’s biometric identifiers (including face geometry) or sell or disclose a person’s biometric identifier (740 Ill. Comp. Stat). The Illinois Act also places security and retention requirements on any collected biometric data (740 Ill. Comp. Stat). Although Texas and Washington have enacted similar laws, their laws vary significantly from Illinois’ in that only the attorney generals are authorized to enforce the laws against commercial entities (11 Tex. Bus. & Com. Code). Illinois’ law, on the other hand, includes a private right of action, which has led to several lawsuits against companies such as Clearview AI, Google, and Facebook (Greenberg, 2020; Yeung et al, 2020).

The variance among the entities empowered to enforce these states’ laws will likely create enforcement and compliance difficulties, particularly as it pertains to bias, because AI and FRTs inherently transcend state borders. Based on recent studies of the presence of bias in commercial FRTs, the selection of training data used to build algorithmic models appears to be the most important factor in reducing bias (Crumpler, 2020). Thus, the reduction of bias in commercial FRTs would be significantly hindered if companies are unsure whether they have access to certain images based on specific state laws. For example, Everalbum’s settlement with the FTC revealed that the international company compiled FRT training datasets by combining facial images it had extracted from Ever users’ photos with facial images obtained from publicly available datasets (Everalbum, Inc., n.d.). Everalbum’s FRT development was geographically constrained on a state-by-state basis to exclude images from users believed to be residents of Illinois, Texas, Washington, or the European Union (Everalbum, Inc., n.d.). From the perspective of increasing representative training datasets, the company’s exclusion of facial images from users in Texas and Illinois, specifically, would have negatively impacted the representation of Latinx people and other racial minorities (7) (Krogstad, 2020).

Given uncertainty among AI and FRT developers within the patchwork state regulatory scheme, paired with researchers’ recommendations to increase phenotypic and demographic representation in face datasets and algorithmic evaluations (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018), companies will likely want to conduct business in locations that enable them to have access to large amounts of data. In response, states may avoid enacting AI and FRT regulations that deter companies from conducting business in those states, resulting in what is termed as a deregulatory “race to the bottom” (Chen, 2022). If a “race to the bottom” situation was to occur in response to the patchwork of state AI regulations, then companies would likely seek to build and train FRTs in those states where consumers had less rights to their biometric data since the companies would have access to more information to compile larger datasets.

On the one hand, enabling companies’ ability to compile larger datasets seems like a great avenue to reduce bias in FRT applications, as the larger datasets would provide increased phenotypic and demographic diversity. However, a lack of state standards governing the quality and collection of biometric data could negatively impact FRT accuracy and, in turn, exacerbate the presence of biased results. According to one study, non-Caucasians may perform more poorly than Caucasians on FRTs, even with balanced training, because “faces of coloured skins are more difficult to extract and pre-process feature information, especially in dark situations” (Wang et al., 2019). Similarly, the “Gender Shade” researchers noted that default camera settings are often optimized to better expose lighter skin than darker skin (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). This observation led the researchers to conclude that under-and overexposed images lose crucial information making them inaccurate measures of classification within artificial intelligence systems (Buolamwini & Gebru, 2018). If biased FRT performance is linked to the difficulty of extracting and pre-processing feature information from non-Caucasian faces, especially in dark situations; and, if sub-optimal camera lightening of non-Caucasian faces often produces images that lack crucial information rendering them inaccurate datapoints; then, lax state regulations on the quality and collection of biometric data will likely widen the discrepancy between FRTs’ performance on Caucasian and non-Caucasian faces, undermining efforts to reduce bias in commercial FRT use.

B. The current federal regulatory scheme lacks the scope and capacity to sufficiently address the issues of bias anticipated from the commercial use of FRTs.

The U.S. federal government, in passing the National AI Initiative Act of 2020 and creating the National AI Initiative Office (the “Office”), decided to primarily focus its resources on the support and growth of AI and its attendant technologies, including FRTs (Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, 2021). The Act also (1) expanded and made permanent the Select Committee on AI, which will serve as the senior interagency body responsible for overseeing the National AI Initiative; (2) codified the National AI Research Institutes and the National Sciences Foundation, collaborative institutes that will focus on a range of AI research and development areas, into law; (3) expanded AI technical standards to include an AI risk assessment framework; and (4) codified an annual AI budget rollup of Federal AI research and development investments (The White House Office of Science and Tech. Policy [OSTP], 2021). Further, on January 27, 2021, President Biden signed a memorandum titled, “Restoring trust in government through science and integrity and evidence-based policy making,” setting in motion a broad review of federal scientific integrity policies and directing agencies to bolster their efforts to support evidence-based decisions making (The White House Office of Science and Tech. Policy [OSTP], 2021). In spite of these nascent attempts to federally regulate commercial use of FRTs, the existing commercial applications of FRTs and the instances of bias that arise from such use remain largely unregulated.

The National AI Initiative Office lacks the capacity and authority to regulate bias arising from current commercial FRT use since, according to its enabling statute, the Office is principally concerned with supporting public and private AI innovation. The National AI Initiative Act describes the Office’s responsibilities as serving as a liaison between the government, industry, and academia; outreaching to the public, and promoting innovation (The White House, 2020).

None of the enumerated responsibilities described in the National AI Initiative Act authorize the Office to specifically regulate existing commercial AI use, let alone address any issues of bias. The first two responsibilities establish the Office’s authority to “provide technical and administrative support” to other federal AI Initiative committees and serve as a liaison on federal AI activities between a broadly defined group of public and private entities. The last two responsibilities charge the Office with reaching out to “diverse stakeholders” and promoting interagency access to the AI Initiative’s activities. The Office’s enabling statute does not clearly indicate whether the regulatory body has enforcement authority on private actors as there is no provision that confers on the Office the ability to promulgate rules or regulations. Likewise, the Office does not seem to have the power to impose sanctions in order to ensure industry compliance. Instead, the Office is focused on building coordination between the private sector and governmental entities to promote further AI innovation. Thus, the Office does not have explicit regulatory authority over any existing private use of AI or FRTs.

Supporters of the National AI Initiative Act and the Office may argue that the Office is appropriately situated to address issues of bias arising from the commercial use of FRTs, however that argument is undermined by the express statutory language of the Act. A supporter of the Office may point to the entity’s responsibility to serve as a liaison on federal AI activities between public and private entities to argue that, by facilitating the exchange of technical and programmatic information that could address bias in AI, the Office would help FRT developers reduce bias. However, the statute does not appear to enable the Office to influence or contribute to the substantive contents of the information shared between the public and private sectors about the AI Initiative activities. If the Office lacks the ability to influence the substance of information exchanged, then it also lacks the ability to specifically direct information sharing that could redress bias in commercial AI applications. A supporter of the Office may also point to its outreach responsibility to argue that the Office will work to address bias by reaching out to diverse stakeholders, including civil rights and disability rights organizations. Yet, the statutory language is vague as to the substance of this “regular public outreach” responsibility. Without a clearer indication that the Office’s public outreach efforts are directed toward or will somehow result in a reduction in AI and FRT bias, the assumption that coordinating public outreach with diverse stakeholders will sufficiently address bias in commercial FRT use remains unfounded. Hence, reducing bias that arises from the commercial use of FRTs is not an articulated central focus, nor an explicitly intended effect, of the Office’s enabling statute.

Close analysis of the statutory language establishing the National AI Initiative and the Office reveals that the Office will likely operate more like a governmental think-tank to ensure coordinated AI innovation than a regulatory body with enforcement power. Such a scheme is inadequate to properly address the existing issues of bias shown in today’s commercial FRTs since the AI Initiative will likely promulgate industry standards that stem from and reflect the market itself, including its apparent biases.

The few FTC regulatory decisions that have been handed down concerning existing commercial FRT applications are products of the FTC’s recent actions to regulate private AI use (Facebook, Inc., n.d.). Based on its latest posts and statements, the FTC anticipates broadening its regulation of private AI and FRT use to not only focus on user consent, but also biased algorithms (Jillson, 2021). However, the FTC has limited enforcement power to sufficiently address the wide-ranging applications of FRTs and reduce the perpetuation of bias.

The Federal Trade Commission Act empowers the FTC to, among other things:

(a) prevent unfair methods of competition and unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce;
(b) seek monetary redress and other relief for conduct injurious to consumers; and
(c) prescribe rules defining with specificity acts or practices that are unfair or deceptive, and establishing requirements designed to prevent such acts or practices (15 U.S.C. §§ 41-58).

As stated in its enabling statute, the FTC’s enforcement power is limited to “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce” (15 U.S.C. §§ 41-58) The FTC asserts its authority over certain issues or subject areas by deeming a certain commercial practice unfair or deceptive, which is exactly what the FTC did when it released its recent AI blog post categorizing the use or sell of “biased algorithms” as an unfair and deceptive practice. Yet, the FTC will likely run into future enforcement issues in trying to prevent the use and sale of biased algorithms because they lack the willingness to enforce orders and expertise in AI training and development. Despite the FTC’s recent blog post indicating its intention to bring enforcement actions related to biased algorithms, FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra provided a statement to the Senate noting that “Congress and the Commission must implement major changes when it comes to stopping repeat offenders” and that “since the Commission has shown it often lacks the will to enforce agency orders, Congress should allow victims and state attorneys general to seek injunctive relief in court to halt violations of FTC orders (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2021).

In support of his first suggestion concerning the issue of repeat offenders, Commissioner Chopra emphasized that, “[w]hile the FTC is quick to bring down the hammer on small businesses, companies like Google know that the FTC simply is not serious about holding them accountable” (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2021). If the FTC is currently struggling to “turn the page on [their] perceived powerlessness” (Federal Trade Commission [FTC], 2021), then it follows that it is most likely ill-suited to successfully take on emerging global leaders in commercial AI technology. Furthermore, the Commissioner’s plea for Congress to allow victims and state attorneys general to access the courts for injunctive relief underscores the FTC’s inability and unwillingness to enforce its orders. Shifting the burden onto consumers and judges to regulate the exploding commercial use of FRTs and reduce bias is less than ideal as the courts lack the expertise and resources to adequately address bias in commercial FRT use. Also, courts are bound by justiciability principles, which limits their ability to regulate and reduce bias. Therefore, Congress should create a new agency that is solely authorized to address issues of bias in commercial FRT use, has power to regulate, and teeth to go after private parties who violate its regulations.

C. Congress must establish a new federal agency specifically, but not solely, authorized to regulate and eliminate issues of bias that arise from commercial FRT applications.

In order to effectively address the pervasiveness of bias in private FRT use, Congress must establish a new regulatory agency specifically, but not solely, authorized to regulate and eliminate issues of bias that arise from commercial FRT applications. The new agency should be created according to the following enabling statute to ensure its appropriate scope and capacity:

The [agency] is empowered, among other things, to:

(a) prevent private entities’ development, use, or sale of FRTs in circumstances that perpetuate bias based on ethnic, racial, gender, and other human characteristics recognizable by computer systems;
(b) seek monetary redress or other relief for injuries resulting from the presence of bias in FRTs; (c) prescribe rules and regulations defining with specificity circumstances known or reasonably foreseeable to perpetuate bias that is prejudicial to established human and legal rights, and establishing standards designed to prevent such circumstances;
(d) gather and compile data and conduct investigations related to private entities’ development, testing, and application of FRTs; and
(e) make reports and legislative recommendations to Congress and the public. (8)

Part (a) of the new agency’s enabling statute delineates the scope of the agency’s enforcement power to specifically regulate private entities’ development, use or sale of FRTs in settings that perpetuate bias. The phrase “development, use, or sale” is designed to extend the agency’s regulatory scope to include the development or creation of FRTs in recognition of the fact that biases can originate from either the algorithm or the training dataset. Including the development stage within the agency’s regulatory authority will allow the agency to effectively regulate the sources of bias—the algorithm, training datasets, and photo quality. Additionally, the inclusion of all three stages—development, use, and sale—enable the agency to have the conceptual framework and authority to regulate any future sources of bias that are yet to be discovered (9) (Learned-Miller et al., 2020).

Part (b) confers the agency the power to impose sanctions in the form of monetary penalties or other appropriate type of relief for injuries caused by a private party’s violation of the agency’s regulations. Part (b) is of utmost importance since it will give the agency power to bring down the hammer on violating entities and shirk the perception of “powerlessness.” The agency will compel compliance from large companies by bringing timely actions against violating parties, requiring violating parties to make material changes to their algorithms that eliminate or significantly reduce bias, and maintaining a reputation for rigorously holding companies accountable for their algorithms.

Part (c) functions hand-in-hand with Part (b) in that the agency’s promulgation of rules and regulations creates the legal claims through which the agency can seek monetary redress or other forms of relief from violating companies. Requiring the agency to prescribe rules and regulations that specifically define circumstances known or reasonably foreseeable to perpetuate bias will require significant technical expertise. The agency should employ and regularly consult with preeminent AI and FRT scholars and researchers so that it can stay abreast of industry standards, norms, and developments. The agency must also develop rigorous testing standards to identify and address algorithms’ rates of bias, which will require it to compile large datasets that are phenotypically and demographically representative.

Part (d) significantly empowers the agency to continually request information from private FRT developers so that it can promulgate rules and standards that can effectively address the identified sources of bias in commercial FRT applications. Without the power to gather and compile data, the agency’s regulations and standards would run the risk of becoming obsolete or irrelevant to the FRT industry, which would hinder its ability to reduce bias. Similarly, the power to conduct investigations related to FRT development, testing, and applications is crucial to the agency’s regulatory authority so that the agency can actively ensure companies’ compliance without needing to wait on injured parties, who often lack AI expertise or access to representation, to bring claims. Based on its investigations, the agency can further ensure the sustained reduction in FRT bias by making reports and recommendations to Congress and the public.

Part (e) can be best realized by the agency because of its broad authority to regulate every aspect of FRT development and application. Thus, the agency sits at a critical juncture between FRT developers, legislators, and the public. Consequently, the agency can emphasize legislative reform as needed to effectively reduce bias and contribute to a nascent body of knowledge that the public has only begun to understand.

A new federal agency, empowered to investigate and regulate FRT development, testing, and application can reduce the presence of bias more effectively than the current regulatory scheme because of its broad authority and enforcement power. The FTC is limited in its authority to regulate bias, and its regulatory power has repeatedly bowed to the will of large corporations. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the Office has the authority to even promulgate rules or standards. Yet, FRT technology is a growing market, and researchers have only scratched the surface of how FRTs perpetuate bias. To this end, the Association of Computing Machinery’s U.S. Technology Policy Committee observed that industry and government have adopted FRTs “ahead of the development of principles and regulations to reliably assure their consistently appropriate and non-prejudicial use” (Association for Computing Machinery [ACM], 2020). A new agency, specifically targeting the development, training, and application of FRTs can have the necessary breadth and expertise to reduce existing sources of bias and discover unknown sources of bias. Furthermore, the agency’s narrowly tailored focus on FRTs can help to lay a foundation for its future expanded regulatory authority over additional AI attendant technologies, which are likely more complex systems. Since large corporations have not dealt with the new agency yet, the agency will be able to set itself apart from agencies with waning respect from corporations by strictly enforcing its regulations, erring on the side of caution, and crafting settlement agreements with provisions that require violators to make material changes to reduce FRT bias. Though the existence of completely unbiased FRTs is sure to be difficult to realize, the new agency will deploy all of its authority and resources to reducing FRT bias to the point of elimination.


The inundation of commercial facial recognition technology coupled with a lagging federal regulatory framework to govern commercial FRT development and use has led to a precarious environment where individuals bear the un- due burden of redressing unprecedented harms. The following policy recommendations, while ambitious, aim to support a national regulatory scheme that would reduce the frequency and severity of FRT bias and discrimination:

  • Establish a federal agency with the explicit authority to regulate commercial AI and its attendant technolo- gies, like FRTs, in accordance with the following enabling statute:

The [agency] is empowered, among other things, to:

(a) prevent private entities’ development, use, or sale of FRTs in circumstances that perpetuate bias based on ethnic, racial, gender, and other human characteristics recognizable by computer systems;
(b) seek monetary redress or other relief for injuries resulting from the presence of bias in FRTs; (c) prescribe rules and regulations defining with specificity circumstances known or reasonably foreseeable to perpetuate bias that is prejudicial to established human and legal rights, and establishing standards designed to prevent such circumstances;
(d) gather and compile data and conduct investigations related to private entities’ development, testing, and application of FRTs; and
(e) make reports and legislative recommendations to Congress and the public.

  • Create uniform guidelines for states’ regulation of the commercial collection and use of biometric data;
  • Develop and encourage the increased implementation of phenotypically and demographically diverse face datasets in commercial FRT development, training, and evaluation.


  1. Khortlan Becton graduated summa cum laude from the University of Alabama with Bachelor of Arts degrees in Religious Studies and African American Studies, received a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Juris Doctor from Temple School of Law. Khortlan is a Truman Scholar Finalist, a member of Phi Beta Kap- pa, and recipient of numerous awards from the various academic institutions that she has attended.
    While attending law school, Khortlan began studying and advocating for the regulation of artificial intelligence technologies, including facial recognition technology. She served as lead author for a summary of recent literature on algorithmic bias in decision-making and related legal implications. That paper’s co-author, Professor Erika Douglas (Temple School of Law), presented the literature review at the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Spring Meeting in 2022.Through holding various service and leadership roles, Becton has developed a deep appreciation for creative and collaborative problem-solving to address intergenerational issues of poverty and systemic inequality. Becton has continued to pursue her passion for education and justice by launching The Restorative Education Institute. The Institute is a non-profit organization purposed to equip youth and adults to practice anti-racism through historical education and substantive reflection.
  2. The FTC, which is playing an active role in the misuse of facial recognition, previously imposed a $5 billion penalty and new privacy restrictions on Facebook in 2019. Similar to the allegations against Everalbum, the complaint against Facebook alleged that Facebook’s data policy was deceptive to users who have Facebook’s facial recognition setting because that setting was turned on by default, while the updated data policy suggested that users would need to opt-in to having facial recognition enabled.
  3. The four large datasets of photographs are: (1) Domestic mugshots collected in the U.S.; (2) Application photographs from a global population of applicants for Immigration benefits; (3) Visa photographs submitted in support of visa applicants; and (4) Border crossing photographs of travelers entering the U.S.
  4. This effect is generally large, with a factor of 100 more false positives between countries.
  5. These differing results relate to image quality: The mugshots were collected with a photographic setup specifically standardized to produce high-quality images across races; the border crossing images deviate from face image quality standards.
  6. The OMB memorandum defines “narrow” AI as “go[ing] beyond advanced conventional computing to learn and perform domain-specific or specialized tasks by extracting information from data sets, or other structured or unstructured sources of information.”
  7. According to Pew Research, Texas is one of two states with the most Latinx people at 11.5 million. Illinois’ Latinx population increased from 2010 to 2019 by 185,000 people.
  8. The new agency’s enabling statute is modeled after the Federal Trade Commission Act because the Act succinctly embodies the power of a narrowly focused agency. The FTC Act is primarily focused on “unfair and deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce,” which has contributed to the FTC’s broad authority. The new agency will need a similar breadth in their jurisdictional scope since researchers have only begun to scratch the surface of bias in FRT applications.
  9. Specifically defining the concepts used to describe the creation and management of FRTs is of utmost importance to delineating the scope of not only the AI attendant tech- nology, but also the breadth of an agency’s regulatory framework. Researchers have recently endeavored to provide specific definitions for the creation of a federal regulatory scheme for FRTs that will likely be a necessary addition to the enabling statutory language proposed here.


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Artificial Intelligence and Automation and Its Potential Impact on Race and Class.

Foreward to the 2023 Hooks Institute Policy Papers

To say the world is in the throes of a technological revolution spearheaded by artificial intelligence (“AI”), and automation, may be one of the most understated observations of this century. While “Fake News” ran rampant on social and other media and influenced the November 2016 presidential election, that election provided ample warning of how media manipulated to mislead can have enormous negative consequences for every segment of life, including personal and employment relationships, national security, elections, media, etc.

However, something is intriguing about AI and automation. It gives us access to a futuristic society allowing us to explore unchartered waters. Bill Gates has argued for years that AI has its proven benefits. Potential uses of AI include creating personalized teaching models for students so that educators can maximize students’ educational experiences (Gates, 2023). “AI can reduce some of the world inequities” (Gates, 2023) through its problem-solving capabilities, enhance worker productivity, and “[a]s computer power gets cheaper, GPT’s ability to express ideas will increasingly be like having a white-collar worker available to help you with various tasks” (Gates, 2023).

As for the immediate future, AI may create as many casualties as opportunities. Undergirding the Writers Guild of America, strike were Hollywood writers’ concerns that AI, specifically the program ChatGPT (which can produce creative writing and audio in response to prompts), might reduce or eliminate the need for screenwriters in the future (Fortune 2023).

Individuals, governments, and organizations have used AI in insidious ways. In public housing complexes, surveillance cameras create over-policing of people of color. Despite the lack of evidence showing that Facial Recognition Technology (FRT) makes public housing complexes safer, “many of the 1.6 million Americans who live [in public housing] . . . are overwhelming people of color [who are subjected] to round-the-clock surveillance” (MacMillian, 2023). For example, in the small town of Rolette, North Dakota, the public housing complex has 100 residents un- der the surveillance of 107 cameras, “a number of cameras per capita approaching that found in New York’s Riker Island complex” (MacMillian, 2023).

FRT has led to evictions for minor or alleged infractions that have uprooted lives. In Steubenville, Ohio, a resident was evicted for removing a laundry basket from the washing room of the complex, and another was threatened with eviction because she loaned her key fob to an authorized guest (MacMillian, 2023). The latter resident demonstrated that her vision loss required the help of her friend, who brought her groceries, thus successfully pleading

her case against eviction (MacMillian, 2023). A single mother of two in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who received an eviction notice in 2021, stated that the public housing authority “made [her] life hell” when they alleged that
her ex-husband – who was taking care of their children while his former wife worked during the day and attended school at night – was staying in the apartment without contributing rent in violation of the rules (MacMillian, 2023). Even Bill Gates acknowledges that the new frontier of AI is not without rugged and scorched terrain that produces inequities. Gates recognizes that “market forces won’t naturally produce AI products and services that help the poor- est. The opposite is more likely.” He contends that “[w]ith reliable funding and the right policies, governments and philanthropy can ensure that AIs are used to reduce inequity” (Gates, 2023).


The speed with which technology and automation are transforming the landscape is taking place with unprecedented velocity, even outpacing the rate with which changes occurred during the industrial revolution. “The speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. Compared with previous industrial revolutions, the [technological revolution] is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace. Moreover, it is disrupting almost every industry in every country. The breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management, and governance (Schwab, 2015).

This technological revolution has the potential to raise global income levels and improve the quality of life for populations around the world. To date, those who have gained the most from it have been consumers able to afford and access the digital world (Schwab, 2015). By contrast, African Americans, Hispanics, and marginalized people clustered in service,

warehouse, and other low skills occupations are the least likely beneficiaries of AI and automation gains because they are the most susceptible to job loss because of it. (McFerren & Delavega, 2018).

As the nation and world grapple with the societal impact of AI and Automation, the Hooks Institute remains focused on a core question central to promoting justice and equality: what policies and practices will prevent AI and automation from discriminating against people of color and other marginalized groups? How can AI and automation aid our nation in eliminating racial, economic, health, educational, and other disparities?

The policy papers in this edition analyze the impact of AI and automation in three crucial areas. Khortlan Becton, JD, MTS, explores the urgent need to regulate AI to eradicate existing and potential policies and practices that disproportionately discriminate against African Americans and minorities. Becton proposes the creation of a new federal agency to regulate AI.

Susan Elswick, EdD, LCSW, a faculty member at the University of Memphis School of Social Work, seeks a path to using AI and Automation to provide social work counseling to those in need. Elswick not only explores how effective client counseling is dependent upon access and ability to use technology by clients but also argues that social workers require formal training from institutions of higher learning on how to use AI and automation to benefit their clients.

Meka Egwuekwe, MS, founder and executive director of Code Crew, approaches AI and automation from the perspective of a practitioner who teaches others to write computer code. Recognizing that the world is experiencing a revolution in how work is performed, Egwuekwe proposes recommendations that reskill or upskill the workforce, increased support for startups and small businesses, and a societal framework that will embrace universal basic income as a resource to aid those displaced by AI and Automation.

The world has entered the frontier of AI and Automation. Let’s ensure everyone has an equitable opportunity for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as we embark on this evolving and transformative frontier.

Daphene R McFerren, JD
Executive Director, Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

Elena Delavega, PhD
Professor, Department of Social Work

Daniel Kiel, JD
FedEx Professor of Law, Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law Editors

June 30, 2023

Read the full 2023 Policy Papers through this link.


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Beyond Mountain Top Experiences: MLK and the Rhetoric of Race

*Adapted from The Most Dangerous Negro in America”: Rhetoric, Race and the Prophetic Pessimism of Martin Luther King Jr. by Andre E. Johnson and Anthony J. Stone Jr.

On April 4, 1968, on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee in front of room 306, an assassin shot and killed the nation’s prophet of non-violence. The previous night, King delivered his infamous I’ve Been to the Mountain Top speech. In the speech, he called his audience to stand firm under the oppressive tactics of the Henry Loeb administration. He also called for them to turn up the pressure in their non-violence resistance. This meant massive economic boycotts.

We don’t have to argue with anybody. We don’t have to curse and go around acting bad with our words. We don’t need any bricks and bottles. We don’t need any Molotov cocktails. We just need to go around to these stores, and to these massive industries in our country, and say, “God sent us by here, to say to you that you’re not treating his children right. And we’ve come by here to ask you to make the first item on your agenda fair treatment, where God’s children are concerned. Now, if you are not prepared to do that, we do have an agenda that we must follow. And our agenda calls for withdrawing economic support from you.

But on the next day, King lay dead on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Earlier that day he had worked on his sermon for Sunday, April 7. Though he lay dead, his associates found in his pocket the sermon notes he would have preached that Sunday if he had lived. The sermon title: “Why America May Go to Hell.”

Preaching economic boycotts and reflecting on why America may go to hell, may surprise admirers of King. While King today is largely considered one of the greatest Americans to ever
live, during his lifetime—and especially near the end of his life—King was one of the
most hated men in America. In a 1966 Gallop Poll, almost two-thirds of Americans had
an unfavorable opinion of King and the FBI named King “the most dangerous Negro in

One reason for King’s declining popularity was his rhetoric on race. When examining King’s rhetoric, especially during the last year of his life, one would note that several of his speeches highlighted King’s growing understanding of race and racism. During the last year of his life, King’s confidence in American institutions or the American people living up to the ideas and ideals set forth in its sacred documents began to wane.

For instance, in his The Other America speech delivered at Stanford University on April 14, 1967, King called on his audience to see that the movement was heading towards another stage. King grounded this newfound insight on an understanding of racism that had eluded him in the past. He proclaimed, “Now the other thing that we’ve gotta come to see now that many of us didn’t see too well during the last ten years — that is that racism is still alive in American society and much more widespread than we realized. And we must see racism for what it is… It is still deeply rooted in the North, and it’s still deeply rooted in the South.” He closed this part of the speech by lamenting that

What it is necessary to see is that there has never been a single solid monistic determined commitment on the part of the vast majority of white Americans on the whole question of Civil Rights and on the whole question of racial equality. This is something that truth impels all men of goodwill to admit.

King’s position on race and racism would become even more pronounced in his speech America’s Chief Moral Dilemma, delivered May 10, 1967, to the Hungry Club. He starts by stating that “racism is still alive all over America. Racial injustice is still the Negro’s burden and America’s shame. And we must face the hard fact that many Americans would like to have a nation which is a democracy for white Americans, but simultaneously a dictatorship for Black Americans. We must face the fact that we have much to do in the area of race relations.”

King continued to address race and racism in his August 31, 1967 speech, the Three Evils of Society. In the speech, King revisited his arguments of racism and the prevailing white backlash. He argued that the “white backlash of today is rooted in the same problem that has characterized America ever since the Black man landed in chains on the shores of this nation.” While not implying that “all white Americans are racist,” he did critique the dominant idea that “racism is just an occasional departure from the norm on the part of a few bigoted extremists.” For King, racism may well be the “corrosive evil that will bring down the curtain on Western civilization” and warned that if “America does not respond creatively to the challenge to banish racism, some future historian will have to say, that a great civilization died because it lacked the soul and commitment to make justice a reality for all men.”

Leading up to the end of his life, King argued that what held America from becoming great was its racism. He further maintained that the movement had to face a resistance grounded in the nation’s racist heritage. Led by conservatives all across the country, the white backlash led King to realize that even with the earlier victories, a majority of white people still were not on board. He began to understand at a deeper level that the principles of the country he lauded and lifted in the past were mythic constructions. Therefore, he called for a moral revolution—challenging the nation’s long-held beliefs of freedom, democracy, justice, capitalism, and fairness.

King determined that the nation was sick and wondered aloud if things could get better. In his last sermon, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, delivered on March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC., King told the congregation that it is an “unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic.” For King, he realized that it was racism grounded in racist ideas and policies that hindered America from achieving its greatness.

While we do well to celebrate and commemorate the life and legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., let us remember his challenge to us today. Let us remember that right before his death in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. attempted to dismantle racism; believing that America may just go to hell on
his way to becoming one of the most hated men in America.

Andre E. Johnson is the Scholar in Residence at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Media Studies at the University of Memphis.




Sustained the Championing of Civil Rights and Social Justice: The Hooks Institute

It is ironic, if not exhausting, that seemingly basic issues, like the right to vote, remain at the forefront of dissension in American life. However, as Coretta Scott King poignantly stated, the struggle for civil rights “is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.” When speaking about civil rights, the late Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks would say to young people, “it’s your time now.” The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change programming seeks to fulfill the mandate of the civil rights movement and its legacies.

Universities have a profound role in engaging students and communities to encourage rigorous thinking and constructive action to promote racial equality, inclusiveness, and fairness. The Hooks Institute, an interdisciplinary center at the University of Memphis, plays this pivotal role. Our mission is teaching, studying, and promoting civil rights and social change. Our work is vitally important during this critical moment as the nation struggles with race, voting rights, and the increasing marginalization of minorities and the poor. The Institute’s scholarship and community engagement are made possible through the support of the University of Memphis, donors, and grantors. We are grateful for this support.

Held throughout the year, the Hooks Institute lecture series engages local and national thought leaders in the university and greater community to address the legacy of the civil rights movement and its continuing relevance to today. These events are free, open to the public, and available on streaming platforms.

As an outcome of a Policy Paper published by the Institute, the Hooks Institute formed a coalition that included the UofM School of Urban Planning and Policy and community development corporations to assess the impact of rent-to-own purchase agreements. These agreements, often entered by people of color and immigrants, contain draconian terms for renters. In October, working with local real estate attorneys, the Institute and the coalition led training for staff of the City of Memphis, Code Enforcement, on how to identify those in rent-to-purchase agreements, and, if appropriate, refer them for housing counseling. Additionally, in August, the Hooks Institute and UofM faculty trained the staff of a federal agency on the impact of race, poverty, and other disparities on Memphis communities.

The Hooks Institute’s historical narratives on civil rights and social justice include the Fayette County, Tennessee exhibit on voting, a short documentary series on civil rights history in Memphis, titled “Stories to Inspire Change,” and feature-length documentaries, including our upcoming documentary on civil and women’s right activist Ida B. Wells (1862-1931).

Created in 2015, the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI) focuses on increasing the retention and graduation rates and career readiness of African American males enrolled at the UofM. While the HAAMI programs aid students in achieving personal success, HAAMI also aids Memphis to become a destination for employers seeking a prepared workforce.

Because of the struggle for freedom and civil rights, African Americans, like no other group in American history, have fundamentally changed the nation’s Constitution, its laws, and the trajectory of American history. The beauty that can be found in this struggle is that the gains of the civil rights movement have benefitted all people, making the United States a more just nation.

The future of civil rights remains to be written. We remain optimistic about the future, but this future requires dedication and work from many. At the Hooks Institute, we are focused on ensuring that the struggle for civil rights is never forgotten and that its gains are sustained and nurtured for generations to come.

Daphene R. McFerren
Executive Director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change

This article was originally posted by the University of Memphis Alumni Association. Read the original article through this link.

Reflections of a First Time Voter

By Jazmyne Wright, University of Memphis Student

An "I Voted" sticker.
An “I Voted” sticker. 6 May 2014. Dwight Burdette. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

November 3, 2020. My family and I were up at 6 in the morning and at the polls by 6:20 A.M. It was about 34 degrees, so we sat outside of Lewisburg High School in lawn chairs with hoodies and coffee. There were at least twelve people in line when we arrived at the school. I remember setting my alarm the night before, feeling worried that the line would be long. We waited for about thirty minutes before they opened the school. We all started filing in and soon the halls were lined with voters. The wait was reasonable, but the lines extended outside and wrapped around the school because we were all standing six feet apart. We did, however, discuss the Mississippi flag and the medical marijuana amendments on the ballot. Filling out my ballot took about as long as it took us to brew our coffee that morning, no more than five minutes.

I decided I would skip the sensationalism and hype and wait until the morning to hear the results. Of course, things did not happen that way.

Being a young voter, I did not vote because of taxes, medical insurance, or salary gaps.  I didn’t know the first thing about tax cuts or universal healthcare (until I volunteered with a local campaign). What prompted me to vote was education. Seeing the implicit bias towards black students prompted me to reflect on more than just the current President’s policies. I considered how bias and local elections play a large part in the academic experiences and development of our youth.

A common feeling that most Generation Z Voters in the South share is discouragement from what local and state elections are like in red states. Oftentimes, voters do not realize just how much power local elections hold over their communities, infrastructure, and schools. It is important for young voters to know their resources early on that they can use to research candidates and their policies for local and national elections.

Jazmyne Wright, University of Memphis Student

We have to be sure young people have the means and the incentive to vote, such as transportation. During casual discussions among my peers at The University of Memphis about how voting can be more accessible for students, most of my peers said that not having a ride to the polls was a common issue.  Another issue was out-of-state students not being able to get home during school to vote. Then there is the matter of incentive to vote. In the time of police killings, young people are starting to question the American criminal justice system. People do not believe that voting has any direct effect on police brutality. In actuality, voting for local offices like District Attorney and Prosecutor is significant when it comes to justice for police-involved killings. Hosting virtual events aimed at educating youth about elections and politics is a great way to engage young voters. Another great way to engage young voters is to give them a platform and show that you value their voice. This can be done with panels, mentorships, and internships.

I got my start in civic engagement and social justice advocacy by launching a petition to implement ethnic hair into the cosmetology curriculum of Shelby County Schools. Voting is important, no doubt, but it is not the only means of civic engagement and social justice that youth can take part in. For instance, I joined Pumps and Politics 901 as Executive Director two years ago. Pumps and Politics is a youth-led, nonpartisan political organization geared towards involving young women in the political process and encouraging civic engagement. This organization was founded by award-winning activist and Memphis native, Marissa Pittman. My work with Pumps and Politics 901 allowed me to connect with other young women of color interested in mostly civic engagement and activism. Generally, most young activists are forced to organize and speak among themselves. While I have never referred to myself as an activist, I try to recognize the work of others while I speak up and advocate for social change and justice. There are certain barriers to youth activism. Sometimes it is hard to dedicate copious amounts of time to something that does not pay, though I do not think this should allow you to lose sight of what is truly important.

Seven million young people voted in this election, that is incredible! However, our work does not end with voting. Young people need to continue organizing and speaking. We need to continue learning and growing into the leaders we have always admired in our communities. If there is a change you see that needs to take place, do not wait until you have a degree or a title. Act now, speak now. Your voice is just as valid as everyone else’s at the table. Whether you bring fresh ideas or carry the torch handed down to you, your work and your courage is necessary.


Over the last two weeks, many people, both black and white, have contacted me expressing their outrage over the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 by the police asking “What can I do? Where do we start to fix this problem?” They, like me, know that police brutality and racism are not just a Black people’s problem; it’s an American problem, which makes it a white people’s problem too.

I commend the protestors who are demanding justice for George Floyd and other African Americans who were murdered at the hands of the police. However, we must prepare to relieve protestors, who can’t stay on the frontlines of street demonstrations indefinitely, with sustained action to transform policing and racist practices in America. What can you do?

  • Learn with an open mind: Educate yourself and your children about the origins of American racism, focusing on how slavery, the civil war, the civil rights movement and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, among others, have been efforts to perfect the America’s political, legal and social system from the vestiges of slavery and continued racism. There are numerous online resources that provide accurate and accessible information. This education is especially critical in white communities where individuals do not confront racist practices in policing and other areas of daily life.
  • Grow where you are planted: Start consistent and ongoing conversations with people within your sphere of influence, such as the workplace, church, temple, country club, fraternity or sorority, neighborhood association, golfing group, book club, etc., about what each of you can do to make a positive difference in addressing policing and other community problems that arise because of race. Be courageous enough to hold yourself accountable, speak up, and hold people in your networks and circles accountable for their words, actions, and even silence.
  • Donate: Many organizations, including the Hooks Institute, work toward a mission to uplift communities of color and the poor. Your donated dollars will support work taking place every day for justice and equality.
  • Vote: Racism has no place in local, state or national politics. It’s not a liberal, moderate or conservative thing. Racism is a lack of character thing. Character must come before the elected office.
  • Meet with your elected officials: City, County, and Congressional leaders serve us. Demand an accounting of their efforts to address police reform and systemic racial bias against Black and brown people.
  • Prepare for a marathon, not a sprint: Although Mr. Floyd was physically killed by the four Minneapolis police officers, the officers’ conduct is connected to an historical backdrop of customs and practices that have injured and suppressed advancement of Black people for centuries. This backdrop makes it a Herculean task to accomplish systemic changes. Movements for racial equality and justice are, therefore, never swift but morally and ethically imperative.

The horrific murder of George Floyd is a call to action by each of us to end police brutality and racism. Only in this way, can African Americans and other brown people enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – a promised made to each us in the Declaration of Independence and by the U.S. Constitution. We the People have work to do. Please get started. Now.

Daphene R. McFerren is the executive director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis.

To support the Hooks Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change visit

Mental Health and the Strong Black Woman Archetype

By Rebekkah Yisrael Mulholland
PhD Candidate, History Department. University of Memphis

Recently, while going through some stuff in my closet, I came across a note a friend wrote for me back in 2010 as we wrapped up our study abroad trip in South Africa. She wrote many humbling and beautiful things in this note. One of the things that stood out to me was her referring to me as a strong (black) woman. As I read that line, I wondered what led to her defining me in such a way. I read that note, particularly that line, repeatedly. As I did so, I thought back to where I was mentally. The year 2010 started out on a strong note. I was accepted into graduate school to obtain a Master’s in Humanities with a concentration in African and African American Studies. In February of that year, I decided to study abroad in South Africa. In June, we began preparing for our July departure. One Friday night in June, I almost passed out in the shower, which caused to me freak out. I thought I was dying. My head was spinning, my heart racing, and my body became too heavy to hold up.

Cloud with words such as Inability, Deficiency, Disconnection, Helplessness, Rejection, Weakness, Disorder, Injury Scarcity Abandonment, Instability, Rejection.The following Monday morning, I went to Student Health Services on campus to see what was up. I had very low blood counts. As it turned out, I was severely anemic. This not knowing what was going on with my body, led to the next two and a half years of anxiety and panic attacks. During this time, I had daily anxiety and/or panic attacks. I found myself staying in my apartment out of fear that I would have an attack in public. I limited my outside travels to going to class, work, and occasional outings with friends. If it had not been for school, I may have suffered a lot more than I did. Graduate school was a great experience for me. On the outside, I was cool as a cucumber, on the inside, I was suffering. At home, I was suffering by myself and in silence. I remember telling my mother a little bit of the things I was going through. Late one night, I called her because I was having shooting pains in my right arm. I knew it was not a heart attack, but the pain was enough to scare me. Therefore, she drove from her home in Cincinnati to Dayton where I was living and attending school to take me to the ER. While waiting to be seen, my mother handed me an article and said to me, “Here read this. This sounds like you.” The first line of the article read, “I feel like I am dying.” This did sound like me. At the time, I felt and even said this line at least twice a day. The article was about Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). I was suffering from GAD. Really, just from almost passing out in my shower late one night about roughly four months before reading this article? This experience goes against the image and definition of the strong black woman or does it?

In a BuzzFeed article, “It’s Time to Say Goodbye to TV’s Strong Black Woman” by Nichole Perkins, this archetype is defined as a woman “who can take on the world with no thought of their own needs, without emotion, and without complaint.” This image of black womanhood puzzles me. While this superhero image of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, why do we have to suppress our emotions, neglect our needs, and suck up how we feel in order to not appear weak? In order to be what we need to be for others, how does neglecting ourselves help? This archetype is supposed to re-imagine and re-define black womanhood in the place of the negative stereotypes that have been the perceptions of black womanhood. While this model of black womanhood is supposed to be a compliment, it is dangerous as it causes black women to suffer in silence as we are thought to be superwomen.

Chalkboard with words "Stop the Sigma, Mental Health Problems." Mental Health problems has a diagonal strike through it.What I mean by this archetype being dangerous for black women are the psychological affects it has on us. Within the black community, mental health is not a topic that is discussed, and therapy is not an option for many for various reasons. Within the community, mental health tends to be stigmatized and most would say that going to church would solve all problems. Among black women, depression is one of those unspoken dangers. When it comes to the mental health of adolescent girls, no one talks about the black girls who suffer from eating disorders, cutting, and depression. Being a historian, I do trace these behaviors back to slavery when our many great grandmothers were supposed to suppress their feelings. They were physically and mentally brutalized and forced to keep such incidents to themselves and keep moving along. While the times may have changed, people’s attitudes about how we are to handle our mental (in)stabilities are often handled the same way, “keep it to yourself,” “don’t tell nobody,” “just don’t think about it,” and “you’re too strong to let that get you down.” These sayings are dangerous and detrimental to our health. We should not and do not have to suffer in silence.

One of the most important things black women can do for themselves is learn self-care techniques. For me, the most important is therapy. The importance of having someone to talk to without a sermon or judgment cannot be stressed enough. It is my hope that as students make the decision to attend the University of Memphis that they are made aware of the Counseling Center and the Relaxation Zone on campus. Taking on the responsibility of balancing adulthood, coursework, and social lives makes a healthy mental state crucial to overall health and academic success. The center is a place for everyone. It is a safe space.

Please check out the Counseling Center’s website and find the resources offered:

Rebekkah Mulholland is a Doctoral Candidate, currently pursuing a PhD in History at the U of M. Her interests are 19th and 20th century African-American history with an emphasis on black transgender women and gender nonconforming women of color within the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Trans Liberation Movements as well as in the era of mass incarceration. Rebekkah was the president of the Graduate Association for African-American History (GAAAH) at the UofM. She is assisting the Hooks Institute on several projects such as the Benjamin Hooks Papers Digitization Project and the 2019 National Book Award.

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Busing Worked For Me

In the Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 the issue of busing, for school integration, was raised. The morning following the debate, Good Morning America reported that during the debate, there was a spike in tweets about busing. There were, likely, tweets both in favor of and against busing. I had a personal reaction to the issue because I, too, was a little girl who was bused to school for the purpose of integration.

As a first grader in September of 1967, I was among the third class of students to participate in the Urban-Suburban Interdistrict Transfer Program in Rochester, New York. In 1963, The New York State Commissioner of Education asked school districts statewide to report on racial imbalance in their schools and to develop a plan to reduce the imbalance. While most districts reported that racial imbalance was not a problem in their schools, the West Irondequoit School District, which had very few minority students, decided it wanted to give its students opportunities for cross-cultural interactions. In February of 1965, the West Irondequoit School District Board unanimously passed a resolution to voluntarily welcome minority students from the Rochester Public School System. The New York State Department of Education provided program funding for the first 24 first grade students to enroll in West Irondequoit schools in September of 1965. My sister was among that first group. Thus, began the first voluntary busing program in the United States.

Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979. Rochester, NY
Irondequoit High School, National Honor Society, Class of 1979, Rochester, NY.
Rorie Trammel, second row, third from the right.

The Urban-Suburban program was voluntary on two fronts: school districts voluntarily voted to participate, and Rochester City Schools parents voluntarily chose to participate in the program. All was not perfect when those first students arrived on buses in West Irondequoit. While the school board was committed to the value of intercultural interactions, there were, not surprisingly, some residents who were not as welcoming. The Urban-Suburban parents were prepared, however. Mothers took time off work to ride the buses with their children. Disturbances such as rock throwing at the buses soon disappeared and the educational experiment was underway.

The Urban-Suburban program implemented several special strategies to help make our time as “educational residents” of Irondequoit a positive experience. Mothers of resident students were asked to volunteer to be room mothers for those of us who were bused to the school. I recall that most of my Irondequoit friends’ mothers were stay-at-home mothers, while the mothers of those of us who were bused worked outside of the home. That meant that if something happened to us during the school day, it wasn’t easy for them to come to the school That’s where the room mothers stepped in. From first grade through fourth grade, my room mother was Mrs. Maley, the mother of my new friend, Linda Maley. I loved Mrs. Maley and the Maley family. In fact, after I discovered that if I forgot my lunch, I would get to walk home with Linda to have a freshly prepared lunch made and set out lovingly by Mrs. Maley, I started to “forget” my lunch on purpose! In elementary school, when we wanted to participate in after school activities such as Brownies and Girl Scouts, there were friends who welcomed us into their homes until our parents could pick us up after work. Mary Lynne Barker, to whom I assigned the nickname “Favorite”, in first grade was that friend for me. In high school, the Urban-Suburban program provided an early bus and late bus that enable us to participate in activities such as band and sports teams. We had sleepovers and attended birthday parties at our Irondequoit friends’ homes. Many of my Irondequoit friends ventured “into the city” to attend my 9th birthday party.

In the teen years, however, there were some socialization limitations. White teens and African American teens had different interests, listened to different music, and had different thoughts about social issues of the times. I had my white “school friends” and my African American “neighborhood friends”. In school I felt some isolation when, because of the small number of African American students in each cohort, I was usually the only African American in each of my classes and in activities like band and the National Honor Society. I looked forward to lunch time when I would get to interact with other African American students.

Even as a child, I knew that being in Urban-Suburban was a great opportunity. When I was in middle school, I was asked to participate in a group of African American and white students created by the Urban-Suburban program to speak to school districts who had not yet joined the program. We discussed how our friendships and experiences in Urban-Suburban gave us opportunities for cross-cultural learning and understanding. Irondequoit resident parents and parents of bused students were included in the discussion as the Urban-Suburban program evolved. Today, a parent advisory council still exists.

Participating in the Urban-Suburban program fostered in me a strong willingness and ability to have positive relationships with people of diverse ethnicities, nationalities and backgrounds. Having the experience of friendships with children of other races gave me a natural desire to respect and develop an understanding of differences. I recall being very excited when, in high school, we had an exchange program with, predominantly, Hispanic students from a city high school. As a student at the University of Memphis, I naturally, became friends with white students and international students. While I joined organizations that were comprised of, primarily, African American students, once again, I also found myself one of only a few African American students in organizations in which most of students were white. Because of my Urban-Suburban experience, I continue to embrace the value of friendships and experiences with a diverse spectrum of people. I also embrace the opportunity to talk about issues of race, whether it’s with friends, in the workplace, in public forums, etc. As associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change, I spend each day fulfilling the Institute’s mission of teaching, studying and promoting civil rights and social change.

From my experience, and that of my three sisters, all of whom participated in Urban-Suburban, the busing experiment worked. We received an exceptional education attending West Irondequoit schools from first grade through twelfth grade. We had close friendships with white students who were with us through high school graduation, several of whom I’m still in touch with. The key was the program’s voluntary foundation, the support of the New York State Department of Education and the extra efforts made by the program, the school district and teachers and staff in the schools. They were committed to Urban-Suburban being a positive experience for everyone. The expansion of the program, to include additional suburban districts since 1965, hasn’t been without detractors. Even in the last ten years, some suburban residents have resisted their school districts approving participation in the program. Nevertheless, I am pleased that the Urban-Suburban program is still thriving as a voluntary busing program, committed to educational equity.

Rorie Trammel is the associate director of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change. Trammel plays an integral role in the activities of the Hooks Institute including administrative and operations duties, fundraising and donor relations, and coordination of the Institute’s National Book Award. Trammel, also, oversees strategic planning and implementation of the Hooks African American Male Initiative (HAAMI). She earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Memphis (UofM). She is also a former UofM employee, having worked in the Office of Development for fourteen years. Rorie worked for the YMCA of Memphis & the Mid-South for fourteen and a half years, first as executive director of urban programming and later as vice president for advancement. For many years, Rorie could be heard as a volunteer radio reader for WYPL, the radio station at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library. She is a member of the New Memphis Institute and, previously, served on the boards of directors for Partners in Public Education (PIPE), the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Le Bonheur Center for Children and Parents, and the Shelby Farms Park Conservancy.

A Day in the Life of A Court Watcher: The Power of Presence

Innocent until proven guilty. Does this well-known statement ring true within Memphis and Shelby County? Are people involved in the criminal legal system treated humanely and respectfully? A program for everyday people to observe happenings in the courtroom, Court Watch uncovers both justice and injustice. It is in place to promote transparency and accountability with elected officials; participate as members of the community; collect narratives; and uncover gender, racial, and other demographic disparities within the court system.

A day in the life of a Court Watcher in Memphis. Ascend 201 Poplar through the court side. Join the public line to enter the building. Some people may be showing up for their court dates, others may be lawyers, others may even be Court Watchers. Don’t forget to take out your phone and keys before going through the metal detector. Descend down the vast, open staircase to the dungeon of courts. Wonder how people with disabilities enter the building. Observe surroundings and see hundreds of Black and Brown bodies sitting, talking, thinking. Wonder why most White folks are dressed in formal attire—oh, they must be the lawyers. Wave hello to your group of Court Watchers with apparent white “Just City Court Watch” buttons. It’s time to go in.

Enter the courtroom. We are told that some judges dislike our presence in the courtroom while some don’t mind us being there. Our placement in the courtroom oftentimes depends on this. “Can you hear what the judge/defendant/lawyers are saying?” Court Watchers ask one another. We try to grasp as much information we can about the cases: appearance of race and gender, charge, can/cannot make bail, any loved ones present, behavior of legal staff, and other notes we may find apparent.  Then we reconvene after watching to talk about important things we noticed or things that caught our eye. This reconvening is one of my favorite parts of Court Watch because we hear other perspectives and see the courtroom through another’s eyes.

As Court Watchers, it is our role to take notes on what we see in the courtroom—the good and the bad. Court Watchers are taught—through training and observing—about the processes of court from arraignment to trial and about the importance of this work. Run by Just City, a nonprofit in Memphis that does work to create a smaller, fairer, more humane criminal justice system, this program is based on similar programs across the United States where people build accountability, foster community participation, and collect narratives within the court system. Not only does this program allow the public to be involved in the everyday happenings of the court, but it also provides a way to learn more about how the system of crime and courts works in the Memphis and Shelby County area. Having up close encounters with defendants, public defenders, prosecutors, private attorneys, judges, public officials, and defendants’ loved ones, this opportunity has yielded an immense amount of growth in learning about the ins and outs of our criminal legal system.

Oftentimes one of the most forgotten about and marginalized groups of society are those involved with the criminal legal system. As community members, we can show that we care and that we have not forgotten about this population by using our power vocally, visually, and presently. Just by being in the courtroom, it shows that the community cares about what happens behind closed doors—whether they be doors of a jail cell or doors of a courtroom. Using our power of presence, we can show that we are listening, we want to end criminalization of poverty, and we want to see transparency and accountability in our criminal legal system.

After every Court Watch shift, we as Court Watchers are able to walk freely out of that dungeon while many folks in there do not have the same luxury. Court Watch raises this awareness and opens the legal system up to those who may not otherwise know the inner workings of the system, instead of leaving it up to the marginalized, arrested, convicted, and legal professionals. Building community around this is crucial to gaining widespread awareness of justice and injustice and creating a more equitable and efficient system. In hopes to alter the criminal legal system on a path to justice and equity, Just City will publish their Court Watch blog and propose strategies to state government and lawmakers. Using our power as Court Watchers and community members, this awareness can lead to questioning of the status quo in hopes to change the future of what the criminal justice system may look like.

Interested in becoming a Just City Court Watcher? Go to

Lulu Abdun is a volunteer at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change and a recent graduate of Miami University (Ohio) where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Black World Studies with a minor in Linguistics. Born and raised in Memphis, TN, she returned home post-grad and has been involved in community-based projects—mostly with local nonprofits—and a computer programming course. A lifelong learner, she enjoys traveling; reading; and learning about social justice/reform, human rights, the criminal legal system, and interfaith work.

The Hooks Institute’s blog is intended to create a space for discussions on contemporary and historical civil rights issues. The opinions expressed by Hooks Institute contributors are the opinions of the contributors themselves, and they do not necessarily reflect the position of the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change or The University of Memphis.

Exhibiting Impact: What I Learned from the Fayette County Civil Rights Movement

By Amy Ruggaber

It is my philosophy as an artist that EVERYONE HAS A STORY TO TELL AND A STORY TO HEAR.  Working on the Uplift the Vote exhibit and telling the story of Fayette County and Tent City was an education and a privilege.  Rarely do artists get to see the continued impact of their work, and yet, in this case, I did.

Amy Ruggaber, Curator Uplift the Vote Exhibit

I had to do maintenance on the exhibit weekly, so I would work quietly to one side while also being able to watch the interaction of the public with the tent. Occasionally I would see students stop and scan the panels on the exhibit, often while listening to their earbuds. Slowly the buds would come off, and the music would be stopped as the students were drawn farther into the narrative. Often the phone shifted purpose from music to camera, and the students would take pictures of the panels or specific images.  A few times I even witnessed a student pulling their friends into the exhibit, excitedly pointing out a person in a photo: “I know her!” I would hear. Either way, in that moment, history had become REAL. Tangible. Familiar.  This was and is where history and contemporary issues meet.

Uplift the Vote Exhibit Displayed in the Rotunda of the Ned McWherter Library. Fall 2018.

We need to know the value of our vote and the costs associated with it.  We cannot take it for granted.  That is why I am so thrilled that the Uplift the Vote exhibit is currently being hosted by the Fayette County Public Schools.  On display in one of the local schools, the children and grandchildren of these activists and those who opposed them will be able to study the movement and see documentation of the historic impact of the actions of their elders.  The community at large will be able to come and reflect on the challenges of their past and how it relates to the issues of present day.  As for me, I am looking forward to once again being a witness to the impact of the work.

Exhibit, “Uplift the Vote: Everybody Should Have A Voting Story”

Fayette County Public Schools Central Administration Building,10425 Hwy 76 S. Somerville, TN 38068

February 7 – March 7, 2019, Monday through Friday from 12 pm to 4 pm. The exhibit will be open on the following Saturdays: February 9, and 16, and March 2, 2019, 10 am to 2 pm.

The Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis and Fayette County Public Schools, Somerville, Tennessee invites you to experience “Uplift the Vote: Everyone Should Have a Voting Story,” a dual exhibit on the importance of our most basic civil right – the right to vote. Explore through photographs, documents and reflections, how African Americans’ demand for the right to vote in Fayette County, Tenn., in 1959 changed the lives of activists, the community and the nation through the exhibit. Then, prepare yourself for your own civic participation and learn how to register to vote in Tennessee. This exhibit is intended to educate and encourage citizens to exercise the right to vote, hard-won by African Americans and others.