In a thought-provoking speech during Spelman College’s Founders Day, sociologist Ruha Benjamin ignited a controversial conversation about the efficacy of “Black faces in high places.”

The sociologist championed meaningful change within systems of power. However, while the country may have Black people in power, she pegged one question: what are they doing with it? Her speech challenged the notion that having “Black faces in high places” inherently leads to progress for the Black community.

Benjamin referenced the case of “Cop City,” a controversial police training facility in Atlanta. Despite being led by individuals of color, there are different initiatives that raise questions about whose interests are being served. The perpetuation of policies that reinforce existing power structures highlight the limitations of relying solely on representation for progress.

Benjamin also drew attention to instances where Black individuals in power have actively contributed to the perpetuation of injustice. She referenced the decision of Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who voted against a ceasefire in Gaza. Benjamin reminded everyone that identity markers alone do not guarantee alignment with principles of equity and justice.

At the center of her speech, Benjamin argued that the recognition of Blackness and womanhood don’t immunize individuals from complicity in systems of oppression. The responsibility falls on those occupying positions of power and on the communities they represent.

Benjamin argued that it is not enough to merely diversify the faces at the table. True progress demands a fundamental reimagining of the structures themselves. Ultimately she talked about the complexities of power, identity and accountability. The answer is not as simple as condemning individuals based on their identity. Instead, it comes from understanding the systems and how they operate.