Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want
Princeton University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Trent Wintermeier
Ruha Benjamin’s third book, Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, cultivates attunement to a new vision of the world where individual and collective action promotes unrelenting, perpetual justice. In her invitation to “get to the root cause of what’s ailing us” and “accept our interconnectedness,” Benjamin positions the virality of justice as a solution to the constant hate, suffering, and harm that encircles everyday life in the United States. She begins in Chapter One of her book, “Weather,” by illustrating how communal practices engulfed in love remedy individual weathering in the United States. Here, she “calls bullshit on ‘preexisting conditions’” and, instead, emphasizes a connection between the concept of “weathering” and anti-Black racism, which penetrates everyone’s life. This notion develops throughout a focus on the death of her father, Erica Garner-Snipes, and “lower- and middle-class white Americans:” anti-Black racism not only kills its target but also its perpetrator through incessantly hateful biases. Benjamin posits that we may “direct energy not only outward but also inward at the layers of grief, rage, even shame that threaten to break open our hearts” to eventually promote life-affirming justice.
“Hunted,” the following chapter, is clear in its goal to create “communities of care—articulating the kind of world we want out there in our relationships and interactions with strangers and friends right here” by abolishing the police. In addition, Benjamin’s goal is to use care to disrupt racist practices and redistribute funds so that alternative systems which promote life and not death are weaved into the fabric of society. Justice, in this sense, is the explicit turn from carceral punishment, suffering, and death, to empathy, intervention, and community advocacy efforts. Such “transformative justice work,” Benjamin suggests, should become the bedrock of a society that refuses to “demonize” and “criminalize” innocent people and, rather, seeks a contagious solidarity that is altogether irresistible. Growing this world beyond constant suffocating violence and oppression is feasible. It requires us to begin with accepting the call “to practice what we dream possible” for one another—and to “invest of time and energy in lasting change.” To manifest a resignification of justice in the United States, a just foundation is essential.
The next two chapters—“Lies” and “Grind,” respectively—involve “pulling back the curtain” to reveal a refreshingly nuanced perspective on the operation of innate intelligence as eugenic thinking and the unappreciated, exhausting, and inequitable labor defined as “grind culture.” Benjamin traces how the “fine print of everyday life” is significantly influenced in a conversation about where and how education happens, and also what small changes can mean for the lives of students and educators. By simply asking “what job are we doing?” we may enact a world of possibility wherein challenging “injustice in our own backyard,” “creating trusting relationships,” and “laying a different foundation […] in the hearts and minds of young people” is paramount. According to Benjamin, this practice begins in this classroom; small acts of justice through education promote liberation and equity for those who have been ignored and exploited, including educators themselves. Because “learning by doing is a key feature of viral justice,” educators must reimagine how their working conditions, their “grind,” participate in a culture of intrinsic disparity and disempowerment. As Benjamin succinctly states, “the whole damn system is guilty as hell,” so action must be taken to work—or rest—in opposition.
“What is it going to take to create a world where we can be vulnerable but not exposed?” is the immanent question which Chapter Five, “Exposed,” investigates. Love, in part, is Benjamin’s answer. Taking the reader through the pregnancy of both of her children, she positions the essential roles of a midwife, intergenerational tag-teaming, and collective support as the essence of a society which embraces a loving vulnerability. “We must actively tend to our relationships in the way that we hold space for one another,” Benjamin demands; this requires us to “communicate with care, especially when we disagree; and most of all, find ways to support one another in tangible ways.” Creating space for care to emerge and thrive is
vital for a purposeful vulnerability. Together, they foster dynamic and meaningful relationships throughout communities. Significant space in this chapter is devoted to the dangers Black women face due to medical racism, including the experiences of Serena Williams, Kira Johnson, Tami Treadwell, and Benjamin herself. Underlying each of these stories is a growing comfortability with the “risk of injury” that lurks beneath vulnerability—a constant presence that must not enshroud the support which viral justice offers.
Chapter Six, which is entitled “Trust,” offers a valuable intervention into the distrust which encompasses Black cultural pathology. Benjamin offers a thorough explication of the “forms of mistreatment in scientific and medical institutions, from the mundane to the spectacular”—all which are part of an excruciatingly long history of medical racism and violence—that develop “festering wounds” for Black communities. Although, she is clear that “It’s not that Black folks necessarily have more distrust for science, or authority in general; it’s that our distrust is pathologized.” Whether this distrust be exhibited in Princeton’s housing of children’s remains from the MOVE Bombing or publishing Henrietta Lacks’s genome sequence without her family’s consent, sustained lies have engendered such collective distrust and skepticism. Since “Trust […] is a tattered thread holding together many of our social interactions,” we may not afford this to institutions but, instead, to various ways of trusting each other’s “fears and hopes” in the wake of untrustworthiness.
“We have to unshackle our collective imagination,” Benjamin suggests in Chapter Seven, “La Casa Azul,” to engage a world where viral justice is not only a priority but an imperative. Even more so, this world which embodies individual and collective significance must become irresistible. The last chapter solidifies a sentiment which is scattered throughout the prior chapters: seemingly mundane, insignificant actions become opportunities for progress and growth if we choose to embrace the interconnectivities for justice which constitute our life and, sometimes, death. In this way, Benjamin’s book offers ample incentive, evidence, and instruction for any reader to begin forging a world where love, care, and community are affirmed. Viral justice, then, is a way to approach being and thinking in a world where collective life is the essence of individual success. This requires trust, vulnerability, truthfulness, and coalition—to name only a few values of this hopeful dream—for the affirmation of life to experience such viral intensity that it becomes ineluctable. Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want begins this process, and now, according to Ruha Benjamin, it is our responsibility to “finally grow the fuck up” and engage the opportunities for justice in our current moment.