Small Steps Toward Justice and Joy
A Review of
Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want
Hardcover: Princeton University Press, 2022
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ] [ Audible ]
Reviewed by Joshua Rhone
In Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, Ruha Benjamin, Ph.D –– Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, offers a detailed examination and indictment of societal and systemic injustices of the world, specifically as it relates to race. While not solely or wholly a product of COVID-19 and the anti-black police violence of recent years, Benjamin’s research, and subsequent book, are largely inspired by what has been described as these “twin plagues.”
Throughout the book the reader is introduced to important concepts and ideas by way of personal and familiar stories, reports, first-person accounts, as well as extensive research. In chapter 1, the reader is introduced to the concept of “weathering.” “Weathering,” according to Benjamin, “includes sudden storms that flood our lives and the slow droughts that create famine.” She continues, “Sure, violent storms bring us periodically to our knees, but the arid austerity of everyday life can be fatal (30).” Benjamin’s contention is that due to anti-black (and anti-minority) sentiment, a hostile environment exists –– an environment that is devastating in its effect(s) regarding health, wellness, and wellbeing; yet, also, preventable. People can be of the same age chronologically, but, from the standpoint of health and wellness, appear to be drastically different biologically. Stress, fear, and anxiety can weather a person –– prematurely aging them.
In chapter 2, Ruha turns her attention to one of the most hotly contested issues in the United States: policing and incarceration. Drawing from personal and familial experience, as well as research, she contends that a system exists which, “Even when we are not the prey, we feel hunted (63).” Instead of a system focused on penalizing, incarcerating, and killing, Benjamin suggests we work to create systems to resource, house and educate. To do this, however, requires that we no longer use and/or rely on familiar and previously used labels; reconsider our use of and deployment of technology; and the ways that municipalities deal with budget shortfalls.
The focus of chapters 3 and 4 is on resourcing (or the lack thereof). Chapter 3 looks at the educational system and some of the “lies,” as she terms them, that are often told. One of the greatest lies, in her estimation, is that of education being the great equalizer (101). Drawing from her own experience, and extensive research, she seeks to show that meritocracy is a myth. Working hard, achieving good grades, and participating in extracurriculars rarely works as it is portrayed on-screen and in the movies. Chapter 4 examines the idea of the “essential worker,” which came to the fore during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, she suggests that the current “gig economy–” the lack of rest afforded to many essential but lower-income employees– coupled with the feudalism of academia and the dehumanization of workers by large corporations all further contribute to the injustices experienced by so many and the larger unjust nature of the world as-it-is.
Benjamin turns her attention to the medical community in chapters 5 and 6. She explores such topics as childbirth, medical research and vaccines. Ruha suggests that medicalized approaches to childbirth have failed to recognize that, as Barbara Katz Rothman noted, “Birth is not only about making babies it is about making mothers –– strong, capable mothers who trust themselves and know their inner strength (198).” Furthermore, the medicalized approach to childbirth fails to take into account research that “now confirms that midwifery and doula support improve maternal and infant health (199).” In other words, the system is broken. Something needs to change. Regarding the overall relationship between the medical community and racialized groups, Ruha writes: “Racialized groups are too often valued as research subjects and devalued as patients (225).” Again, Benjamin’s contention is clear: there is an anti-black bias at work in the systems of our society. Change is needed.
In the seventh, and final chapter, Benjamin further elucidates on the patterns of individual action that contribute to viral justice and necessary societal and systemic changes. She calls us to what Octavia Butler termed “radio imagination, where the point is not simply to break the record but to compose new ways of relating one to another and organizing our world [in ways] that are life affirming, sustaining, and soul stirring (277).” Undoubtedly, as Benjamin has illustrated throughout the book, and as she further explains in her final chapter, this will not be easy work; nor will it happen quickly. It will take time, intentionality, and small (viral) acts and steps towards justice and joy.
In the end, there are no easy answers. In fact, having reached the end of the book, I find that I have far more questions than answers. Yet, in many respects, I think that is a good thing. “Growing the world we want,” should not be an easy thing. The brokenness and injustices of the world would be minimized and trivialized if we could solve them in three easy steps. Moreover, the systemic nature of injustice forces each of us to wrestle with our own unjust actions and attitudes, even as we wrestle with and seek to reckon with injustice at a macro, societal and systemic level.
That said, one of the things that I greatly appreciated as I read the book is that as she writes, Benjamin blends together both personal and familial stories, reports first-person accounts and research to make her point –– not only in terms of offering an indictment of the current system, but a way forward. The way forward, in her eyes, is rooted in “viral justice” –– small changes that add up to larger ones. These small changes involve such things as: “dismantling harmful systems, providing for peoples’ needs, and creating alternative structures (14).” Throughout the book, Benjamin provides snapshots of these acts –– again providing both anecdote and research to make her point. Snapshots that both stir the heart and inspire creative actions of “viral justice.”
Joshua Rhone is a husband, father, and pastor. He is a graduate of Houghton College (B.A. in Religion) and Portland Seminary (M.A. in Ministry Leadership and M.Div.). Josh currently in a season of transition. He and his family are moving from Manchester, Pennsylvania, where he has served as lead pastor St. Paul United Methodist Church to York, Pennsylvania, where he will serve as the lead pastor of Zion Church, an United Methodist congregation.