Public Thinker: Ruha Benjamin on Uprooting Oppression and Seeding Justice

“Keep your cosmetic change, if you’re making no attempt to deal with the underlying practices that perpetuate harm.”

Ruha Benjamin is Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, where she is the founding director of the Ida B. Wells Just Data Lab and an award-winning scholar of race, power, knowledge, and justice. Her 2019 book Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code received critical acclaim for its analysis of the role of new technologies in perpetuating white supremacy. Benjamin’s latest book Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, recipient of the 2023 Stowe Prize, explores how we can collectively build a just world by transforming our everyday social relationships. An engaging read, the book is full of powerful examples from organizers and everyday people “low-key scheming” in their daily lives. In early January, we discussed her microvision of social change, Black knowledge, and how academics can make change on campus.


Matthew Clair (MC): Your book is a powerful diagnosis of the large social crises we face today. But it is also, perhaps counterintuitively, a manifesto for how much is possible from small, ordinary changes to our everyday routines, and the ways we engage with one another.

Could you start by telling us just what you mean when you write that you are offering us a microvision of social change?


Ruha Benjamin (RB): I am writing within and against my own disciplinary training and focus. Especially when it comes to white supremacy and racism, sociologists work so hard to broaden our focus beyond interpersonal dynamics and individual animus, to the ways that antiblackness is structured and institutionalized. Like many people in my pedagogy and scholarship, I have tried to push the focus in that direction. I’m writing this book for myself and others so as not to lose sight of how individuals internalize those big structural processes, how we perpetuate them and normalize them.

And the microvision is that shift in attention. It is not losing sight of the larger, macro processes. But a microvision says, “Let’s look at what is right under our feet, how we are part of these systems, how when we talk about culture and society, individuals animate both.”

I’m trying to enlarge the frame so that we can own our power in many ways. Part of paying attention to how we are complicit is how we are also powerful in maintaining or disrupting the everyday oppressive status quo.


MC: When we frame these issues as big structural problems, we can sometimes absolve our individual selves from perpetuating them. What made you feel that this needed to be said now? How do you see your microvision as contributing to contemporary movements for social change?


RB: The “why now” is because I started writing in spring 2020, and I was seeing people all around me—not just in my own community but across the nation and around the world—who were not waiting for governments to save them. They were demanding that those in positions of power take responsibility in the midst of these double crises of policing and public health. But people around me were checking in on neighbors, strengthening mutual aid networks, and more. In my own town of Princeton, I saw high schoolers mobilize in the street to protest police violence and thousands of people showed up.

So much of the book is a love letter, bearing witness to what I saw all around me.

In setting out to write Viral Justice, I wanted to appreciate what people were doing, and not minimize it, and think, Oh, it is just a few people, or it is just this one town. I wanted to invite readers to reflect on the cumulative power of these efforts in this larger process of movement building and social transformation.


MC: You say this many times throughout the book, that while we advocate for governmental action, we must “seed the soil” and engage in “plotting” in our backyards.

I love those phrases. They are so powerful and are such a good metaphor, right, for the beauty of gardens of justice that could grow from this plotting.

In fact, you argue that a lot of this micro, everyday change is actually going to shift the macro. Can you talk about that link between the micro and the macro? How does the everyday work that we do shift broader structures?


RB: Let’s get rid of the distinction between micro and macro. Or let’s at least trouble the distinction.

We internalize larger ideologies and systems. Think about policing. It is not just the people on the street with badges who are licensed to kill. It is also how we internalize the logic of policing in our own relationships, in our own families, in our own institutions. What we call the macro cannot persist without the individual and the communal uptake of those logics and ideologies. It couldn’t perpetuate itself without us buying into it. If that is the case, then we also have the power to begin to disrupt it rather than perpetuating those same systems.

For example: you have a fight or a conflict with a neighbor. The easiest thing to do, the default, is that we call 911. We call the police in, despite all of the evidence that shows that that often exacerbates the violence or the harm. So now you see individuals, communities, buildings, blocks trying to find other ways to address conflict—to intervene when we harm one another—that are working against the grain of business as usual.

That’s where the metaphor of uprooting and seeding really comes into play. Because we can’t just call attention to what we don’t want. We also need to experiment with different social relations, different ways to enact change. We need both: the uprooting and the seeding.

Let’s say we were able to defund these harmful institutions, but we haven’t actually started developing alternatives. These harms and conflicts are ever present, so what do we put in its place? You can go institution by institution—education, healthcare, work—and see that we are at a moment where more and more people are bearing witness to what is defunct, to what we don’t want. So now is a wonderful opportunity for us to say, “Let us continue to experiment and grow other approaches. What is real education if what we have in our schools is institutionally sanctioned lying? What is another way to address healing and well-being if our healthcare system perpetuates sickness and disease?” How else can we organize work and rest if people are being weathered to death?

We need to invite more people into the process of seeding and experimenting. Because if we only uproot, then we are going to be left standing in an empty field, with no way of doing things differently.


MC: You are reminding all of us that we also need to be thinking across institutional contexts.


RB: That’s right. My first memory of police is seeing them lining up kids at my school against the fence: shaming them and frisking them in front of everyone. But now, as an adult, I’ve seen my sons experience something different: where Black elders pat them up, instead of pat them down, showering them with encouragement and expectation that you are living your life not just for you, but for your community. And we have your back.


MC: This underscores the need for viral justice in our everyday lives.

This also reminds me of your really powerful analysis of trust and trustworthiness in extractive institutions, such as for-profit healthcare and even universities. I wonder, though: Are any of these institutions salvageable? What does it look like to make them trustworthy?


RB: I’m glad that you brought up the university. Part of my goal in writing was to model what it looks like for us to turn the lens back on ourselves, in the places that we work and live, the things that are closest to home. And I’ve been thinking about the relationship between what happens in Amazon warehouses and what happens in the Academy in terms of gig work and the exploitation of labor.

That said, I do think to answer your question that something called the university is salvageable. Something called schools, something called healthcare: but in a radically different form, rethinking the values that animate these institutions from the ground up. It is not going to look like what we have now. What the book is trying to do is to show how the logic and the incentives that shape these institutions do not serve us, and even when those in positions of power and authority give lip service to positive-sounding values, often that serves as a veneer for maintaining business as usual.

Just this week, I joined hundreds of people to support tenants here in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. Their building was gifted by a wealthy alumnus to Boston University. So now BU—in Boston—is in a position to sell it to developers, which would essentially raise the rents/evict over 130 people, 40 families, mostly Black and Latinx in LA. Just thinking about the “nonprofit” status of universities, all of the do-gooding work of the Academy; but that official status hides the profit seeking. As one person I quote in Viral Justice puts it, “the university [is] a hedge fund that conducts classes.”

What is really going on here? How are these institutions, the ones that we work in, continuing to harm and exploit and displace the communities for whom they are allegedly producing all of this great knowledge “for the public good”?


MC: Both of us are academics, as are many readers of Public Books. In the book, you encourage us all to plot where we are, and one thing you say is that your “primary plot is the classroom.” What advice do you have for how we can plot as academics?


RB: Where I always start is how to make learning relevant to people’s lives. Not just their grades or their assignments but connecting what is inside the classroom to what is outside. I remember my first year at Princeton, we did an interview project with people who had recently been incarcerated who were in a transitional housing facility a few miles from campus. And they didn’t know the university existed. This “world-renowned” university was completely irrelevant to people’s lives. It was a lesson to my students: you are taught that you are the center of the universe, but whose universe?

For me, it’s also about rethinking where we put our energies. Do we only see our role as teaching in the classroom or do we also have a responsibility to engage learning outside of the university? That is, at public libraries, community centers and organizations beyond campus, communicating directly with practitioners in fields where our work is relevant instead of only relying on academic publications to get our research out there. These are a few of the ways I try to plot a broader approach to teaching and learning.

Worldbuilders and seed sowers showed me that we have a wealth of cultural and social resources and there’s a lot happening underground that we can water and grow.

MC: After George Floyd, all these companies and institutions rushed to make symbolic, performative changes to their logos and the like. You talk about symbolic changes in the book, clarifying how these are distinct from—and insufficient in—your theory of viral justice. Tell us about that.


RB: In that moment, the violence was so public, so egregious, that it demanded that people acknowledge it, and show some evidence that they were working to counter it. Everyone had to be for Black lives in that moment and offer up some evidence that they were awake and aware: mainly through these public statements, corporate statements, hundreds of them that go on websites and letters to employees, et cetera. You might call these changes performative or cosmetic or symbolic, if they don’t go hand-in-hand with changing the everyday practices that perpetuate harm, exclusion, inequity.

Take the example of real estate agents who said they would no longer be using the term “master” bedroom because of its connection to the history of enslavement. Meanwhile, the people who are directly affected by the ongoing racism in real estate and housing in this country are demanding something more, like ending evictions, ending higher interest rates, ending racial steering and the list goes on. Keep your cosmetic change if you’re making no attempt to deal with the underlying practices that perpetuate harm.


MC: At some level that can be necessary—finding and shifting ingrained cultural patterns—but, of course, like you said, it has to be tied to something more material.


RB: Absolutely. The point is not to minimize the symbolic and its connection to the substantive. But too often the symbolic is marshaled as an end in itself.


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MC: You talk a lot in the book about Black maternal health and Black birthing, about people’s relationship to a profit-driven healthcare system, and about the beautiful alternative possibilities of Black doulas and midwifery. Can you talk about your own experience as a young mother, and what it was like writing about that?


RB: So much of our public storytelling and awareness raising around Black maternal health points to the trauma and the harm: story after story about someone who dies, someone who is mistreated. Part of what is really guiding me is that we need to bear witness to that, but there are also other stories of how Black folks are approaching things differently.

Fortunately, I experienced that affirming alternative. I want to introduce into our public consciousness and storytelling tradition these other ways, where we see ourselves really having wonderful birthing experiences that are empowering. Essentially, this became for me a foundation for so many other things in life, where I realize, “Oh, I did that shit, so I can do this other thing that is really easy, comparatively.” It becomes this touchstone for what I’m capable of, but not as a superhero narrative, but when I have people around me that are supporting me, I did something that I could barely imagine. So if I have the same support to get through other experiences, then I can do things that I would never imagine doing on my own or even with people who may be rooting against me.


MC: You do that in every chapter: you start with the problem, then its connection with interrelated forms of injustice, and then you give us examples of people who are plotting to make a different world.

And I love your articulation just now, that Blackness is not just a story of trauma and crisis. It is also a story of brilliance, of creativity, of ingenuity. So many of the things that we take for granted are actually derived from Black knowledge, expertise, and grassroots intellectualism. I see your book as surfacing contemporary, lesser-known examples of grassroots knowledge and plotting that, in the future, we will come to realize was the right path all along.


RB: Yes, it’s an archive of the present. I wanted to bear witness to the people and the traditions that got me through, and that have buffered me and so many others from hostile social environments. These worldbuilders and seed sowers showed me that we have a wealth of cultural and social resources and there’s a lot happening underground that we can water and grow. icon

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt. Featured image provided by Ruha Benjamin.