- Darcey H. Merritt, Darcey H. MerrittNew York University Silver School of Social Work
- Rachel D. Ludeke, Rachel D. LudekeNew York University Silver School of Social Work
- Krushika Uday Patankar, Krushika Uday PatankarNew York University Silver School of Social Work
- Muthoni MahachiMuthoni MahachiNew York University Silver School of Social Work
- and Morgan BuckMorgan BuckNew York University Silver School of Social Work
Racial justice remains a hot-button issue in the United States, particularly in the aftermath of several high-profile murders of Black and Brown people due to state-sanctioned violence. There is an increased need to explore how racial injustice remains prevalent intentionally and comprehensively in all aspects of micro, mezzo, and macro social work practice. Racism is pervasive in the social work profession, and it is therefore important to address the ways in which it underpins established human service systems (e.g., public assistance and child welfare).
- Race, Ethnicity, and Culture
- Social Justice and Human Rights
- Social Work Profession
This article provides context regarding racial justice within the field of social work, underpinned by a history of racism in the United States and accompanying policies and practices. Equity versus equality is clarified in the context of racial injustices that persist among social work human service organizations during times of global health crises and increased social unrest due to racism in the United States. The authors address several pathways to highlight the importance of acknowledging racial justice issues, such as attention to education and training within schools of social work that address the history of racism throughout all aspects of the profession, challenging racism through collective social work activism, and ongoing reflection. The chapter concludes with a critical review of social work as a profession intentionally committed to racial justice.
History of Racial Justice in the United States
The context of racial justice in the United States continues to evolve according to societal needs and demands for equity associated with one’s skin color and racial identity. With a renewed urgency due to ongoing racial, social, and political unrest highlighted by early 21st-century social movements such as the Black Lives Matter and the Dream Defenders (Clarke, 2021; Holosko et al., 2017; Patel & Price, 2016), systemic racism has again risen to the surface, demanding a deep assessment of the state of social relations in the United States. Systemic racism has long plagued various institutions in the United States, especially in the human service and helping fields such as the child welfare system (Cooper, 2013; Harp & Bunting, 2020; Mallon, 2020; Roberts, 2012), public policy and politics (Parker, 2016; Valentino et al., 2018), the criminal justice system (Feagin & Bennefield, 2014; Wamsley, 2019), health care (Chapman, 2020; Entress & Anderson, 2020; Yearby, 2018), public welfare (Clarke, 2021; Santiago & Ivery, 2020), the educational system (Apple & Gillborn, 2009; Leonardo & Grubb, 2018; Shedd, 2015), housing (Feagin, 1999), and immigration (Douglass et al., 2015; Oppenheimer et al., 2016). Notwithstanding a global pandemic and the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Brown communities in the United States, there are still vast inequities regarding who receives needed services and who is left to fend for themselves (Chapman, 2020). In addition, because of dangerous politically inspired rhetoric, Asians and Asian Americans have experienced increased racially motivated violence and injustices simply due to the color of their skin and nationalities (Cheah et al., 2020; Choi, 2021; Le et al., 2020; Nguyen et al., 2020). Racism is viewed as routine or normal to some, primarily because it is so ingrained into every aspect of U.S. society, and is often accepted.
Moreover, it has been embedded in the United States as a mechanism to enact social control over non-White bodies. Socially constructed race continues to have a profound effect on all aspects of social policy and practice despite the abolishment of slavery in 1865. Black Americans and other non-White people have had to fight for equitable citizenship since the doctrine of “separate but equal” augmented racial segregation in all areas of social life, including within the educational system (Ewing, 2018). The Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 set in motion the idea that equalizing educational opportunity for all children was a fundamental right, representing a central shift in social and political ideologies that clung to the outdated and insensitive idea that Black Americans were less intellectually adept than White people. And yet today, the notion of teaching future generations about the role of systemic racism through a critical race theory lens is under fire by the conservative politic as wrongly causing racial trauma among White students (Robinson, 2021). Understanding the role of White supremacy and privilege and how racism individually impacts people of color is pivotal in exploring factors related to the collective non-White experience of emotional abuse and psychological trauma (Franklin et al., 2006). It is critical that social workers acknowledge the history of racial injustices in the United States at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels to disrupt the divisive culture of sustained and tolerated race-based inequities.
Equity Versus Equality
The analogous terms equity and equality have resulted in a lack of clarity within racial justice frameworks related to policy development; service delivery; access to quality health care; and socioeconomic, employment, and educational opportunities. For example, Patel and Price (2016) conducted a content analysis of the term “racial justice” and noted definitions used by nonprofit organizations, government, and researchers have included references to racial equity, equal rights, and fairness but do not specify how equity is measured or provide any information on its attainment. Prior to highlighting the importance of striving for racial justice in the field of social work, the concepts of equality and equity must be distinguished. Equality refers to equal access and opportunity for all people, whereas equity refers to imbalances within society that need to be corrected to level the playing field based on differential needs, available opportunities, and circumstances (Bronfenbrenner, 1973; Cherry, 2020). For example, a child who attended a poor-quality preschool will not be academically competitive if given the same or equal educational support once in elementary school as a child who attended a high-quality preschool. In this example, the inequity lies within the lack of access to quality early childhood education (ECE) and needs to be corrected for success in future school settings. Equality in access to resources and opportunities is a conduit to equitable conditions (Carr & Kutty, 2008; Fleurbaey, 2002; Ooghe et al., 2007). In addition, identifying racial inequities across socioeconomic conditions related to the intersectionality of personal identities is a necessary pathway to correcting systemically embedded imbalances (Brown & Wellman, 2005) that manifest during human services and systems involvement.
What Is Racial Justice?
Historically, racial justice was not a term used to describe racial discord in the United States; rather, the concept was first introduced as interracial justice in 1911 in an article titled “International Organization for Inter-racial Goodwill” by Edwin D. Mead. The article intended to address how individuals of different races could develop mutual partnerships in the pursuit of peace by harmoniously coexisting with White people. The initial concept of interracial justice did not address the historical and systemic racism inherent in the foundation of the United States, opting instead to focus on building community through the shared goal of creating a broader sense of community between all races (Day, 2009; Miller & Garran, 2007).
When interracial justice is conceptualized as such, the enduring impacts of racial injustice and human rights violations of people of color in the United States is unheeded. There are multiple examples of racism against non-White U.S. citizens, such as the enslavement of Black people (Degler, 1959), Japanese internment camps during World War II (Nagata et al., 2019), the segregation and Jim Crow laws (Thompson-Miller & Feagin, 2007), the demonization of Islam and Muslim populations after the terrorists attacks on September 11, 2001 (Yearby, 2018), and ongoing inattention to systemic racial injustices endured in the present day (Gallegos et al., 2008; Pager & Shepherd, 2008; Reisch, 2008). For example, there are early 21st-century Jim Crow initiatives in the form of aggressive voter suppression spurred by the antics of former President Trump and his legislative supporters (Darrah-Okike et al., 2021; Nowacki et al, 2020). Moreover, the discussion of racial justice in the United States has been hindered by a tendency to blame systematically disenfranchised people of color for their marginalized positions in society rather than exploring the ways in which social institutions and guiding policies support and continue their oppression (Rosino, 2018). The language shift from interracial justice to racial justice is indicative of the process of highlighting relational commonalities between people of color and privileged White people, while muddying a clear definition of racial justice in lived experiential contexts. The notion of interracial justice is an intentional reimagination of the original premise of the fabric of the United States, one in which the country actualizes the ideal of advancing human rights to all regardless of skin color.
Ida B. Wells, an African American investigative journalist and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was among the first to promote the notion of racial justice. Although Wells did not explicitly use this terminology, in her infamous speech, “The Awful Slaughter,” in 1909, presented at the first NAACP meeting, she highlighted the need for the country to acknowledge its promise to acknowledge the refusal to recognize Black people as full members of its citizenship (Berg, 2011). Wells was also referring to the incongruity between the proclamation that the United States is interested in protecting the rights and freedom of all people while actively oppressing people of color through the denial of equitable access to rights, freedom, and opportunity (Patel & Price, 2016).
Earlier use of the term interracial justice alluded to the inequalities that existed between White and Black people, but it did not address the socially constructed notion of race and the economic motivations of those in positions of power, privilege, and the White supremacist structures that reinforce inequity and inequality. Instead, the term was appropriated and used to defend a passive agenda wherein one could overlook centuries of oppression and inequities that Black people endured and simultaneously validate those with positive experiences in close proximity to whiteness to rely on such proximity (e.g., lighter skin and higher socioeconomic status) as a mechanism toward progress. The interracial justice approach discounted the inherent racism that Black and Brown-skinned people experienced, inclusive of disproportional access to social mobility, and attempted to offset inequality by establishing socioeconomically separate spaces (Rosino, 2018; Woo et al., 2018).
Some argue that the increased use of the term racial justice in the 1960s and 1970s initially addressed race-based inequities but ultimately failed to delve deeper into the racialized injustices permeating across U.S. institutions or the explicit and implicit racist processes that relegated disenfranchised people of color to remain oppressed (Patel & Price, 2016). Even at the height of the civil rights movement, the term racial justice was not broadly applied to understanding how specific injustices occur within communities of color. For instance, Martin Luther King’s best-known speech, incorrectly remembered as the “I Have a Dream Speech,” discusses racial injustice in a veiled way in a discussion of how inequitable opportunities have hindered socioeconomic development in Black communities. However, many make a direct connection between this speech and the notion of color-blindness, which has been used as a rallying cry to encourage interracial communication (Neville & Awad, 2014). Furthermore, the “I Have a Dream” speech has justified attempts toward inclusion by upholding the appearance of others’ desires to live in harmony with people of color (Neville et al., 2005). Despite both well and ill intent, communities of color have been consistently disenfranchised by White supremacist mechanisms that perpetuate inequitable participation in capitalism through unbridled control of the labor force (Pulido, 2016).
As noted in the section on Equity Versus Equality, racial justice is severely lacking within the U.S. educational system, particularly regarding access to quality ECE. A solid foundation of quality ECE is paramount for Black and Brown children at critical developmental stages to disrupt potential inequities along their educational trajectories (Adams & Katz, 2015; Annie E. Casey Foundation, 2021; Bowman et al., 2018; Magnuson & Waldfogel, 2005). Furthermore, systemic race-based disadvantages also exist regarding inequities in access to quality medical care, whereby women and children of color experience the highest rates of morbidity and mortality, closely associated with Black children being three times more likely to live in poverty than White children (Creanga et al., 2017; Liese et al., 2019).
Lived Experiences of Racial Injustice
The lived experiences of racial injustice need to be centered within the social work profession and across all policy development and service design and delivery. Disenfranchised populations of color in the United States endure protracted poverty and income hardship resulting from structural paralysis, social disempowerment, and political disenfranchisement. The social work field is remiss in not considering the actual lived experiences of historically marginalized communities of color. There is a dire need to better understand and address associations between race, class, income, and a range of well-being outcomes (Lloyd et al., 2021). Failing to consider the impact of generations of racial injustices on these groups will result in missing important contextual nuances that can inform policy and service delivery improvements.
People of color share a collective lived experience related to racial justice that requires consideration of intersectionality (Crenshaw et al., 1996). As a broad example, well-being trajectories among Black women should be considered in light of racially motivated and state-sanctioned family disruptions that negatively impact their family structures and hinder the meaningful participation of Black fathers (e.g., mass incarceration and lackluster support for fathers within Temporary Assistance to Needy Families goals) (Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, 2019). In fact, most discussions regarding racial justice fail to consider how gender plays a role in the lived experiences of systemic oppression. Black women and feminists from developing countries have been keenly aware of how race and gender are intertwined and sought to include discussions about gender in the understanding of racial justice (Combahee River Collective, 2001; Simon, 1994). The omission of such dialogue hinders meaningful work and needed advocacy with countless disrupted families as they navigate human services.
Racial justice has a long and storied history mired in discussions of improving race relations and eliminating barriers to civil and human rights for all. However, the original interpretations of racial justice and interracial justice (the limited predecessor) often fail to consider how the lived experience of racism is a daunting barrier in access to equitable circumstances and opportunities for all individuals. Noted, the social construction of race is, after all, an economically motivated extension of racism or the desire to create a social hierarchy with the sole purpose of separating those considered to be “human” versus those considered to be “less than human” based on rhetoric advanced by Dr. Samuel Cartwright in 1851 as a justification for slave ownership due to his theory of dysaesthesia aethiopica, or the belief that slaves were mentally ill due to laziness and indifference to being punished by slave owners (Willoughby, 2018), and happen to have dark skin.
Racial justice becomes an actionable term when it coincides with an urgent appeal to contest systemic and institutional racism by incorporating mechanisms and embracing theories that lead to equitable change (Diab et al., 2013). Importantly, inquiries about the origins of racial justice and attempts to define specific indicators have devolved into two distinct camps, where the desire for peace (e.g., color-blindness) among different racial groups is juxtaposed against a bold examination of how systemic and institutional racism continues to support the oppression and human rights violations of large populations of people of color in the United States.
History of Racial Justice in the Realm of Social Work
The field of social work began with a commitment to promoting human well-being and enhancing social justice for all persons (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2021); however, the field has not been immune from propagating racial injustices on the individuals, families, and communities served by the profession. Moreover, the field has been complicit in acknowledgment of the negative impacts of oversight and surveillance embedded in service delivery. Although a primary goal to ensure social justice is sought as an alternative to merely providing charity to those in need, the social work profession has often failed to consider ways in which racism plays a significant role in continued oppression of people of color, particularly those with lower socioeconomic status. The profession has fallen short despite the intention to provide a pluralistic system of human services designed to protect people from experiencing ongoing racially based inequities and subsequent negative life well-being outcomes. The salient social problems date back to the 1880s and primarily centered on the influx of immigrants from Europe and Asia (Abramitzky & Boustan, 2017) and secondarily on Black and Latino Americans migrating to places in search of suitable economic and quality of life conditions (Stuart & Taylor, 2021). There was an increased need of services to aid immigrant populations struggling with poverty, particularly among non-Black populations (i.e., those recently and voluntarily immigrated and struggling with poverty). Skin color quickly became an unspoken topic in the conversation regarding justice issues more broadly, allowing for inattention to implicit biases inherent among all people and human service systems. As such, in the early years of the social work profession, efforts were focused on the needs of White-skinned families while systematically dismissing the needs of Black and Brown people, which continues to manifest as a clear exercise of racism and structural oppression.
It is important to note the stark difference in the willingness to provide meaningful services based on whether people from other countries arrived voluntarily versus those trafficked to the United States for labor (e.g., people with black skin from Africa or the African diaspora). Unfortunately, in large part, white-skinned Americans (original colonists) believed that the struggles of non-white-skinned people and communities was due to moral and cultural deficiencies, and a lack of commitment to individualism, rather than economically driven systemic oppression and strict limitations of mobility (by design) in the labor market. This ultimately created a perfect storm for racialized poverty to become embedded in all U.S. institutions and organizational policies and practices (Ward, 2005; Wilson, 2009), particularly regarding child neglect issues. Skin color should always be considered because some people with white skin do not readily align with the accompanying privilege and are therefore less inclined to acknowledge such disparities in opportunities, a protective factor allowing them to avoid ownership of the privileges that come with their skin color, despite the fact that they had no choice in attaining that privilege.
Historically, mostly White-led mutual aid societies and human services took leadership on addressing the needs of people and communities in need (Addams, 1910/1937; Richmond, 1922), and less known are some unsung Black social work leaders dedicated to supporting their communities (Frazier, 1932; Height, 2003; Young, 1967). These trailblazers for communities of color have always implemented informal and formal organizational service delivery dedicated to the plight of well-being specific to people living in dark skin in the United States.
Given the lackluster interest in centering the issues plaguing Black Americans and communities, Black people created their own mutual aid societies, self-help groups, and formal services modeled after White-led agencies (Hill, 2004; Weaver, 1992). Unsurprisingly, this resulted in tension within the existing, White-led social work agencies as the profession ultimately evolved in a manner that bolstered the status quo in preserving racial hierarchies (Reisch, 2008, 2013). Whereas mutual aid societies and social work services in the Black community precede modern social work practices (Roberts, 2012), the impact of the period of Black enslavement and subjugation continues to exacerbate the lived experiences of people of color impacted by human service agencies. Mutual aid groups allowed freed people to survive in their own social enclaves and encouraged the dependence on community activism to address individual and community needs related to racial injustices.
As noted by Carlton-LaNey (1999), mutual aid communities allowed for the development of social work programs that modeled racially sensitive approaches suited for upward mobility, such as life skills training. These agencies were operated within Black schools, churches, and businesses, and they were designed to employ a person-in-environment approach, utilized often in the field of social work now (Abramovitz, 1998). Of note, those more likely considered as demonstrating appropriate model behavior for upward mobility were among the privileged dominant White race. The person-in-environment approach has rarely or adequately considered the racialized environment as having an impact on individual behaviors related to limited choices. The field of social work is well versed in conducting biopsychosocial assessments on individuals; however, it is less adept at contextual assessments of communities and the history of oppression and disenfranchisement associated with micro-level behaviors and relationships.
Hence, the need to create distinct, insular, individualized social service provision while also acknowledging community-level experiences of racism is important given the efforts of White social workers were not always explicitly rooted in supporting the equality necessary for equitable access to help impoverished individuals and families of color. In fact, the child welfare system (CWS) was not created to help Black families and address barriers to their economic self-sufficiency and mobility (Hill, 2004); rather, racialized poverty is closely associated with the bulk of those impacted by CWS. Although services to provide mutual aid in the Black community can be traced back to the 1700s through support from the Black church and early efforts by Freedmen to establish their own institutions (e.g., credit unions, banks, and other financial institutions) to help address financial needs (Weaver, 1992), the impact of such efforts continues to be stymied by inequitable disparate experiences and ongoing systematically oppressive policies and practices.
The emergence of the United States as a welfare state, situated within the New Deal programs during the Great Depression, resulted in the passage of legislation that created a more formal system of collective responsibility and commitment to social rights for those deemed “worthy and deserving” of such support, typically without consideration of historical racial injustices. These programs provided financial support for the elderly, blind, and others with disabilities, leading to the creation of programs and financial reform to advance economic stabilization. Over time, social workers became more aware of the racial tensions that existed throughout organizational mechanisms designed to provide services to disenfranchised populations.
For instance, during World War II, the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) became one of the few organizations that heralded support for Japanese Americans who were wrongly removed from their homes and incarcerated based on a government fear that they would collude with Japan to harm other Americans (Nagata et al., 2019; Park, 2013). The U.S. Department of War managed the relocation camps where Japanese Americans were incarcerated, with government-provided access to social welfare programs for those incarcerated in the camps in the Midwest and East Coast regions. According to Park (2013), although the YWCA provided services to those in relocation camps, the organization did little to dissuade the government from its racist stance regarding Japanese Americans and complicitly supported the efforts of the government to “Americanize” these citizens. Social workers were intimately involved in all parts of the internment process and helped register, council, and track families who were moved to internment camps (Park, 2008). Despite the fact that the YWCA consistently supported Japanese Americans and their welfare, as a social work organization, it failed to stand up to inherent systemic racism by not challenging government-sanctioned internment camps. The social work profession has yet to acknowledge or examine social work’s role in the continued oppression of Japanese Americans during this period. However, the field has since supported efforts at integration, intergroup relations, and universal social welfare programs to address racial injustice in the United States (Reisch, 2008).
Similarly, very little was put in place by social workers to address the impact of racism among Black communities. Earlier, White social workers largely paid less attention to the positive progress toward equitable conditions made in Black communities, yet moving forward and given an increase of Black children in need of out-of-home placements, service goals focused on re-educating Black people utilizing biased assessments of morality and competency (Iglehart & Becerra, 2000). Such initiatives upheld racist views throughout service delivery and fostered social control by centering professional dominance and the expertise of White people over all other races (Hill, 2004; Margolin, 1997; Weaver, 1992). Simultaneously, Black social workers were acutely aware of the macro- and micro-level influences of racism on policy and service delivery and how they impacted minority communities, ultimately spurring the development of predominantly Black-led organizations such as the NAACP and the National Urban League (both founded in the mid-1900s) to better and more meaningfully serve the needs of Black children and families in their communities (Carlton-LaNey, 1999). The settlement house movement attempted to provide services to Black and Mexican American families in need, but even those most committed to meaningful change could not envision a just society in which social welfare is a benefit extended beyond White people (Reisch, 2007; Trolander, 1975). As a result of this lack of acknowledgment regarding the impact of institutional racism, efforts toward racial justice remained dormant until the emergence of the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and the 1960s (Reisch, 2007).
Social welfare issues became more prominent and concerning as the welfare rights movement of the 1960s gained momentum. However, during the 1970s, the impact of welfare rights activists diminished as critics asserted the narrative that public assistance programs encourage dependency and are directly to blame for the large number of people (coded as lazy Black and Brown people) who rely too heavily on the government for help. The 1960s and 1970s ushered in an expansion of Roosevelt’s New Deal social programs through President Johnson’s Great Society programs. These initiatives were intended to alleviate poverty, but due to the inherent underlying element of institutional and structural racism, many of these programs were administered through a patchwork of state policies that often hindered the forward progression of racial justice for people of color. Researchers attempted to explore why poverty remained largely unchanged in Black communities despite government efforts, which often resulted in repeatedly blaming the poor people of color for their poverty (Clarke, 2021). The shift of the country from a welfare state to embracing neoliberalism ideologies created the semblance of a safety net but did little to reduce the deeply ingrained structures of racial oppression that further oppressed communities of color (Reich, 2020).
Surprisingly, the social work profession remained relatively quiet, despite the growing Black nationalist movements, calls for an end to segregation, and a growing feminist movement demanding equality. In fact, prominent publication outlets in the field did not call attention to racial justice or racial unrest until the early 1970s, when the activism was beginning to subside (Simon, 1994) and there was waning attention to the issue from social work professionals calling for NASW to explicitly promote a call for an end to White racism. Later and unfortunately, the Reagan administration retreated from the notion of a safety net for those truly in need and restricted access to financial support and care for populations of color (Deaton, 2013). The decades-long social movements between the 1960s and 1980s were characteristic of contradictions and a toothless commitment to racial justice, and they continued pathologizing individuals and communities of color. As the profession moves toward a more reflective embrace of multiculturalism and abolishing racism, an explicit intention toward racial justice must remain a core issue within the social work profession. Any work that does not consider the history and context of racial justice related to social work is heedless of the lasting effect of systemic denigrating of Black and Brown bodies.
At the heart of legislative initiatives, a debate continues regarding publicly provided welfare provisions (influenced by racialized poverty assessments) and a narrative distinguishing between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The socioeconomic and political environment has been in constant flux for decades, rather forever in all our memories, and this philosophical debate has remained prevalent when considering policies. Moreover, social work core values have been impacted by a newfound trepidation of multiculturalism, discussions around individualism versus collectivism, and our collective responsibility to address racialized poverty.
Attitudes toward people of color in the lower socioeconomic strata still vary across political party lines from benevolence to contempt as the societal financial burden continues to grow and social welfare policies fail to achieve substantial change. Unfortunately, people of color have not always benefited from financial sustainability programs, and economic disparities between White families and families of color have increased throughout the decades, especially in the housing market (Massey, 2008). As is the case now, social welfare leaders and organizations (e.g., NASW) from the past have failed to acknowledge the role that insidious racism has played in creating and maintaining impoverished communities of color.
Arguably, all U.S. policies, laws, and initiatives are heavily value-laden, resulting in subjectivity and bias in creating opportunities for survival with a path to thriving and flourishing as people and communities. These policies are often operationalized through social work service delivery in a subjective manner vulnerable to biases, thus hindering the ability to extrapolate meaning and true intentions from three-dimensional socioeconomic and political structures. The validity of outcomes is heavily influenced by political discord and accompanying prejudiced assessments. Given that social work policy goals are disparate, one should be mindful of how such nuanced and complex challenges can be effectively addressed inclusive of community-informed and -guided measurable goals as contexts and public perceptions evolve. As such, impacted communities need to be included in all evaluations of service delivery regarding real-world impact.
Social work as a profession takes pride in being a multicultural profession that serves communities of people from all racial, ethnic, and class backgrounds, and yet practitioners are often unprepared to exercise structural competency (Ali & Sichel, 2014) and cultural humility and sensitivity while working with vulnerable communities of color (Miller & Garran, 2007). Unfortunately, in earnest efforts to create a multicultural environment, the social work profession has erred in policy and service design that impact disenfranchised populations and ultimately support ongoing injustices. Much of this unpreparedness can be attributed to poor training in social work programs and the inability of some practitioners to acknowledge and understand both social and White privilege (Blackney, 2005; Harbin et al., 2019; Museus et al., 2015; Reisch, 2008). Whereas social privilege refers to a broad spectrum of advantages for some, resulting in injustices to the detriment of more disadvantaged people, White privilege is a primary barrier to achieving racial justice. There are, however, opportunities to educate and compel the profession to commit to ongoing reflection as practitioners and service providers with the goal of seeking racial justice. A first collective step is acknowledgment that social work’s systems and practices often support racial injustices, albeit unintentionally. There needs to be consensus around the narrative that the bulk of the disenfranchised populations that social workers serve experience daily racial injustices throughout multiple systems involvements. The following accounts provide context regarding some missed opportunities to commit to racial justice in the field of social work.
Social and White Privilege in Social Work
As discussed previously, the historical nature of the emergence of social work affords certain individuals very specific social privilege within the profession. Depending on one’s identity, social privilege and the accompanying reliable advantages are experienced in the context of inherent racism (Miller & Garran, 2007). Given the more comfortable social work identity narrative, a mosaic of multiculturalism, social work professionals tend to espouse color-blind mindsets. Those among the social work field with inherent privileges approach daily service delivery from such positions and should remain mindful of NASW’s (2021) Code of Ethics, which mandates that social workers acknowledge their role in oppressive and inequitable systems (Greene, 2010).
There is a sampling of studies that assessed the understanding of social and White privilege, as well as the notion of color-blindness. One such study noted that Bachelor of Social Work–level practitioners were less likely to be aware of racial privilege and how racism may impact their ability to work cross-culturally (Loya, 2011). Endorsing the notion of color-blindness allows for the veneer of cross-cultural practice approaches, under the guise of social cooperation, yet also hinders consistent recognition of social and White privilege among both White and non-White social work practitioners in the classroom and the field. Davis (2019) found that the issues of social privilege and color-blindness in social work are related to the historical knowledge that Master of Social Work students possess at the beginning of social work studies. Having examined the racial attitudes of social work students using Neville et al.’s (2000) Color-Blind Racial Attitudes Scale, it was noted that students with more historical knowledge about racism and the civil rights movement in the United States reported fewer color-blind beliefs. In addition, millennial students reported fewer color-blind beliefs than students older than age 35 years. Color-blindness is endorsed across racial groups for various reasons. Some have posited that color-blindness among Black Americans may serve as psychological false consciousness (i.e., false beliefs leading to victim-blaming and justifying inequality), such that internalized oppression serves as a coping mechanism aligned with a social dominance orientation (Neville et al., 2005). Social and White privilege coupled with internalized oppression among social workers of color can negatively influence a social worker’s work with individuals, families, or groups under their care. These can be very nuanced and subtle relational issues that, if unacknowledged, can cause undue harm.
Controversial Support of Social Work Collaborations With Police
Although the professional governing bodies of the social work profession (e.g., NASW and the Council on Social Work Education [CSWE]) support diversity and multiculturalism as a core paradigm of social work, there is controversy regarding continued support of social worker and police departments collaborations amid the perpetuation of racial injustice. The NASW Code of Ethics has been revised with stronger language encouraging a commitment to addressing racial justice by reinstating cultural competence as an ethical responsibility of all licensed practitioners (NASW, 2021). Although this recommitment is important to the core mission of social work, NASW has continued to support and collaborate with systems that systemically oppress people of color. There is an unresolved disconnect between the social work profession and conflicting messages inherent in NASW partnerships with systems that have been historically harmful to communities of color. For instance, there has been a movement to defund the police in the United States and create a pathway from carceral social work. This movement gained momentum by focusing on the idea that coercive and punitive practices of police departments often result in gender-based violence, reduction in mental health and well-being for communities of color, and an increase in Black and Brown individuals affected by mass incarceration and unnecessary police violence (Jacobs et al., 2021; James, 2021). In addition, through continued support of police–social work collaboration, the profession has not directly addressed the role the police state plays in oppressing communities of color (Scott, 2020).
NASW released an open letter to its members calling for social workers to play a greater role in helping law enforcement serve communities while simultaneously touting the ongoing collaboration of social workers and law enforcement and ignoring the widespread unrest and mental anguish caused by the brutal murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 (“Social Workers Cooperate with Police Forces,” 2020). This was followed by a great deal of contention and petitions denouncing NASW for suggesting that social workers and law enforcement continue to work alongside each other without demonstrating explicit action steps to racial justice and antiracist practices stated in the Code of Ethics (Abrams & Dettlaff, 2020). Abrams and Dettlaff (2020) called on NASW and other allied organizations to formally adopt a racial justice code of ethics to recognize the historical role of social work in creating and perpetuating anti-Blackness through the surveillance and regulation of Black and Brown bodies embedded in ongoing social work–police collaborations and within a systematically flawed CWS. Hence, there is an unresolved disconnect between the social work profession and conflicting messages inherent in NASW partnerships with systems that have been historically harmful to communities of color.
Pathways to Center Racial Justice in Social Work
The current sociopolitical climate in the United States is marked not only by increasing racial tension but also by the devastating effects of COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected communities of color. Yet, it is impossible to deny the racialization of the United States and how human service agencies that stemmed from a desire to help others nonetheless promote selectivity around who receives and deserves help. Considering the Black Lives Matter movement, the ongoing racial and political unrest, and the global pandemic ravaging communities of color, the field of social work must make a broader commitment not only to recognize racism within the profession but also to adopt a definition of racial justice that includes action. In the following sections, possible pathways forward are discussed that can be used to create a more centralized focus on racial justice within the social work field.
Racial Justice in Social Work Education and Training
Social work schools largely follow mandates established by CSWE, and social work practice is regulated by NASW. Following this established system of checks and balances in social work education, teachers have an immense responsibility to provide instruction to future social workers that gives them the skills necessary to practice appropriate micro- and macro-level social work. Furthermore, they must also take great care in preparing new social workers for the strengths and challenges of working cross-culturally in an increasingly racially divided nation.
Yet, the very inequities social work propounds to focus on are reified through the stark differences and lack of alignment among CSWE and NASW mandates. To that end, the CSWE adopted a competency-based education framework for its Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards for baccalaureate and master’s social work programs in 2008, moving accredited social work schools toward a student learning outcomes-based curriculum. One of the major competency areas in both the implicit and the explicit curriculum for social work education is for social workers to absorb diversity and difference in practice to advance human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice for all those served (CSWE, 2015). Similarly, the NASW Code of Ethics requires all social workers to develop cultural competency through field and classroom training and be driven by the core values of “service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence” (NASW, 2021). Despite these explicit mandates, both CSWE and NASW do not discuss specific actions and behaviors that social workers must implement to accomplish the goal of racial justice.
Considering this disconnect, evident in institutions meant to regulate social work learning and practice, many social work researchers have developed racial justice frameworks designed to demystify racial differences by calling on future social workers, regardless of race or ethnicity, to acknowledge their biases and positionality within society before interacting with clients (Edmonds-Cady & Sosulski, 2012; Edmonds-Cady & Wingfield, 2017; Matias, 2013; Mildred & Zuniga, 2004). These models urge students to participate in ongoing reflection of their own privileges and oppressions, including how they play out among social issues, while encouraging the achievement of racial justice when feasible and possible with skills gained throughout their education. In addition, NASW also advocates for social workers to regularly engage in self-correction and acknowledgment of their own biases with regard to working with client populations by demonstrating awareness and cultural humility in all situations.
However, as noted by Gallegos and colleagues (2008), there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes cultural competency or how to assess the development of this critical skill. One cannot be truly competent in another’s culture, but it is possible to become structurally competent in understanding the oppression inherent in systems and structures (Ali & Sichel, 2014). Moreover, actions must constitute more than simply talking about the existence of racial inequality; rather, they must focus more on what can tangibly be done to improve the lives of those affected by it (Miller & Donner, 2000; Miller et al., 2010). The social work profession through CSWE and NASW should adopt these models to tie racism, racial justice, and action to a meaningful understanding of the racial oppression faced by the individuals, families, and groups that social workers serve.
Engagement in a Critical Review of Social Work as a Profession
Although the social work profession is at the forefront of recognizing the pertinence of racial justice, there is a greater need to engage in a critique of the profession and acknowledge its inaccurately storied past and inherent negative influence on ongoing attempts to explicitly endorse antiracism. Combs and Perron (2020), noticing an acute dearth of definitions of diversity beyond class differences, created a 12-step Model of Recovery From White Conditioning to serve as a foundation for daily introspection of positionality for White practitioners and catalyze future social and racial justice-oriented action. The model is a derivative of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program and extends the curriculum within the Human Behavior in the Social Environment generalist course. The meetings reinforce the shared responsibility of White practitioners to name and acknowledge social and racial injustice; provide an opportunity for continual discussion of how whiteness permeates society in an open meeting space; and champion the values of having dedicated, uninterrupted time devoted to talking about these issues. Although elements of such a program may cause uncomfortable feelings from those who participate, it incorporates the CSWE and NASW ideals of ongoing self-reflection to identify and prevent bias.
As noted previously, cross-cultural educational opportunities are desperately needed within the field of social work to enforce social justice and anti-oppressive practice as delineated in the NASW Code of Ethics (Bulia, 2009; Dessel & Rodenborg, 2017). Azzopardi (2020) touts the use of a cross-cultural social work practice model grounded in a social justice framework to critically engage with cultural awareness and utilize a pedagogical approach that explores intersectionality and diversity in social work education. This model proposes using a multiterminal approach for teaching and evaluating cross-cultural sensitivity by promoting inclusive classrooms and teaching movements. The model champions having “unsettling but important conversations” that may challenge often “taken-for-granted assumptions and deep-seated biases” that give rise to feelings of “distress, anxiety, anger, shame, and defensiveness” (p. 473). This can also be utilized in the creation of antiracist alliances and allyships to help combat racial injustice (Blitz et al., 2014). Another significantly important aspect of cross-cultural social work practice is to understand the geopolitical relationships and historical oppressions that exist between countries and communities. Colonization throughout the world has reshaped and transformed previously stable communities, resulting in these tenuous relationships between individuals within different social and racial contexts (Said, 1978). Journaling may serve as a way for individuals to confront their biases in a meaningful manner. Davis (2016) discusses the use of reflective practices as a way social work educators can help students explore the impact of racial socialization in their identities while encouraging professional development in this area. Utilizing relational–cultural theory and journaling exercises serves as a way for practitioners to engage with the whole self when entering cross-cultural relationships with clients. Creating safe spaces for all to engage in reflective practices is key to implementing real action when discussing the role of racial justice in the social work profession.
Despite monumental shifts in the field of social work, racial justice remains a key issue for the profession related to practitioners enhancing their work with disenfranchised populations of color. To create actionable strategies with the intention of combating the inequality that leads to inequity, and the divisive nature of the current racial and political unrest in the United States, a concerted effort should be made to ensure that current and future generations of social workers understand the origins of racial justice and ways social work practitioners can collectively work to create a more just society for all, with acknowledgment of historical systemic inequities. Acknowledging the country’s history of structural racism and how it permeates all aspects of society is only the first step toward living in a world in which there is true racial equity. By incorporating avenues for self-reflection and collective action for people of color as well as the privileged White people, it becomes possible to eradicate racial inequalities and improve outcomes for all racial groups.
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