Since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May, daily protests have taken place around the world as people express their shared grief and outrage at the growing number of unarmed African Americans who have died recently at the hands of police.
These recent wounds have opened up deep societal scars because we are in the middle of two pandemics that disproportionately affect communities of color. COVID-19 has claimed more than 100,000 American lives, and unequal access to quality medical care has contributed to the incredibly disproportionate impact of COVID-19 among traditionally underserved Black and Brown populations. The other pandemic—institutional racism—has been responsible, in one way or another, for untold fatalities for more than 400 years.
There is no end to the cacophony of content, information, opinions, and images coming at us from news and social media. Faced with these two pandemics, each requiring urgent attention and action, social workers may find it difficult to know what to do first. We would like to offer a focal point for social work students, practitioners, educators, regulators, and others.
Social workers challenge social injustice. It’s right there in our Code of Ethics: Social workers have professional and moral obligations to address and end racism. We cannot be neutral.
Social justice and nondiscrimination also infuse professional regulation. Codes of conduct protect the public and strengthen the Code of Ethics by transforming aspirational goals into specific legally enforceable obligations. Licensed social workers may not discriminate, or they risk loss of their licenses and the ability to practice. The code of conduct’s nondiscrimination clause in ASWB’s model law clearly states: “A social worker shall not discriminate against a client, student, or supervisee on the basis of age, gender, sexual orientation, race, color, national origin, religion, diagnosis, disability, political affiliation, or social or economic status.”
Preparation to practice anti-oppressive social work begins in our social work classrooms. The more than 800 accredited baccalaureate, master’s, and doctoral programs of social work educate students about promoting diversity and inclusion in practice and advancing human rights and social justice. Students learn the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination and recognize how society's institutions and structures can either marginalize and alienate or create privilege and power. They also learn how to take action to eliminate oppressive structural barriers, ensuring that all human rights are protected. As previously mentioned, CSWE will seek input from the profession, educators, and students this year on evaluating how curricula can go beyond teaching an appreciation for physical or cultural diversity and empower the next generation of social work practitioners to dismantle institutional racism.
Whether social workers join the ranks of community agencies, schools, hospitals, or other interdisciplinary workplaces or are in independent private practice, they provide services to clients of every socioeconomic, ethnic, and cultural background. To ensure that they are meeting clients where they are, social workers must constantly evaluate their own biases and assumptions about other people’s experiences, their strengths, and the diverse cultures that sustain them. And if our workplaces do not offer an equally respectful environment for staff members and clients, it is our duty to lead efforts that meet new standards of practice excellence. Ongoing personal and professional development in antiracist behavior, cultural humility, and understanding must be a priority.
Much work remains to be done to end racism. Social workers are up to the challenge.
With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.
—Martin Luther King Jr. “The Other America.” March 14, 1968
Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP) at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work. CRSP was founded Larry E. Davis, PhD, LCSW. It conducts applied community-based research in race and ethnicity from a social work perspective and offers a variety of resources and programs.
Achieving Racial Equity: Calling the Social Work Profession to Action (NASW Social Work Policy Institute, May 2014). This report summarizes the recommendations of the Social Work Policy Institute’s symposium.
Institutional Racism and the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action (NASW, 2007). Work has begun on a revised toolkit and a series of forums as part of NASW's social action agenda.
“Putting Social Work Values to the Test—ASWB’s Commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” by ASWB Examination Development Director Lavina Harless, LCSW, appears in the May/June issue of Social Work Today."