Despite the decades that have passed since the beginning of the civil rights movement, racism is still a major issue in America. We still see organized hate groups, news stories of racial slurs and attacks, and examples that we observe in our everyday lives. So, what should social workers and the profession as a whole do about it?
First, a definition is in order. According to the National Association of Social Workers Web site, racism is “the ideology or practice through demonstrated power or perceived superiority of one group over others by reasons of race, color, ethnicity, or cultural heritage....” The definition further goes on to note that “racism is manifested at the individual, group, and institutional level.” The social workers and social work educators we interviewed indicated that while there has been some progress, the problem still exists—albeit in changed ways. They feel that reduced vigilance and a sense of satisfaction are premature.
Racism in 2006
“Two-thousand-and-six is not 1952,” states Michael Melendez, associate professor and former director of the Urban Leadership Program at Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work in Boston. “It would be disingenuous to say we haven’t seen considerable gains. I remember the level of violence, of lynching and dogs being set on people. But some entrenched aspects of racism have not changed, such as criminal sentencing. Blacks consistently get higher and more severe penalties than whites. And there are areas of health: doctors are less likely to give pain medication to blacks, and blacks get more invasive procedures around cardiovascular conditions. Racism is alive and well in the United States, despite what many neoconservative thinkers would have us believe. Its form and expression have simply become more subtle.”
“We all know persons of color are disproportionately represented in prison populations and in welfare systems,” says Stephanie Jo Light, interim director of NASW’s Pennsylvania chapter. “Our systems need a lot of work. We haven’t made enough progress since the start of the civil rights movement. We have to do more than pay lip service to cultural competency.”
Denial still remains one of the challenges, according to Melendez, such as the “neoconservative” stance of speaking not in terms of “structural inequalities” but as “individual acts of meanness.” “But we’re extraordinarily segregated when it comes to such areas as health and housing,” he says. “I believe the school voucher program is thinly veiled racism, designed to help the white middle class.”
Saundra Starks, professor of social work at Western Kentucky University, agrees that a lot has changed, in literature, research, and training in the field. But, she emphasizes, racism is still prominent “and isn’t going away any time soon.” One of the challenges, Starks continues, is a “conservative movement” among some students and faculty, growing out of the “general national political climate that is attempting to devalue the assertion that racism exists.”
This movement discounts studies about ongoing racism in America and the belief that classes and programs to combat racism are still needed. On the contrary, she says, they are more necessary than ever. “The world is becoming smaller and more international,” Starks asserts. “Something doesn’t have to be right for you, but we have to understand and value differences.”
Social Workers Strive to Address Racism
Certainly, the subject of race and racism figures prominently in NASW’s priorities. The organization’s Code of Ethics includes the principle that social workers should challenge social injustice—focusing primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other manifestations—and that their activities should promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Further, the Code states, social workers should strive to “ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision-making for all people.”
Among the Social Work Imperatives passed by the NASW 2005 Social Work Congress are a few that directly relate to this issue:address the impact of racism, other forms of oppression, social injustice, and other human rights violations through social work education and practice
continuously acknowledge, recognize, confront, and address pervasive racism within social work practice at the individual, agency, and institutional level, and promote culturally competent social work interventions and research methodologies in the areas of social justice, well-being, and cost-benefit outcomes.