by Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, and Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R
Racial inequity is rooted in 500 years of history, encompassing all of American history and entrenched in American culture. Achieving racial equity is complex and multifaceted. Good intentions and strong desires for social justice are not enough. Targets and goals for change are not enough. Diversity is not enough. Cultural competency is not enough.
Racial equity work requires recognizing systemic oppression and changing the way systems function. To do this, we must be guided by a set of principles that help us identify barriers and pitfalls, and lead us in learning skills and strategies to transform institutional systems. We follow a set of ten principles outlined by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (http://pisab.org/our-principles). In each column, we will discuss one of these principles, offering our insights into how to put them into action.
We begin with the most fundamental principle: Undoing Racism.
Why are social justice ethics, diversity goals, and cultural competency not enough to undo racism? While necessary, they fall short because they do not address root causes of inequity and fail to understand the complexity of how racism permeates all aspects of society. In his book Racism Without Racists, Eduardo Bonilla Silva (2013) delineated four ideological frames that help make sense of racial inequities. These frames—cultural racism, abstract liberalism, naturalization, and minimization—create a solid, yet flexible, structure that upholds racism.
Cultural racism is the assumption that some races of people are naturally inferior. Thus, subtle assumptions of inferiority and superiority are built into culture and transmitted through normal social functioning. Stereotypes are a good example. Stereotypes come from some fraction of truth, so when we are taught to look for something, it is easy to see. For example, if I am taught that Black men are violent, my attention is drawn to examples of violence in the Black community. In so doing, I underplay the violence perpetrated by White men, and fail to notice the far more common examples of Black men being peaceful and gentle. We oppose cultural racism by learning to recognize the subtle ways in which we are taught to see the negative qualities of a group, and understanding how cultural racism interacts with the other frames.
Mary: Abstract liberalism describes justice-minded White people who subtly oppose practical approaches to addressing structural racism. I see this often when consulting with organizations that state they want to increase staff diversity. Organization leaders believe that they want to hire staff of color, but cannot locate qualified applicants. Once they learn recruitment strategies to attract people of color, they feel that those who apply just do not measure up. Some quality or perceived skill deficit makes them less appealing than other applicants—who just happen to be White. We oppose this by developing organizational definitions of “strong candidates” through an anti-oppressive multicultural lens. We need leaders and staff who reflect the community served. These diverse views and experiences strengthen both the services and the organization.
Sandy: Naturalization is the idea that racial inequality is a natural occurrence. I think about our deeply segregated communities. Because those of us who can live anywhere often choose to live in communities with others like ourselves, we assume others make similar choices. Segregation, however, is a direct result of intentional practices that parallel the days of redlining and Jim Crow. As a result, people of color can become trapped with limited access to quality education, job networking, nutritious food, and youth enrichment—and are exposed to trauma, stress, and loss associated with poverty, even if they themselves are not poor (Abramovitz & Albrecht, 2013). The health and mental health consequences are well documented. We oppose this by teaching each other about the real cause of these inequities and taking responsibility for creating change.
Lisa: Minimization, the notion that racial discrimination is no longer a central factor in social troubles, is something I hear frequently from people who say poverty is the real problem. Those who work closely with people in financially poor communities know the brutality of poverty, but may minimize the intersecting brutality of racism. The facts, however, are clear. Wealth and poverty gaps; disproportionately negative outcomes in criminal justice, education, and child welfare; and disparities in health and mental health all point to one thing: the darker your skin, the worse off you are. That’s racism. We oppose this by knowing the facts and educating others to include them as allies in the work.
Curious about your own unconscious bias? Check out Harvard Implicit Bias Test (see https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html).
Abramovitz, M., & Albrecht, J. (2013). The community loss index: A new social indicator. Social Service Review, 37 (4), 677-724.
Silva, E. B. (2013). Racism without racists, 4th ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, is an organizational consultant, psychotherapist in private practice, career/executive coach, professional speaker, and co-founder of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is President of the National Association of Social Workers—New York City Chapter. Sandy is a founding member of the AntiRacist Alliance, an antiracist organizing collective of New York City area human service practitioners.
Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R, is a social worker, researcher, and educator with 25 years of experience in mental health and social justice centering on culturally responsive trauma-informed practice and organizational development.