Social Workers: Allies for Justice?


by Lakeya Cherry, DSW, MSSW

     Racism is a risk factor for any person of color in our society. It can be observed within every system in the United States. It shows up as preferential treatment, privilege, and power for White Americans at the expense and disadvantage of people of color. It shows up when Black lives are put in jeopardy in the case of Christian Cooper and unjustly taken as was the case with Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. It shows up when people such as Amy Cooper make threats that put a Black man’s life in jeopardy. It shows up with COVID-19.

     People of color face inequities in their lives simply because of the color of their skin. These recent incidents and murders make this reality more visible to many. COVID-19 has made this reality more visible to many. For example, although COVID-19 has impacted everyone around the globe, it is people of color who are impacted the most and dying at disproportionate rates (CDC, 2020; Reich, 2020). Those who lack privilege and power are not treated the same in our country, and this has devastating consequences for all of us.

     As social workers, we know this. This is not new information for us. We’ve committed ourselves to improving the health and well-being of all people in society. We work with and advocate for the most vulnerable in our society. We manage people, programs, and organizations. It is we who have the knowledge and skills to change our system and solve our grandest challenges. Whether the issue is micro or macro, now more than ever, we are needed.

     Some refer to us as superheroes. Whether we have superhuman powers is to be debated, but what we are are visionaries. We are leaders. We are changemakers. We are the social architects needed to right the wrongs of our past and reimagine and redesign a world that is equitable for all people.

     Racist outcomes are a result of racist policies. For far too long, these policies have hindered the lives of people from marginalized backgrounds. We need diverse people at the table to draft policies and make decisions. Social workers are essential today and every day. As our country becomes more diverse, the need for social workers will increase. Let’s do our part to check our own biases, reconsider our practices, and put the action in allyship. Let’s diversify our workforce. Let’s diversify our leadership. Let’s lead together to build a race equity culture in our sector and society. The future of our clients of color depends on it. The future of our colleagues of color depends on it. Our collective future depends on it.

     The field of social work has a code of ethics that indicates that social workers should not only be competent as it pertains to diversity and cultural issues, but should also not “practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of race” (National Association of Social Workers, 2017, p. 27). With social justice being a core value of the social work profession and one that all social workers should advocate for and fight to preserve, the NASW Code of Ethics states social workers should:

(b) Act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups.

 (c) Social workers should promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people.

(d) Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical ability (National Association of Social Workers, 2017, p. 36).

     Social justice is also a value of many in the nonprofit sector. Thus, the belief is to practice, defend, and uphold all aspects of racial equity within the profession. While it is the responsibility for all social workers to uphold these values and be culturally competent, it is especially critical that White social workers, who are the majority in this profession, continue to do the internal and external work to understand the role race places in society and to do their part to dismantle racist and oppressive systems (Loya, 2012).

     DiAngelo (2018) suggests that White people must get comfortable with being uncomfortable in order to do their part to examine their role in upholding racist systems. Well, it’s time to get uncomfortable. White social workers do not know what it is like to live as a person of color in a racist society, and as a result, may have blind spots and implicit biases that impact their ability to build a race equity culture. Maintenance of a culturally competent practice is no longer enough in today’s society. A failure to take explicit action to promote race equity is equivalent to maintaining and supporting oppressive and racist systems.

     Social workers, we have an opportunity to actualize our commitment to social justice by committing to building a race equity culture within our organizations and advocating for broader policy change in our society. In his book, How to be an Antiracist, Dr. Ibram Kendi states:

Success. The dark road we fear. Where antiracist power and policy predominate. Where equal opportunities and thus outcomes exist between the equal groups. Where people blame policy, not people, for societal problems. Where nearly everyone has more than they have today. Where racist power lives on the margins, like antiracist power does today. Where antiracist ideas are common sense like racist ideas are today. Neither failure nor success is written. The story of our generation will be based on what we are willing to do. Are we willing to endure the grueling fight against racist power and policy? Are we willing to transform the antiracist power we gather within us to antiracist power in our society? (p. 218)

     We have an opportunity as people and as a profession to do what is right, to no longer be on the sidelines when it comes to speaking up and making decisions but to be on the frontline when it comes to redesigning and recreating just systems. 

     Let’s get to work. Our collective action and solidarity are needed. #BlackLivesMatter


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). COVID-19 in racial and ethnic minority groups.

DiAngelo, R. (2018). White fragility: Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism. Beacon Press.

Kendi, I. (2019). How to be an antiracist. First Edition. One World.

Loya, M. (2012). Racial attitudes in white social workers: Implications for culturally sensitive practice.

National Association of Social Workers. (2017). Code of ethics of the national association of social workers.

National Association of Social Workers. (2020). About social workers.

Reich, R. (2020). Covid-19 pandemic shines a light on a new kind of class divide and its inequalities.

Lakeya Cherry, DSW, MSSW, is the Chief Executive Officer of The Network for Social Work Management, an international membership organization dedicated to strengthening social work leadership in health and human services. She earned her Master of Science in Social Work from Columbia University and her Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Legal Studies from the University of California at Santa Cruz. Dr. Cherry earned her Doctorate in Social Work from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.

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