Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and the Social Work Profession

The Social Work profession has historically prided itself on helping community members reach their full potential, by addressing the inequities of poverty and social upheaval while helping individuals connect to resources. Social work education reinforced this narrative but glided over the complex and controversial aspects of the profession. Like many disciplines, social work is not without its own problematic narrative when it comes to issues of oppression and racism. The origins of social work can be traced back to the late 19th century when the profession emerged as a response to poverty and social disruption in Europe and the United States. It was during this period of unrest that social work was influenced by the ideology of charity that believed individual problems were due to moral failings. The term “deserving poor” was common among social workers at the time, which encouraged individuals to subscribe to white middle-class values and behaviors, effectively assimilating and “rehabilitating” the culture out of “people in need.”

This approach to social work was inherently bias, racist, oppressive, and genocidal, reflecting the prevailing attitudes and norms of the caste in power at the time, which have continued well beyond the 19th century to present-day social work. For example, during the 1920s and 1930s, social workers played a significant role in the forced removal of Native American children from their families and communities, as part of a larger government policy of assimilation and cultural genocide. Similarly, during the mid-20th century, social workers often collaborated with law enforcement agencies to enforce segregation and other forms of racial discrimination. Non-white and immigrant communities were also considered inherently inferior, and the task of the social worker was to “civilize” these communities.

As social work evolved in the early 20th century, some practitioners began to question these assumptions and recognize the ways in which poverty and social inequality were shaped by broader economic and political structures, but the harms continued. In more recent decades up to the present, there have been efforts within the social work profession to address these historical legacies and work towards greater social justice and anti-oppression. However, many challenges remain, including the need to confront ongoing disparities and injustices within the profession itself, as well as broader societal issues such as systemic racism and economic inequality.

Not until recently did the NASW Code of Ethics, call on all members of the social work profession to practice through an anti-racist and anti-oppressive lens. This includes supporting activities, such as DEI programs, that promote sensitivity to and knowledge about exclusion and the disproportionality of discrimination when intersecting with diverse identities.

Our code of ethics may reflect these values by requiring that “social workers demonstrate knowledge that guides practice … in the provision of culturally informed services that empower marginalized individuals and groups,” but systemic injustices continue, and the profession continues to perpetuate harm. Now that we know our history, social workers must take action against all forms of oppression, racism, discrimination, and inequities, and acknowledge their own personal privilege and bias.

NASW is committed to confronting the harm that our profession has caused and continues to perpetuate by acknowledging, apologizing, educating, and creating safer spaces for honest reflection and courageous conversations about oppression and racism. As an organization, we recognize the importance of becoming a trauma and resiliency-informed profession that promotes principles of justice, diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Our association will advocate with the cultural humility to advance our profession by challenging it to do better and, ensure we remain vigil to our past and rooted firmly in a future of justice and belonging for all.

collage of different African American people, some with eyes closed

Racial Equity

NASW is committed to social justice for all and to ending racism. We are mobilized and increasing our efforts in the face of America's racism pandemic.

Learn about our racial equity activities