An Important Message About Racism

From NASW’s Ethics, Diversity and Inclusion Department

June 24, 2020

Hello members of the social work community,

Dawn Hobdy

I am reaching out to you in hopes that my words will provide some encouragement, support and clarity regarding our Code of Ethics and our ethical responsibilities as we try to navigate through the most significant viral pandemic and racial crisis that most of us have witnessed in our lifetime. This is a pivotal moment in our history, and I want to do my part to ensure that all social workers find the path forward.

I want to start by saying that I have been inspired by the hard work, dedication and perseverance of the social work community. I’ve also been impressed by the number of references to the NASW Code of Ethics. Many have expressed a clear understanding of our core values, some of which include Service, Social Justice, Dignity and Worth of the Person, and Importance of Human Relationships. Many are drawing on their values, knowledge and skills to challenge social injustices. As a reminder, as it relates to social justice and our ethical responsibilities in this crisis, our Code states that we must:

  • Pursue social change with our efforts focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice;
  • Promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity;
  • Promote, advocate for and engage in political action to ensure equal access to the resources, employment, opportunities, and living conditions required to meet basic human needs and full development;
  • Act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups;
  • And finally, work to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class based on race, ethnicity or national origin. This includes Black, LatinX, and indigenous people facing racism and police brutality.

Overall, we are held accountable to be aware of our profession's ethical values, principles and standards, and we must practice in a manner consistent with them. This is what our Code requires.

With this in mind, it has been extremely disappointing and very concerning to learn of racist and unethical comments made by members of our professional social work community. For Black, Latinx, and indigenous social workers who join this helping profession with the understanding that we all adhere to a strict moral code and ethical standards, to be harmed by words written and spoken within our own professional community has been disheartening, to say the least. This has caused even greater harm to colleagues facing one of the most traumatic times of their careers and lives.

Our Black, Latinx, and indigenous social work colleagues are trying to work through the uncertainties, fears, and changes that come with COVID-19 just like the rest of the world. However, in the midst of that, they've been confronted with a virus that they know all too well — racism and the unjustifiable deaths of more Black men and women that it has caused. The reality of managing these challenges all at once is an incredibly heavy load — doing so while social work colleagues express racist beliefs in our shared public spaces is simply overwhelming. There's no other way to put it — it's wrong, unfair, and causes an extreme level of exhaustion, fear, anger, and sadness. In this time, we need to know that we can trust our white colleagues in leading the charge to become true allies.

I know that we are all human. We all exist in this world with implicit biases that shape how we interact with those who are different from ourselves. Having unconscious biases is not something we can help. Examining them and working to change our beliefs is something that we can help. I am also aware that some of our biases are conscious.

I am imploring all social workers who are expressing racist thoughts and feelings toward Black Americans or other racial groups to do some soul searching. You belong to a profession that does not tolerate social workers who practice, condone, facilitate or collaborate with any form of discrimination or racism. You belong to a profession that requires that you treat your colleagues with respect. You are part of a profession that requires you to be culturally aware and competent. You are expected to obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity, race, racism and oppression. This is the meaning of your chosen profession.

So, if you believe that you harbor some feelings, thoughts or beliefs that make it challenging or impossible to adhere to your ethical obligations, and causes you to exhibit racist behavior, I’d recommend that you take the following actions:

  • Read the NASW Code of Ethics and perhaps discuss it with a trusted colleague. Get clear regarding your ethical obligations.
  • Examine your behavior. Unexamined behaviors are some of the biggest stumbling blocks to addressing biases. Discuss with a trusted colleague, your thoughts and acknowledge how you might be in denial about your behavior. Then, work on getting out of denial.
  • Educate yourself: Educate yourself about race and racism. Educate yourself on the truth about American history and consider that some of what you were taught about history might be a misrepresentation or distorted.
  • Humanize Black, Latinx, and indigenous people! Treat us with the same respect you treat people who look like you.
  • Be intentional. Make conscious efforts to get to know people who are different from you. Resist this urge to shy away from people who are different from you. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.

For those social workers who encounter racist or discriminatory remarks or behaviors or other unethical conduct of colleagues, you also have some responsibilities. Our Code requires that we try to address the concern in a respectful manner, when it’s feasible and likely to be productive, and when it’s not, that we take steps to report that conduct.

Now, I know that many non-Black social workers, including most white social workers, are anti-racists and have been true allies. They have rallied, voted, educated themselves and done all that they can to be part of the solution. I commend you and I sincerely appreciate you. Your Black, Latinx, and indigenous colleagues need you. The profession needs you. Please keep fighting with us.

NASW values its members. We believe in our members, we are committed to serving our members and yes, we require and hold our members accountable to high ethical standards. We are also here for those who may be struggling. I’d like to inform you that if you are a member of NASW, you are entitled to receive free confidential
ethics consultations. If you have questions or are facing a dilemma, please give us a call. We are all in this together and I do believe that we are the profession that will lead the way in creating a new and better America.

Warmest regards,
Dawn M. Hobdy, LICSW
Vice President, Ethics, Diversity and Inclusion

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NASW Code of Ethics

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