Social workers discuss ways to undo racism

Purple/Green positive and negative versions of same face yelling at each otherRacism triggers deep emotions in the U.S.

It is a word with different meanings for diverse populations. It can bring about shame and avoidance for some and justifiable resentment for others.

Can some good happen from the racial tension of today? Social workers with experience in this area believe it can. But they say it will take courage to dig deep and allow honest communication to bring about professional and personal growth.

It will also take greater awareness of how institutions and systems continue to negatively impact people of color and other marginalized populations, they say.

NASW member Karen Bullock is a professor and head of the Department of Social Work at North Carolina State University, in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“I believe there is a good-faith effort on the part of many around the country and the world to address the racial tension and violence of contemporary time,” Bullock said. “I believe there are pockets of calm and what appears to be harmony in communities, which is great, but it leaves far too many on a larger scale disinterested in change.”

Racism is a difficult topic for Americans to discuss because it has “a perpetual connection to our country’s heritage of hate and brutality for some, while being for war, peace, honor and dignity for others,” Bullock said.

“Our country was founded on hate, segregation and subjugation, which are the pillars of racism,” she said. “So people in our country who have the most power, wealth and privilege have typically been the direct or indirect beneficiaries of racism. That’s difficult for us to talk about.”

Bullock said it is a topic the nation is divided on in terms of our pure ideology and its beliefs.

“As long as we have economic injustice and political dominance of one race over another, we still see this racial imbalance,” she said. “As long as there is this pervasive dominance of one group over another, racism will not be a comfortable topic for us.”

Bullock also works to make a difference as a member of the NASW National Committee on Race and Ethnic Diversity, or NCORED.

“I am committed to the advancement of policies that address diversity and inclusion issues for social workers,” Bullock said of why she serves. “I believe practitioners on the front line look to these policies to guide our practice approaches and framework.”

It’s critical that these policies are applicable to demographic, political, social and economic trends in society in contemporary times that impact the lives of the clients that social workers serve, she said.

“It’s essential that we continue to do work around racism to come together to learn and explore how racism impacts us as colleagues and how it impacts our clients,” Bullock said. “It’s a difficult topic, but as long as people stay silent about it, we can’t learn from individual experiences on either side of things.”

Bullock said it’s vital that social workers continue to create forums to hear personal stories about racism.

“Unless we are engaged in it for greater knowledge and awareness, we’re closing out an opportunity for us to achieve our professional obligations,” she said.

America’s Narrative

NASW member Vivian Jackson is a faculty member at the National Center for Cultural Competence at the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development.

She has more than 30 years of experience as a practitioner, supervisor, manager and trainer in health, mental health, substance abuse, child welfare, managed care, system reform and cultural competency.

She is also a former NASW staff member who has once again been appointed to serve on the NASW NCORED, where she previously served from 2000-2008.

It was during Jackson’s tenure at NASW that the advent of managed care in social work was beginning.

“I was very much aware that decisions were being made about people of color who were Medicaid recipients without taking into account their unique circumstances and needs,” Jackson said of how her interest in achieving racial equity at institutional levels began to take shape.

When she left NASW as an employee, she agreed to serve on NCORED and on the NASW president’s Diversity Task Force.

“My participation on NCORED gives me another opportunity, another potential lever to help facilitate change that will benefit oppressed populations,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to participate in a process that can move us forward.”

Social workers need to take a seat at the tables where questions of racism by authority figures have been pushed into the spotlight, Jackson said.

“The police action that has gained so much attention in recent times echo the distress we saw in African-American communities when lynching was so prevalent in our society,” she said. “The reverberations of those days, the feelings are still there.”

Racism is a difficult topic to discuss in the U.S. due in part to the nation’s mythology and history, Jackson said. From an early age, citizens are taught that America is a place of freedom and opportunity.

“But when you really confront racism, you have to confront a different side of our history,” Jackson said. “That what became America took land from other people, that our economy was built on people who were not compensated for their labor. That positive economic impact on the North and South and Europe was due in large part because of enslaved Africans.”

Today, people may feel at risk if they dare speak up about the current scenarios of racism, for fear it could threaten their own status and privilege, she added.

“I think it’s a complex situation. I don’t think it’s an impossible scenario to change, but it does require a level of authenticity,” Jackson said, adding that it requires people to step back and examine their unconscious racism — even social workers, who are mostly motivated by the desire to do good.

Personal and professional beliefs can change and social workers can look inside their actions and beliefs and move forward, she said.

“We are in a time when it’s incumbent on us to recognize unconscious bias,” Jackson explained. “We need to acknowledge the history and the pain, and then participate in the process of making it right and redefining relationships in a new reality.”

There are societal models that exist that can help people move beyond racism as well, Jackson noted. The truth and reconciliation processes in post-apartheid South Africa is but one example of strategies to make a change.

“We’ve been conditioned to not speak on this negative narrative,” she said. “Instead, let’s acknowledge it and make it right. We can do that as a profession. We can take that stand if we dare.”

Undoing Racism

Sandy Bernabei is a liberation psychotherapist in New York City and president of the NASW New York City Chapter. She is a founding member of the Anti-Racist Alliance, which aims to achieve racial equity from all fields of social work practice and other community members. The Alliance teams with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in New Orleans, and its Undoing Racism® workshop. More information is at

The alliance coordinates with the People’s Institute to host workshops in the New York City metropolitan area on a regular basis and to encourage schools of social work to participate as well.

The workshops help highlight that America’s institutions have systematically poor outcomes for people of color, Bernabei explained.

“Whites will fair better in every single institution bar none,” she said. “This includes housing, employment and higher education.

“Once we have that deeper understanding, we see the work is not to understand people’s culture,” she said. “The work is to undo structural racism in these institutions. It’s a much more difficult task, but unless we tackle that, we’re just left being pawns and enablers.”

Her suggestions for social workers: “Undoing racism is linked with community organizing,” she said. “You can’t teach racism away. It is incumbent that we work with each other. You have to have principles, which you can find online at”

Not Business as Usual

Social work leader Joyce James, of Texas, is a pioneer in addressing racial inequity in the state’s child protective services.

Her career spans from a CPS caseworker to assistant commissioner of Texas CPS, to leader of the Center for Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities (the Center) and the Texas State Office of Minority Health at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Today, she provides training and consulting services to multiple groups and community leaders.

James said she has taken the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond’s workshop on undoing racism at least 60 times since 1998. Her first workshop brought to light her awareness of the systemic factors that occur at the core of institutionalized racism, in spite of her own, and other people’s, best intentions to avoid such actions.

“It really all connected for me that there are deep-rooted issues in systems,” she said. As an example, she said CPS staff had an automatic unconscious response to many child welfare calls involving poor communities and communities of color.

“Even for me personally, (the workshops) allowed me to examine why I had been silent for such a long time before I even started to ask questions about the disproportionality in the child welfare system,” James said. “It helped me understand what racism had done to me. And what it was doing to hold in place the inequities that existed.”

As James moved up and became the assistant commissioner of Texas Child Protective Services, she examined statewide data.

Data from 2005 showed that African-American children in Texas were more than twice as likely as Anglo or Hispanic children to be reported as victims of child abuse and neglect, she noted in a Child Welfare League of America report.

As a result, Texas was one of the first states to pass a law that addressed disproportionality in its handling of CPS cases. One of the requirements was to train CPS staff in cultural competency, James said.

“I made it a point as a leader that I would be in the room with my staff as they went through these (Undoing Racism) workshops,” she said. “I recognized the importance of conveying the freedom to have these difficult conversations and of learning and struggling with my staff.”

James pointed out there is a misunderstanding about racism that perpetuates: that it represents people who are mean, hateful and bigoted.

“But that’s not what it’s about,” she said. “One of the things I share is that you can get rid of all those people and it would not change the outcome in our systems.”

James said a different perspective is needed.

“We keep doing business as usual and blaming individuals, but that doesn’t work,” she said. “We have not come to that place of deeper analysis of institutions.”

Respect for All Cultures

NASW member Chathapuram Ramanathan, from Michigan, recently completed a term on the NASW NCORED.

“I am a firm believer in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s view.

‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” Ramanathan said.

He says social workers need to recognize the multicultural nature of the U.S. and to follow King’s pursuit of a just society where all people are treated fairly. In light of this, he noted that over the last several years, Asian- and South Asian-Americans are also being targeted in hate crimes with increased frequency.

He cited the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s 2004 Gallup poll results on employment discrimination, which was released on the 40th anniversary of the passage of Civil Rights legislation of 1964.

The results showed that 15 percent of all workers perceived that they had been subjected to some sort of discriminatory or unfair treatment.

Discrimination is bad no matter who experiences it, Ramanathan said. But when broken down into subgroups, 31 percent of Asians surveyed reported incidents of discrimination, the largest percentage of any ethnic group, with African-Americans constituting the second-largest group at 26 percent.

More alarming, Ramanathan noted, the survey results showed that only 3 percent of Asians filed race discrimination charges.

“We are kind of an invisible minority,” he said, adding that cultural traditions and immigrant status among Asians result in lower number of claims that get filed.

Another area that needs greater awareness in terms of equality is teaching social workers that besides race and ethnicity many people suffer from religious, immigration, sexual orientation, disability, and income biases, Ramanathan said.

“I believe in the goodness of people,” he said, noting that too often people are simply unaware of their bias and ignorance toward others whose lives appear unfamiliar.

He said the racial unrest in America should be looked at as a human rights issue.

Social workers need to practice “cultural humility,” he said. “It means I may not have all the answers. It’s a way of maintaining a point of view that does not mean I am culturally superior. We need to say, ‘teach me more about you.’”

NASW Resources

NASW is committed to social justice for all. Discrimination and prejudice directed against any group are damaging to the social, emotional, and economic well-being of the affected group and of society as a whole.

For more information on NASW standards and practice perspectives on the issue, visit: