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Social Workers Must Help Dismantle Systems of Oppression and Fight Racism Within Social Work Profession


Like our nation, the history of social work is complicated. Racism and white supremacy are ingrained within American institutions and systems and have therefore affected social work ideology and practice for generations.

The mission of social work is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to those who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty. We cannot maximize this mission and fully actualize our core professional values without advocating to reform, dismantle, or even abolish the racist and oppressive systems we may work within and beside.

While the national conversation remains focused on ending police brutality, racism persists in many other institutions. The child welfare system has often more rigorously regulated and castigated Black, Brown, and Indigenous families. Medical racism, which has origins in slavery and eugenics, has led to modern day health disparities and inequities in health care access and treatment. The oppressive collateral consequences resulting from mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, and the school-to-prison pipeline have exacerbated economic inequalities in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities.

Social workers have had roles in perpetuating these harmful social systems, and this history cannot be ignored.

Social work also has a major role to play in creating an antiracist society. As many professions and organizations are doing, we must pause to look inward and use that knowledge to propel us toward action for meaningful social change. We must build upon the good social workers have done in the fight for civil rights, health care access, child protection, the War on Poverty and marriage equality by working more intentionally to elevate Black, Brown, and Indigenous lives in the communities we serve.

We have certainly made mistakes, but we are also a group of professionals committed to helping, lifting up, and advocating for oppressed and marginalized groups of people and fighting injustice in society. Social workers have an ethical duty to dismantle racism, both personally and professionally, and to demonstrate what it means to be antiracist.

Directly confronting racism at the individual, agency, and institutional levels is the antiracist mandate we all must embrace. By using the NASW Code of Ethics as a guidepost, social workers can help dismantle systems of oppression, take action against white supremacy culture, and be leaders in the movement for racial justice.

Here’s where we begin:

Support Community Self-Determination

We can work to liberate the clients and communities we serve from the very structures that may be holding them back. Connect with your NASW Chapter to find local action groups leading the way on achieving equity.

Commit to Organizational Change

Leaders of all major social work organizations came together on Aug. 14 in a national town hall to report on their efforts to advance anti-racism within social work practice, education, regulation and research. That recording and links to helpful resources are available on NASW's Facebook page.

Help Legislators Enact Just Laws

Help advocate for antiracist policies and meaningful social change across the country by signing up for NASW Advocacy Alerts.

Challenge Our Own Racism

The majority (60 percent) of U.S. social workers are white; thus, issues of white privilege and the empathy gap between white social workers and clients of color must be addressed. Ongoing self-reflection, conversations with colleagues, education, professional training and advocacy are the best ways to ensure we all live the anti-racist principles required of our profession.

For more information

Visit NASW's Racial Justice page.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), in Washington, DC, is the largest membership organization of professional social workers. It promotes, develops, and protects the practice of social work and social workers. NASW also seeks to enhance the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through its advocacy.

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