Undoing Racism: How the Social Work Profession is Working Toward Healing and Equality

By Alison Laurio

ripped newspaper showing undoing racism

“One hundred and fifty-nine years ago, slave traders stole Lorna Gail Woods’ great-great grandfather from what is now Benin in West Africa,” begins an article on Smithsonianmag.com.

Charlie Lewis was with 109 other Africans brought to America on the Clotilda, the last slave ship known to land on U.S. shores. On May 22, the remains of a vessel found in the Mobile River in Alabama were confirmed as the Clotilda.

“The excitement and joy is overwhelming,” said Woods, now 70, who had heard stories about her family’s history and the ship when growing up where she still lives, in Africatown, Ala., which was founded by the Clotilda’s survivors after the Civil War.

The legacy of slavery still reverberates today in continuing racism and social inequality. In addition to African-American descendants of enslaved persons, other groups—such as Native Americans, Asians, Mexicans, South and Central Americans, and many would-be immigrants from non-European countries—continue to experience discrimination and prejudice in the U.S. based on their ethnicities. But the social work profession is, and has been, working to change that.

Benefits for Some

“The reason racism persists is because those who benefit from that imbalance do not give up the benefits easily,” said Angelo McClain, NASW’s CEO. “The whole construction is social, not biological. It was created so one group would be dominant over the other. The economic exploitation goes back hundreds of years.”

“Racism sets up a hierarchical system where one group has more power and more resources, and they will not let go easily. Those things are built into institutions, and a lot of people don’t even know it.”

The race construct is a social construct that creates false dichotomies, he said. People are categorized as different from each other — black people, white people, Asian people, he said. “It creates a false sense of us versus them. People think ‘these people are different from us, so it’s OK if we exploit them or treat them differently.’ I think of it as the myth of otherness.”

Racism is defined in “Institutional Racism & The Social Work Profession: A Call to Action,” a 2007 report from an NASW Presidential Task Force Subcommittee on Institutional Racism:

“Institutional racism is the manifestation of racism in social systems and institutions. It is the social, economic, educational, and political forces or policies that operate to foster discriminatory outcomes. It is the combination of policies, practices, or procedures embedded in bureaucratic structure that systematically lead to unequal outcomes for groups of people.”

McClain served for six years as commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, where disproportionately higher rates of removals from home and trouble in school were seen for children of color. A child welfare study also showed more Hispanic and African-American children were placed in institutional care versus foster home settings compared to white children. And children of color waited longer for adoptions.

Other inequities also can be tracked, McClain said, including educational outcomes, grocery store availability by area and juvenile justice. “One thing we should do is fully embrace the notion of undoing racism and embrace racial equity.”

That can include cultural competence assessments for organizations, engaging leaders at the community level, and going through policies and practices to see where changes are needed, he said. Making changes can’t be done overnight, but it can be done, he added.

“I think if social workers can speak truth and speak it in a constructive way, we can be part of a positive change,” McClain said. “We will know we’ve achieved racial equity when all the facets of life aren’t divided by the color of a person’s skin.”

Waves of Progress

Why is institutional racism so persistent and difficult to turn around? Hilary N. Weaver, professor and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion at the State University of New York at Buffalo School of Social Work, said the answer lies within the question.

“We’re talking about institutional racism, that’s the key,” she said. “It’s built into the structures of our everyday lives. It’s in every aspect of our communities. We’re so used to this, we don’t recognize its nature, recognize its consequences or challenge its structures.”

“It’s difficult to change what’s hard to see,” she said.

There are times—and ways—when things seem to get better and other times when they appear worse.

“A lot of people point to a change in the political administration, but I think we need to be wary of simplifications so we don’t miss the complexity of the situation,” Weaver said. “If you don’t look at the big picture, you don’t realize what people are experiencing and you can miss the backlash.”

Rather than the phrase “two steps forward, one step back,” she said progress is “more like waves.”

“We have to look at long-term trends,” Weaver said. “I do believe we are making progress toward a more just society, if you look at 50 years ago or 100 years ago. We still have a lot of work to do.”

Weaver, who is Lakota, wrote an article on culturally competent services with indigenous people in 1998. In it, she wrote, “...for many Native Americans a primary goal has been self-preservation through separation and isolation rather than seeking a place within a multicultural society.”

That differs from black Americans, who strive for equality within society, but Weaver believes the root cause of racism is the same for both, even though the manifestations of racism may be different.

“If you understand sovereignty, then you understand why Native Americans want to be left alone. They don’t want to be in someone else’s society,” she said. “People say ‘Why don’t they pay taxes?’ They do. People who say ‘They get special privileges’ don’t understand treaties. They say ‘You lost. Get over it.’ There’s a complete misunderstanding of sovereign people.”

The Dakota access pipeline originally was planned to be near Bismark, N.D. But because white residents feared the risk, its location was moved adjacent to the boundary of the Great Sioux reservation, Weaver said.

“That’s environmental racism,” she said, similar to what happened in Flint, Mich. “I do believe the roots of racism affect all of us.”

Weaver also works with refugees, and said the xenophobia directed at them has the same racist roots.

“Both are rooted in fear of people because they’re different,” she said. “We all come from the same root, but people think of us and think of them. If they think of them as bad, then us is the flip side of the coin: we’re good.”

There are major challenges in addressing structural racism, Weaver said. “We need to assess, take time to recognize structural racism and how racism and bigotry have these tendrils that permeate so many things. Action is crucial. Think it through first and do a thorough assessment, and that will guide the action plan.”

Weaver said the structure of NASW has it well-positioned to gather the needed information from each state and share it.

Effort Changes Attitudes

“We should never stay silent. We have to stand up, speak out, take action, say ‘That’s not right.’”

That is part of how Miriam Nisenbaum sees social work making progress to end racism.

Nisenbaum, the recently retired executive director of NASW’s Texas chapter, is now an adjunct faculty member at Texas State University and president at her own firm, Nisenbaum and Associates, a consulting company for nonprofits.

“In many places, we have not gotten equality, social justice, or racial and social equity because of our elected officials,” she said. “If we want to have these good conversations to get to where we have equity, we have to have different elected officials. We need people who can really hear us, and we have a good chance to promote equity if we promote and elect people who support social work values. That’s a fundamental change we can make.”

When something is so ingrained, if is difficult to turn around hearts and minds, Nisenbaum said.

She said the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond has a program called Undoing Racism, which some NASW chapters use. It can help people recognize ingrained attitudes. And the Texas chapter in 2016 announced the formation of its REAL Committee, which focuses on race, equity, accountability and leadership issues.

It takes a conscious effort to bring a change in attitudes, Nisenbaum said.

“Start engaging in dialogue with people,” she said. “Ask ‘what’s it like for you every day being a person of color?’ I think we have to do that and expand our circle. When you expand your circle and engage with people, you can intellectually understand a lot of things.”

One-on-one is the best way to engage, Nisenbaum said.

“Then,” she said, “when people make blanket statements, you can say ‘I know Sheila, and that’s not what she’s about. I have friends, and these are just stereotypes.’ Call people out gently by saying ‘that’s not true.’”

A mental health policy fellow, an African-American woman, “heightened the awareness for the chapter about racism” when she spoke to members and provided a scenario of what life is like for a black woman, Nisenbaum said. She told them you have to think, think and double think about what you’re wearing, your manner and appearance, every time before you go out the door so you don’t get targeted.

Nisenbaum said to start with institutions when it comes to larger, societal issues like targeting and racial profiling or over-incarceration by race. It can filter down into the culture.

“None of this takes place overnight,” she said. “But watch TV. You see commercials with same-sex couples and mixed-race families. Most people don’t blink an eye when they see that now. You wouldn’t have seen that 10 or 20 years ago. We can see some evolution in that.”

“As a profession, we have to keep strengthening our code of ethics and continue understanding our own biases and the biases of those around us. It’s going to take time, but it’s going to happen.”

Evaluate, Communicate

Are some programs for homeless men in California racist because there are a small number of African-American homeless-program directors despite the fact black men comprise the largest number of clients?

Does NASW have some institutional racist elements because there are so few chapter executive directors who are people of color?

“Institutional racism is a fact,” said Janlee Wong, executive director of the NASW California Chapter. “What I’m trying to say is, when we talk about institutional racism, we have to do some self-examination. Another area we sometimes overlook is socioeconomic racism. It’s unbelievably difficult for some communities in the U.S. to really advance economically in terms of wealth and assets because of our nation’s past laws and practices.”

When we ask why or is it always going to be this way, there are no simple answers, he said, in spite of the fact our culture demands that we have answers.

“We have to have a better understanding of what’s going on,” Wong said. “The problem is more complex than simply about race. It’s about economics.”

While the emphasis across all populations is on capitalism, economics and wealth, “it’s not possible for every single American to become wealthy,” he said.

Social workers advocate for social programs and fight against changes like funding cuts, but most of those programs were created early in the 20th century and not a lot has changed. There are other ideas out there, some that have been implemented in a few places, like universal basic income and education savings accounts, Wong said.

“In the old days, we called that welfare,” he said. “It’s kind of a variation on a theme. It’s still in the vein of taking money from wealthy taxpayers and giving it to people who lack resources.”

The answer is communication. “We need to talk to each other,” Wong said. “We need to communicate, and we need to understand each other. We’ve unfortunately gotten into some bad habits. When we see racist acts, we define the people as racists, and the less willing we are to communicate with them. If we don’t communicate, we’ll always have these positions.”

“There are ways to have a conversation to promote understanding. To move forward, we need to go back to those skills — or learn them — so we can have a conversation about things we disagree on without shutting down communication.”

Communication is about understanding people, he said. That’s what social workers do best.

Addressing Challenges

Sarah Christa Butts, LMSW, director of public policy at NASW and former executive director of the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare’s Grand Challenges for Social Work, said racism can be difficult to address.

“I think racism is a challenge because you’re trying to undo harmful ways of thinking that have been passed on for generations,” she said. “These are issues that are very difficult to create interventions around.”

Butts said more research is needed to develop scalable interventions to address racism, and she hopes the Grand Challenges inspire this type of innovation.

“Race and racism in the Grand Challenges was something the group wrestled with,” she said.

There were conversations looking at whether racism should be a Grand Challenge on its own, and the organization’s values and mission statement makes it clear race is at the forefront.

The February paper “Vision, Mission, Domain, Guiding Principles & Guideposts to Action” begins: “This statement is a guide for the Grand Challenges for Social Work as a national initiative to address each of the 12 Grand Challenges. The commitment to ending racism and other injustices is fundamental throughout the Grand Challenges for Social Work.”

“Race certainly plays a role and is integral to all the Grand Challenges,” Butts said. “If you make progress on any challenge, minority groups would benefit. Racism is an important factor in all 12 Grand Challenges.”

Announced in 2016, the first two years involved organizing the profession around the 12 Grand Challenges, she said. “Now the 12 networks are really figuring out what the metrics are for the program. “Implementation of the initiative is organic; it’s not tightly managed. It’s not completely centrally organized.”

Scholars and practitioners still are invited to join the effort, she said. The Grand Challenges for Social Work website provides directions.

Curriculum Content

The social work profession has to ensure that fighting racism is infused into curriculums so students are prepared to recognize and take it on in their work, McClain said. “The question is how to integrate these concepts into curriculums so we reach all students.”

Nisenbaum said there is never enough content on conscious and unconscious beliefs.

“We had a bill here — it died — that would provide health and human services people with the right NOT to serve,” she said. “All this stuff is alive and well. The CSWE (Council on Social Work Education) is always strengthening requirements for schools. They could add more to the curriculum, not just around cultural diversity, but also conscious prejudice.”

Weaver said information and training are important, and racism issues need to be infused in all teaching. “I think we need more scholarship in how these issues can be treated effectively,” she said, “and we need to get at how education is going to incorporate these things.”

The Right Leaders

When it comes to social workers leading on the issue, NASW national is a key voice, Wong said, and chapters can rely on it for things like speaking out on policy issues.

“When national issues statements and guidance, they’re speaking for every chapter,” he said. “They speak for everybody. It’s a uniform voice, and it’s across the country. It also provides a voice for social workers in states where policies are more challenging and makes them feel supported. That’s how powerful national can be.”

Weaver said social workers have a wide range of skills, a background in social justice and a macro perspective that always includes the social environment.

“We know how to be in uncomfortable positions, and we know how to hear diverse voices so people can be heard and not be marginalized,” she said. “As much as I think this is a deep, difficult issue, a part of me remains hopeful. I love my profession, and I think we’re well-positioned to bring about change and lead.”

A call to lead incorporated in the closing comments from the 2007 NASW Presidential Task Force subcommittee’s paper “Institutional Racism and the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action” still resonates today.

“The challenge for the profession is to have the courage to label racism as racism even though it is not comfortable. The challenge for the white members of the association is to acknowledge the benefits received by virtue of white privilege and still challenge the structural misalignments that have developed over time because of white privilege. The partnerships that can be developed with social workers of color and the communities of color can forge significant changes in this society. As such, we as social workers can claim our mission to help the oppressed population and achieve social justice. Let us open our eyes and ears and engage in self-study and conversation, and then let us act.”


University Initiative Tackles Structural Racism

The Center for Social Development at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis is addressing structural racism with CRISMA, the Collaboration of Race, Inequality and Social Mobility in America.

Its mission is “to delineate the ways in which inequality and structural racism affect racial/ethnic disparities in achievement, life chances, social and economic mobility, and health in the United States,” it says on its website.

The goals for CRISMA include “to frame a contemporary, interdisciplinary research agenda that addresses social, economic and health equity by placing race at the forefront; to sustain this agenda by establishing a long-term working group and linking researchers and funders; and to disseminate research findings that can have an impact on practices and policies,” states an article at the Washington University in St. Louis website.

The story contains video links to watch the entire March conference as well as a link to photos taken at the event. Learn more about CRISMA.

Race in America 2019

A survey published in April found “most U.S. adults say the legacy of slavery continues to have an impact on the position of black people in American society today.”

More than four in 10 people said “the country hasn’t made enough progress toward racial equality, and there is some skepticism, particularly among blacks, that black people will ever have equal rights with whites,” according to a new Pew Research Center survey.

Most black adults have negative views about the country’s racial progress, with 71 percent saying race relations in the U.S. are generally bad, and 56 percent of whites agreeing.

Seventy-three percent of blacks and 49 percent of whites say President Trump has made race relations worse.

“Most Americans—65 percent—including majorities across racial and ethnic groups—say it has become more common for people to express racist or racially insensitive views since

Trump was elected president. A smaller but substantial share (45 percent) say this has become more acceptable,” the survey states.

“Democrats say Trump has made race relations worse (84 percent), including large shares of black (79 percent) and white (86 percent) Democrats. About a third of Republicans (34 percent) say Trump has improved race relations and 25 percent say he has tried but failed to make progress; 19 percent of Republicans say he hasn’t addressed the issue, while 20 percent say he has made race relations worse.”

White Republicans and white Democrats differ widely in their views of the country’s racial progress, with 53 percent of Republicans or leaning Republicans saying when it comes to giving black people equal rights with whites, our country has been about right. Sixty-four percent of Democrats or leaning Democrats said the country has not gone far enough.

A larger split was on views of racial discrimination, where 77 percent of Republicans said the bigger problem for the country today is seeing discrimination where it does not exist, and 78 percent of Democrats said the bigger problem was not seeing discrimination where it really does exist.

Majorities of black and white adults said blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with police and by the criminal justice system.

On the Edge: Border Issues

The location of NASW’s Texas and California chapters puts them on the front line of many immigration issues.

The state of California is not monolithic, and some communities are more in line with Trump policies, said Janlee Wong, executive director of NASW-California.

“We need to have those conversations, but we can’t call people racist,” he said. “The chapter and all Social Work Speaks policies are aligned. Where we have difficulties is the disconnect between state policies and federal policies.”

“We consistently train members on CSWE's standards for immigrant rights and what to do when working with an immigrant.”

The federal government puts up barriers on government land to keep people out, and many social workers want to help, Wong said, so the chapter offers advice for those who want to volunteer.

“If they go to the border, we encourage them to work with nonprofits,” he said. “We have workshops. We have education. We had immigration as a topic approximately six out of 10 of the last Lobby Days.”

Wong said one thing in particular stands out on the positive side.

“Our law enforcement personnel generally are sensitive. If an immigrant is in custody and about to be released, they do not coordinate with federal authorities” he said. “Many, many, many of our jurisdictions follow that policy.”

The Texas chapter has a human rights committee that is “working systematically to support immigrants,” said Miriam Nisenbaum, the chapter’s recently retired executive director.

That includes helping people in deportation hearings, raising money and working to elect candidates “who will press for fair immigration policies and sensible immigration laws,” she said.

To those who say “keep those people out,” Nisenbaum says “Why? You don’t want the same jobs they do. They start at lower-level jobs and they rise. I don’t understand the fear.”

“The majority of people coming up from Central America are coming here for the same reason most of our families came here: They’re seeking a better life.”

If someone calls the chapter, it can assist in directing them to the right people or programs. For those separated at the border, the chapter works in a coalition with its civil rights partners, Nisenbaum said.

“A coalition is so much more powerful,” she said. “If you work with others, you have a better impact. The association exists to advance the profession and promote public policies that advance human rights and needs. That’s what we do. Working with coalitions is how we have a bigger impact.”

Grand Challenges for Social Work

The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work are the targets of a groundbreaking effort to champion social progress powered by science. Initiated by the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare, this effort seeks to address society’s toughest social problems through the concerted work of many. The Grand Challenges Committee on Values and Principles issued a statement outlining its vision, mission, domain, guiding principles and guideposts to action to serve as a guide for a national initiative to address each of the 12 Challenges. The commitment to ending racism and other injustices is fundamental throughout the Grand Challenges for Social Work.

Learn more about the Grand Challenges