A Perfect Storm: Struggle for Racial Equity Intensifies Amid Health and Economic Crises

illustration of protests, lightning bolts, storm clouds

By Alison Laurio

Black Lives Matter protests have inspired millions to take to the streets across the country-and across the world.

“Half a million people turned out in nearly 500 places across the United States” on June 6, the New York Times stated in a July 3 article, pointing out it was “a single day in more than a month of protests that still continue today.”

More than 400 years after enslaved Africans were brought to the U.S., racism in its many forms still exists. Black Americans demand justice and equality-this time as cell-phone videos show them being killed by police on American streets and George Floyd's phrase “I can’t breathe” resonates across the nation.

African Americans are not the only people of color who suffer from racial injustice in the U.S. Hispanics seeking refuge are turned away or separated from family members and locked in cages. Native Americans protest as sacred lands are taken so big business can drill for their own profit. Add to that the global health pandemic, which to date has killed 200,000 Americans and affects marginalized populations the most.

Social workers, who have worked for equality and justice for generations, are involved in all of these areas. On the heels of responding to COVID-19, the profession is renewing efforts to combat racial inequality at all levels. NASW and its chapters have pledged to end systemic racism within the profession and to work with other institutions, such as law enforcement, to do the same.

“This has indeed been a ‘perfect storm’ of how unattended long-term national social justice ills-overall systemic racism and systemic racism specific to law enforcement encounters with Black and Brown people-can merge with a worldwide public health crisis in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Melvin Wilson, NASW senior policy consultant for Social Justice and Human Rights. “The result is national turmoil.”

It’s sad, he said, that systemic racism is reflected in the fact the pandemic disproportionately impacts people of color through higher coronavirus infections and death rates.

“These health disparities will be further exacerbated by an economic crisis to populations already struggling,” Wilson said.

Talk About Racism

“The blatant racism of national leadership and politics are contributing to the blatant racism we see today,” said Iris Carlton-LaNey, PhD, who recently retired as the Berg-Beach Distinguished Professor of Community Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “The fact that officers have to wear body cameras and people have their cell phones at the ready is a consequence of national leadership that’s determined to be divisive. And that is working.”

Carlton-LaNey, who received the NASW Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year, said racism is hard to eliminate and cannot be addressed with “a one-time Band-Aid. It is not an event. It is a practice.”

White fragility is part of it, she said, as is the fact racism is structural. “It’s built into the system.” It’s so systemic people don’t notice it’s happening. It’s normal in America, and defensiveness is the first reaction when you call attention to it, she said.

“That means you might not be willing to hear anything that might make you uncomfortable, and that’s part of the problem,” Carlton-LaNey said. “There is a lack of willingness to sit with discomfort; sit long enough to deal with the problem. It’s not much of an ask to look at the problem.”

Social work schools need to address racism in all content, she said. “In every policy we talk about, we must talk about how it will affect Black and Brown people. That goes with everything we teach in social work. When we teach it that way, we produce practitioners who practice that way. We produce the quality of practitioner who understands what is seen in agencies and organizations and can strategize on how to fix it.”

One challenge, even in social work schools, is there is resistance from both faculty and students. There is white fragility and there is the determination that it is not a problem, she said. “We have to determine that it is a problem.”

Another challenge, she believes, is that institutions-and most organizations and individuals-are resistant to change. Addressing racism head-on can help, which means including the topic in all content and talking about how every policy will affect people of color.

“We have to make the case that this is a public health crisis, and this is how it affects the people who live in this community,” Carlton-LaNey said. “We need to make our voices heard, and we have to be willing to work at it. And it is exhausting.”

Social workers cannot bring about change alone, Wilson said, but must work with other national and state organizations “to help save the country.”

“The role social work played during the Civil Rights Movement is an example,” he said. “As an association and as a profession, we joined with diverse groups to pass some of the most significant civil rights and anti-racism laws in America’s history.”

A New Grand Challenge

two hands reaching towards each other

The American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare on June 26 announced a new addition to its Grand Challenges for Social Work, stating we are “in a moment when the nation and the world’s attention is focused on racial injustice and ending systemic violence and oppression against Black people.”

The Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism is headed by co-leaders Martell Teasley and Michael S. Spencer. Teasley, LPN, MSW, PhD, is a professor and dean of the University of Utah College of Social Work in Salt Lake City and president of the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work. Spencer, MS, PhD, is director of Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Oceanic Affairs at the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Racism has been around a long time, and Teasley believes it ebbs and flows. “When the country goes through downturns-like the economy-our ills seem to emerge,” he said.

Social work deals with issues like race, class, status and gender, and Teasley said to bring change, social workers first should take a more in-depth look at history, then “look inward to our own roles and how we see racism, how we see the underlying causes of what people come to see us for-domestic violence, child abuse-the deeper ills we see in society and the cause of racism.”

A lot of cynicism revolves around race, as do excuses why it cannot be tackled, he said. We can and do need to collaborate with people in other professions. “We haven’t stopped our lives for COVID-19. We must do the same thing with racism.”

Racism, according to the American Public Health Association, is a public health crisis. The Pew Trusts calls it the same, naming 24 state and local governments that either have passed or are considering that designation.

“That’s a good start,” Teasley said. “I do think it is a public health crisis and it’s good that society is starting to say that. It’s a public health issue because racism impacts people in the public domain. We should also challenge microaggression, because it can cause stress and physical damage.”

Frustration can turn into violence, he said. “America came into being, not by ‘We shall overcome, but by ‘We shall conquer.’”

Environmental racism carries impacts, too, he added. “We haven’t begun to address that.”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine declared schools as a social determinant of health, which impacts what students do throughout their lives, Teasley said, and he believes social work schools need more racism coverage in their curriculums-and the same is true for K-12.

“We’re not giving the whole picture in history,” he said. “Students learn George Washington chopped the cherry tree, but they don’t know he had slaves.”

It took several years of dogged insistence for racism to become a stand-alone Grand Challenge, he said. Original thought was it was embedded within the other challenges, but there were few mentions of it. “The issue of race is a problem that needs particular attention.”

Teasley and Spencer decided about nine months ago to write a book on the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism, with leaders of each of the original 12 Grand Challenges invited to contribute. When it’s finished, we’ll have a format when we talk to people to develop plans for advancing the challenge, Teasley said. They are looking for evidence-based, innovative approaches to taking on the racism challenge. The book is expected to be out later this year or in the first quarter of 2021.

Model Aids Practice with Latinos

The Latino Social Work Organization focuses on events that train others to work with the Latino population, said Noe Torres, MSW, LCSW, MDIV, MAED, a school social worker in Chicago.

Trainings include the organization’s “La Familia” perspective, which can “complement and enhance social work practice” when integrated in practice with Latinos, their website states.

“We facilitate use of our model as partners,” he said. “They run the events and we provide a framework to enrich the learning opportunity for people who work with the Latino/Latinx community.”

The model uses the NASW Code of Ethics and the CSWE core competencies, and it includes the group’s La Familia perspective. Developed over time, he said, La Familia incorporates background information on the family involved, including not only their original home but where they live in the U.S.

The rich history of homelands is vital for practitioners because the vast locational differences shape beliefs and traditions.

Also, framing an approach to integration and solidarity “play out differently depending on the number of generations who have been here, and needs are different,” Torres said. “It’s a rich dynamic.”

Useful tools can include storytelling, using traditional healers, being more inclusive of different perspectives, and working with communities of faith. Also essential are the social work skills of understanding the trauma-informed perspective, meeting people where they are, and seeing the whole individual, Torres said. “This is a micro-mezzo-macro perspective.”

Native People Vulnerable

Racism evolves with the times and changes forms, said Spencer. “Racism is a dynamic that doesn’t stay the same. A lot of times throughout history, people have attacked the most vulnerable in their communities. In our time, it’s immigrant communities, people who have come here because of risks endangering them in their own country.”

America has been destabilized because of COVID-19, and it compounded other issues, Spencer said. “George Floyd came on the heels of a lot of incidents, including race and the economy. All of that just came together.”

In Seattle, he sees destabilization of the sense of America combined with all the threats facing us and more media awareness on everything, leading to people being angrier.

“They’re upset,” Spencer said. “They’re looking at how this country is being run. And for people of color and indigenous communities, this has long been our fight. I’ve been writing about this for 20 years, and I’m standing on the shoulders of others before me.”

“What we have to see is how what’s going on will propel us to take action so we can thrive together,” he said. “The question is, what can social workers do?”

What many people are asking for is the same thing social workers want and work on, he said.

Native peoples have seen genocide, ethnocide and displacement from their lands, said Spencer, who is native Hawaiian. “And still we exist and identify and stand strong. And that is a threat.”

Hawaii currently provides a good example of a clash between native peoples and non-natives in moves to build windmills for power production, Spencer said.

“They’re huge, they’re not quiet, they harm the native environment, and where do they want to put them? - in native land in people’s backyards,” he said. “These are sacred lands, and we have a relationship with land. That has been the history of an imperial or colonial society - man over the environment.”

This time, the plan might be stopped because the land is the home of a native endangered bat as well as a native owl that is indigenous and endangered.

Native peoples see those in power as believing indigenous peoples do not matter and hope they will disappear, Spencer said. “Until that changes, we’re going to lose more.”

A lot of work is taking place in Seattle school districts and with school personnel on race and inequality in education, and where that comes from, Spencer said. “The movement is being driven by young people and Black women. Those are the leaders I see emerging.”

“It’s changing policy, changing attitudes,” he said.

“It took a pandemic and it took George Floyd for it to happen.”


Black Lives Matter

Founded in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, Black Lives Matter Foundation Inc., is active in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.

Its mission is “to eradicate white supremacy and build local power to intervene in violence inflicted in Black communities by the state and vigilantes. By combating and countering acts of violence, creating space for Black imagination and innovation, and centering Black joy, we are winning immediate improvements in our lives.”

It states:

We are expansive. We are a collective of liberators who believe in an inclusive and spacious movement. We also believe that in order to win and bring as many people with us along the way, we must move beyond the narrow nationalism that is all too prevalent in Black communities. We must ensure we are building a movement that brings all of us to the front.

We affirm the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. Our network centers those who have been marginalized within Black liberation movements.

We are working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically targeted for demise.

We affirm our humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.

The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for all Black lives striving for liberation.

The website has news, issues, links to COVID-19 help, resources, petitions, and downloadable tool kits on a variety of topics, including healing justice and chapter conflict resolution. It also has an online store that sells T-shirts, coffee cups, face masks, totes and more.


George Floyd Act

The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 was introduced June 8 by sponsor U.S. Rep Karen Bass, D-Calif., a social worker. It passed the House on June 25 and went to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell indicated he would not take it up and President Donald Trump indicated he would veto it if it did pass.

The bill would:

  • WORK to end racial and religious profiling
  • BAN chokeholds and no-knock warrants
  • LIMIT military equipment on American streets
  • REQUIRE body cameras
  • HOLD police accountable in court
  • INVESTIGATE police misconduct
  • EMPOWER communities to reimagine public safety in an equitable and just way
  • CHANGE the culture of law enforcement with training to build integrity and trust
  • IMPROVE transparency by collecting data on police misconduct and use of force
  • MAKE lynching a federal crime

Center on Race and Social Problems

Larry E. Davis, then dean of the School of Social Work at Pitt, established the Center on Race and Social Problems (CRSP) in 2002 “to help lead America further along the path to social justice by conducting race-related research, mentoring emerging scholars, and disseminating race-related research findings and scholarship.”

The mission of CRSP is to conduct applied social science research on race, color and ethnicity, as well as on their influence on the quality of life for all Americans.

Focusing on several areas, the center studies, examines or inspects areas including racial disparities, racial differences, and patterns and conditions in several areas, including: law; economy; education; families and youth; health; race relations; mental health; and older adults.

CAHOOTS Helps People and Police

Amid calls to “defund the police,” the Oregon CAHOOTS program operates on a different plan that has been successful since 1989.

It works so well that newspapers, magazines, and television and radio stations across the country-and some outside the U.S.-have covered what the program does. And media inquiries to the White Bird Clinic, which operates the program in Eugene and Springfield, are so numerous it takes days for a response.

An acronym for Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets, ”the power of White Bird’s CAHOOTS program lies in its community relationships and the ability of first responders to simply ask ‘How can I support you today?,’” its website states.

Beginning as a community policing initiative in 1989, it works with police and is dispatched through Eugene’s police, fire and ambulance communications center and Springfield’s non-emergency number. Two-person teams include a nurse, paramedic or EMT and a trained and experienced crisis worker. Social workers are staff members. The teams “deal with a wide range of mental health-related crises, including conflict resolution, welfare checks, substance abuse, suicide threats, and more.”

They carry no weapons because “their training and experience are the tools they use to ensure a non-violent resolution of crisis situations,” according to the site. The program also saves public funds. Its budget is about $2.1 million annually, while the combined annual budgets for the Eugene and Springfield police departments are $90 million. “In 2017, the CAHOOTS teams answered 17 percent of the Eugene Police Department’s overall call volume. The program saves the city of Eugene an estimated $8.5 million in public safety spending annually.”

White Bird is a federally qualified health center and provides primary care services in underserved areas.

Delmar Stone, executive director of NASW-Oregon, said the chapter’s plans for the state legislative session beginning in January include a push to take CAHOOTS statewide.

“We’ve been working on reforms for a few years, but this is sparked by the George Floyd protests. Immediately, thousands and thousands of Oregonians poured into the streets,” he said. “This is not going away until something is done.”

When the bill is written, coalition building will begin, Stone said, and lobbying should begin in January or February, 2021.

NASW: Where We Stand on Racism

 for position statements, news releases, national and chapter activities, training, advocacy and more.

Visit NASW’s Racial Equity resource page