Examining Reaction to Critical Race Theory in Unprecedented Times

From the President

By Mildred 'Mit' C. Joyner, DPS, MSW, LCSW (in collaboration with Mia Thornton, PhD student at Howard University School of Social Work)

Mit Joyner

The public and legislative debate about the validity of critical race theory (CRT) is ironic. The social work profession is obligated to uphold the NASW Code of Ethics. The conflict some lawmakers perpetuate and endorse to ban critical race and gender theories defends their right to challenge the ideal vision of a future-focused nation.

The same politicians who call the events that took place during the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol “tourism” and “displays of love for heritage and country” are promoting national engagement in what CRT refers to as “counter-storytelling.” Yes, the same country that erected protections for “free speech” now bears witness to deliberate efforts to suppress the history and context that shape and contribute to every aspect of our present-day lives and the institutions that govern them.

Very few have discussed the timing of this debate and the perceived benefits of what some might consider a “War on Consciousness.” While the motivations for controlling narratives that highlight our internal conflicts, contradictions, and dueling forces of good and evil have not been made a focal point, it is reasonable to consider—why now? Continuing to tell idyllic accounts of American heroism, unity and world supremacy absent of the realities of episodic barbarism, oppression, systemic racism, and the enduring struggle for equity serves no greater good. Our nation is in critical condition—one that illustrates the degree to which we are markedly divided, disillusioned and disaffected.

There are, however, many people in our nation ready to heal. The millions who marched and protested after the murder of George Floyd and those who voted for new leadership in the presidential election yearn for the shared truth CRT exposes. Recognizing the high cost of remaining in the pre-contemplative state enables us to evade our painful legacies and uncertain future. CRT requires that we explore our psychosocial and sociopolitical history with the goal of reckoning and repair. The level of awareness that results from delving into the past will have an impact, given that our economic success and ecological position evolved from racial crisis and moral conflict. Any attempt at correction or reconciliation dismantles the reality our forefathers co-created—and we reinforce.

Pioneer Whitney M. Young Jr, a previous president of NASW (1969-71), and other social workers played a pivotal role in anchoring a seemingly unstable nation during its exploration of who it is and how it came to be. We, too, must take the helm of social justice.

Recent and past racial atrocities are interconnected and directly relate to the different outcomes our systems create—our economic, educational, criminal justice, child welfare, health care and housing systems. These events include: attempts to invalidate the first Black U.S. president, Barack Hussein Obama; police-involved homicides; Jim Crow-style voter suppression policies; intentional disregard for and rejection of indigenous tribal contributions; the racist Chinese Exclusion Act; systematic confinement of Japanese and other Asians during World War II; continuous hate crimes against all people of color; failure of the United States to honor treaties that disproportionately affected Mexicans and indigenous tribal members; the devastating effects of slavery; and the blatant actions to destroy the Black community during and after the reconstruction period.

With so much to unpack in these unprecedented times, the social work profession and the ethics therein are critically important in helping to eliminate barriers imposed upon historically vulnerable and unrepresented groups, while educating and reforming systems that reinforce oppressive patterns across the nation. In doing so, we must assess how these critical times have and are affecting our individual and collective effectiveness. Since all of us are interconnected, social work is not exempt from complicity. The profession must be intentional about delineating our intent and values through action.

One way to constructively do this is to examine the impact this period has on our personal thoughts, feelings and core beliefs—thereby identifying how closely we as social workers align with Leon Chestang’s (1973) characterization of the depreciated and transcendent. You may be depreciated if recent occurrences caused you to doubt change can occur even though strategic action—like Women’s Suffrage, the Civil Rights Movement, the Raise the Age Campaign and recent Voter Inclusion Movements—has historically brought about incremental shifts in our national and world ecology.

However, if you remain conscious of the inherent progress of our profession and the explicit value we bring to the populations we serve, it is not difficult to see ourselves and the people we work with to co-create equitable and liberated futures as transcendent. All transcendent social workers should strive to engage and organize our communities and execute an agenda that leads to equity and liberation for everyone.

Contact Mit Joyner at president@socialworkers.org

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