Virtual Forum Includes Racism Discussion Among Issues for Social Workers in Health

NASW Virtual Forum 2021 - Reimagining social work in health

By Paul R. Pace

Ibram X. Kendi, PhD

Forum keynote speaker Ibram X. Kendi, PhD, is the founding director of The Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.

Any conversation about race must start with recognition of racial disparities, inequities and injustices in our communities, says Ibram X. Kendi, PhD.

He says we must ask the questions: Why are some Black and Brown children impoverished? Why is it that Black women are more likely to die giving birth? Why are Native American people dying from high rates of COVID-19?

One answer is the racist answer: There is something wrong with them; something they are doing or not doing, says Kendi. “Typically, those who assert those racist ideas, deny those ideas are racist. They refuse to look at the potential structural causes of those inequities.”

To be anti-racist, however, is to do just that, he says. “It is to recognize these racial groups are equals, that there is no racial group that is superior or inferior—biologically, culturally and behaviorally—and if you have disparities, because the groups are equals, it must be the result of racist policies and practices.”

To be anti-racist is to challenge and try to eradicate that structural racism or that policy and structure of racism, he says. “But you are typically going to have to combat people who are claiming that they are not racist at the same moment they are not challenging the status quo of racial inequity, or they are supporting policies that create inequity.”

Kendi shared these comments as keynote speaker for the NASW 2021 virtual forum “Reimagining Social Work in Health.”

The forum addressed social work’s pivotal role in improving health, covering topics such as equity and disparities in care, telehealth, integrated care, behavioral health, and more. The event was held in partnership with Social Work HEALS with funding support from The New York Community Trust.

Kendi is the Andrew W. Mellon professor in the humanities at Boston University and is founding director of The Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. Among his popular books are “How to Be an Antiracist.”

The keynote moderator was Whitney Irie, PhD, MSW, a lecturer at the Department of Population Medicine at Harvard University Medical School/Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and an NASW Foundation Jane B. Aron/Social Work HEALS doctoral fellow.

“People are not necessarily taught to be racist; they are taught to deny being racist,” Kendi says. “The heart of being racist itself is denial itself.”

It is almost like an addiction, he adds. “If we were to reframe the question ‘How do you get a person to overcome an addiction?’ we begin to realize it is extremely hard and oftentimes it is on the person themselves.”

To help people adopt an anti-racist mindset, Kendi suggests writing down the words racist, racist idea, racist policy and anti-racist, anti-racist ideas and anti-racist policies and give each a definition. By doing this, it allows a person to define those terms for themselves. When this happens, he said, we begin to study from that framework.

Social Work and Public Health

Ron Manderscheid (he, him, his), Sarah Christa Butts, MSW (she/her) on a split Zoom screen

Ron Manderscheid, PhD, adjunct professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at John Hopkins University and the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California, discusses the future of social work and public health at the NASW virtual forum "Reimagining Social Work in Health." He is joined by moderator Sarah Christa Butts, MSW, director of Public Policy at NASW.

Ron Manderscheid, PhD, was among the forum presenters. He is an adjunct professor at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California.

He outlined how public health has been awakened to the pivotal role of the social and physical determinants of health and discussed how that will impact social work.

“Public health represents a huge opportunity for new social workers,” Manderscheid said. 

“Eighty-five percent of heath conditions come from trauma. If that’s true, then our focus has to be on trauma and addressing trauma,” Manderscheid said.

“There is work that can be done at the interface between social work and public health,” he said.

He noted that the Grand Challenges for Social Work, an initiative spearheaded by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, has added racial justice as one of the fundamental grand challenges in the U.S.

It’s also important for social workers to be active in addressing climate change, because climate change impacts behavioral and mental health.

The solutions to meet the demands of the Grand Challenges will create many professional opportunities in research, policy and practice, Manderscheid said.

“You are the most diverse discipline in behavioral health care. You have achieved a lot already.”

Social workers are making major contributions to clinical practice, policy, and research and outreach to other disciplines, he said. “Continue to do it.... You will move the agenda on race, climate change and so much more.”