Give Life to the Spirit of Harmony

Jay J. Cayner

April 1997
From the President
by Jay J. Cayner, ACSW, LISW

I write this editorial at the beginning of March, as NASW marks its 36th annual National Professional Social Work Month.

Over my 27 years in the profession, I have enjoyed this recurring celebration because of the activities we engage in during this special time for social work.

Fourteen years ago, NASW expanded its annual recognition and promotion of the profession. While continuing the March observances, the association mounted year-round campaigns designed to give the public information about social issues that affect their lives, issues in which social workers make a difference every day.

A few of the themes these campaigns have focused on include AIDS awareness, homelessness, aging parents and children in poverty.

Most recently, the campaigns have called attention to the problem of violence, looking at its various aspects in successive years. They have promoted techniques people can use in daily life to end violence, examined the subtle violence of social injustice and urged people to make a personal commitment to stopping hate crimes.

This year, the anti-violence campaign promotes racial and ethnic harmony — a timely focus, given the backlash against affirmative action, the burning of black-community churches and passage of regressive immigration laws. Such phenomena destructively exaggerate the differences that exist in our melting-pot society.

NASW chose the theme of harmony with the belief that social workers are uniquely qualified to help our society learn how to tolerate, understand, accept, and even celebrate these differences.

To reach this goal, today’s society needs to develop language that is neutral and facilitates understanding of difference. Professional social workers know that when people and groups distrust and fear each other, everyone suffers. And we can help groups learn about and appreciate the differences that can divide friends, colleagues, neighborhoods and ultimately, the world.

NASW historically has taken stands supporting an inclusive society in which differences of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and culture are valued and respected. The association stands behind the principle that racism on any level will not be tolerated. Social workers advocate self-examination as a tool for unlearning racist beliefs and practices, so that people can join together in the full appreciation and celebration of all their wonderful differences.

Social workers contend that racism is embedded in our society and that unless we identify specific instances and work to eliminate them, we are part of the problem. The immigration bill passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton is regressive, restrictive and mean-spirited. This law, in combination with elements of the welfare reform legislation, ignores common sense, insults human dignity and in many ways institutionalizes racism.

Provisions in these laws strip away constitutional assurances of due process, allow states great latitude in limiting or eliminating previously guaranteed basic government services to legal immigrants and depersonalize these human beings by referring to them as "aliens."

Some of the immigration law’s most regressive elements essentially eliminate immigration authorities’ discretion to waive deportation of legal immigrants who have committed one criminal offense, even if their spouses or children are citizens. Furthermore, the law knows no limits: The offense can be a minor one, committed many years ago, and may not even have required deportation at the time it was committed.

Several months ago, the media attended for a few moments to the case of Fauziya Kassindja, a young woman fleeing her country to escape genital mutilation. The entire nation was appalled at the practice that drove her from her home and at the seeming indifference of other nations she petitioned, and we were gratified when she eventually was given protection in the United States.

But with the full implementation of the immigration law on April 1, the Fauziya Kassindjas of this world are no longer welcome here.

Such laws seem to dismiss the nation’s history, denying the contributions to our culture, economy and communities made by immigrants.

In the spirit of Social Work Month, in celebration of the roots of social work practice among generations of immigrants and with the goal of promoting racial and ethnic harmony, contact your state and federal legislators. Ask them to restore fairness and civility to the immigration laws and to our country’s treatment of immigrants.

Just as immigrants’ contributions in the past have helped create today’s United States, their participation now is vital for building a greater nation tomorrow.