Standing Up for Affirmative Action

Josephine A. V. Allen NASW News
February 1998
From the President
by Josephine A. V. Allen, Ph.D., ACSW

Affirming our profession, using the power of social work in community action efforts and advocating the social policies that will highlight and make our commitment to social justice in America real are all part of the challenge that lies before us.

I noted in an earlier column the significance of community empowerment as a strategy in support of social change, social justice and societal well-being. An emphasis on creating and maintaining a sense of community both within social work and within the larger society continues to be critical.

Last month, the national Board of Directors - in recognition of both social work's activist tradition and its ethical priorities - visited the offices of our respective representatives on Capitol Hill in order to discuss our association's commitment to affirmative action. We lobbied in opposition to legislation that would eliminate federal affirmative action protections, which have been critical to the elimination of discrimination against people of color and women in our society.

It is important that we continue these efforts through NASW chapters and lobby at the state and local levels if we are to be effective in any measure.

We social workers are committed professionals, and our activism must support the broad spectrum of needs and the expanding array of difficult issues that exist in our society. Because of the diversity among our clients and within our profession, social workers must engender a collective spirit to combat the pervasive ideology that exists among those who oppose affirmative action.

There must be room for dialogue within our profession on this and on every other critical issue. The contemporary debate over affirmative action must be addressed as one of the components of our profession's dialogue on race.

The attempt to compensate for past discrimination by recognizing the candidacy of equally qualified people of color and women is affirmative action's central rationale. NASW strongly opposes the repeal of affirmative action, because such programs form a significant component of America's efforts to eliminate bigotry, bias and discrimination targeted at people of color and women.

Since the introduction of the Civil Rights Act of 1997, NASW has vigorously and successfully lobbied House and Senate members in opposition to that ominous measure. NASW has collaborated with notable civil rights organizations such as the NAACP, American Association of University Women, National Urban League, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, National Council of LaRaza, Mexican-American Legal Defense Education Fund, Religious Action Center and Catholic Charities to defeat this regressive legislation and to protect the civil rights and dignity of people of color and women.

Also in collaboration with civil rights organizations and in support of affirmative action, NASW extensively lobbied Senate members for Bill Lann Lee's confirmation as assistant attorney general for civil rights.

As social workers profoundly committed to the traditions of our profession, we will continue to advocate the alleviation of discrimination and bigotry and the creation of equity and justice for all Americans. By allowing educational institutions, businesses and government at all levels to take race, gender and ethnicity into account, affirmative action has allowed the nation to compensate for its past discriminatory policies and action. Consistent with our training, social workers must seek change and advocate to remedy areas in which discriminatory practices are proven. NASW supports the principle that affirmative action is a fundamental civil rights issue.

The nation has made great strides in addressing discrimination and bigotry during this century, specifically in the past 30 years. Laws that denied citizenship to people because of their race and ethnicity or allowed discrimination against women because of their gender have been repealed. Discrimination in employment, housing, education, public facilities and at the ballot box is now illegal. Segregated lunch counters, movie theaters, water fountains and restrooms are no longer a part of the American landscape.

It is significant to note that since their inception in the late 1960s, affirmative action programs have enjoyed bipartisan support from many of our national leaders, including that of six presidents, both Democrat and Republican.

At the same time, research and daily experiences demonstrate that discrimination continues to permeate American society, resulting in lost opportunities for too many among us. The evidence is overwhelming that the time has not yet come to dismantle affirmative action programs.

Recently publicized examples of employment discrimination involve corporations such as Mitsubishi, Texaco, Avis, Home Depot and Circuit City; as well as the 80,000-case backlog of individual discrimination claims at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Moreover, numerous studies document widespread racial discrimination in housing, further proving that extensive discrimination continues to permeate American society.

If America is to become a true democracy, it must derive strength from its diversity and it must demonstrate faith in the principles of equality of opportunity and human dignity. Until discrimination is eliminated, affirmative action measures that promote equal opportunity remain critical for people of color and women.

Won't you take a stand on this issue?