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October 2021 Educator|Resource of the Month

The Center for Diversity and Social & Economic Justice Educator|Resource is a monthly feature that highlights curricular resources and social work educators who address diversity and justice.

Theories of Racism: Illuminating Problems, But Also Possibilities 

It is almost impossible not to feel anger at the persistence of racism, and we see that in our students. Community organizers like Ernesto Cortés, Jr., see the value of anger. Anger, when combined with hope, allows you to have an understanding of the world as it is, according to Cortés, a contemporary successor of Saul Alinsky who is recognized in social work as the founding father of community organizing. We may not have a full understanding of “the challenges and the daunting nature of what we are trying to strive for, [but] we can still recognize the possibilities.” The current discourse on antiracism helps articulate the inequity and violence that we want to stop, but we need “not just to resist injustice but to transcend it,” suggests Jarvis R. Givens, author of Fugitive Pedagogy, in a recent interview with Vox. Black history, he says, can teach us more prospectively oriented approaches. “If you’re striving to create more justice in the world… you have to have a vision that’s more meaningful and points us in the direction of a better world.” This is the theme of the current issue of the Diversity Center’s series What Does Teaching From an Antiracist Perspective Look Like?

Teaching Resources  

Problem Solving: Turning "Social Messes" Into Problems

What does it mean to gain an understanding of the world as it is, as Cortés suggests? To begin, it has been said that the world does not present us with problems at all. Rather, according to Robert Horn, it presents us with “social messes.” 

Social messes

  • are more than complicated and complex, they are ambiguous;
  • contain considerable uncertainty even as to what the conditions are, let alone what the appropriate actions might be;
  • are bounded by great constraints and are tightly interconnected economically, socially, politically, technologically;
  • are seen differently from different points of view and quite different worldviews;
  • contain many value conflicts; and
  • are often alogical or illogical.

The study of conceptual frameworks can help turn social messes such as racism, which have no straightforward solutions, into problems that have solutions. Conceptual frameworks on racism that bring clarity to the characteristics in the bulleted list above can help students improve their ability to think critically and proactively about racism. 

Conceptual Frameworks of Racism    

We present a sample of three conceptual frameworks drawn from interdisciplinary sources useful in the study of racism in social work: public health, humanities, and education. Each offers a different lens through which to view racism: ecosocial, political, and historical. Built into each framework are avenues for change. 


According to ecosocial theory, derived from social epidemiological studies in public health, racial population health inequities are a function of racism expressed through exploitative and oppressive societal relations. Racism benefits dominant social groups and harms social groups subjected to discrimination. Ecosocial theory outlines the process through which racism affects us at a biological level. First, through the process of embodiment, we literally incorporate biologically the material and social world in which we live, our societal and ecological context. Second, the pathways of embodiment depend on our standard of living (occupational, environmental, and social), which determines our exposure to economic and social deprivation, social trauma, harmful targeted marketing, inadequate medical care, degradation of ecosystems, land alienation, and, finally, toxins, hazards and pathogens. And third, coming into play is a cumulative interplay of exposure, susceptibility, and resistance across the life course, based on generation and historical context. Change can occur by health equity promotion across multiple levels through the availability of data on the extent and health consequences of racial discrimination. The theory is outlined in the article Methods for the scientific study of discrimination and health: An ecosocial approach by Nancy Krieger. A graphic representation of the model can be found in Figure 1 (page 938). 

Source: Krieger, N. (2012). Methods for the scientific study of discrimination and health: An ecosocial approach. American Journal of Public Health, 102, 936–944.


A political frame of racism, drawn from history of consciousness studies in the field of humanities, is advanced in the book Antiblack Racism and the AIDS Epidemic: State Intimacies by Adam M. Geary. Taking the case of health inequities in AIDS, Geary proposes that poor health outcomes among Blacks are a function of state violence. The framework is influenced by the ecosocial model by Krieger that is described above, but is extended in a crucial way. Following the lead of critical scholars, political drivers are placed at the center, explicitly amplifying social conflict as foundational to health and disease. The framework invokes the materialist traditions of Frederick Engels and W. E. B. Du Bois in their studies of disease. A materialist analysis “define[s] the social causes and origins of health and disease, relating them to the power relations in society” (McBride, 1991, as cited in Geary, 2014, p. 6). According to Geary, “the AIDS epidemic is structured not by the deviant behaviors or relations that people engage in, but by the unequal and violent conditions in which they are forced to live and that are embodied as ill-health and vulnerability to disease,” specifically “structural violence as organized through the state apparatus… primarily black ghettoization and mass incarceration” (pp. 2, 24). As to how change can occur, Geary proposes that “the black liberatory tradition is the model for thinking about how to respond to the AIDS crisis.” Thus, “the proper politics for the AIDS crisis is the politics of liberation, liberation from the structured relation of oppression and exclusion that have been organized through antiblack racism” (p. 128). Geary suggests that the Black health activism led by the Black Panthers Party of the 1960s and 1970s may serve as a guide. 

Source: Geary, A. (2014). Antiblack racism and the AIDS epidemic: State intimacies. Springer.  


According to the critical historical framework, which comes out of social and cultural foundations studies in the field of education, oppression results in damage to sense of self as a function of historical forces and their perpetuation through current times. Dalya Amiel Perez integrates critical race theory and historical consciousness in her study of Filipinx Americans in higher educational contexts in her dissertation Critical Historical Consciousness & Decolonizing for Filipinx American Undergraduates. The legacy of historical erasure, starting with colonization in the Philippines and the invizibilizing of Filipinos as Asian, has damaging effects on sense of self and racial self-identification among Filipinx Americans. Change can occur when students make sense of their own stories through opportunities for learning critical colonial history (e.g., reconstructing historical understanding through counternarratives to official accounts), unlearning colonial mentality, and receiving emotional and community support. The framework is presented graphically through a series of three figures (Figures 1, 2, and 3), which can be found on pages 14, 81, and 152, respectively. 

Source: Perez, D. A. (2020). Critical historical consciousness & decolonizing for Filipinx American undergraduates. (Publication No. 634) [Doctoral Dissertation, University of Washington]. ResearchWorks Archive.

The views expressed in the Educator|Resource are those of the educator(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council on Social Work Education.

 Contact Dr. Yolanda Padilla, CSWE Diversity Center Director, at [email protected].