We “Have a Way To Go” To Achieve Racial Equity in Social Work

Published on : September 25, 2020

About Social Work Responds
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) are committed to collaborating on the range of issues affecting the social work profession and the people and communities we serve.


ASWB is seeking qualified social workers to write questions for the licensing exams used in the United States and Canada. Deadline for applications is December 31, 2020. Practicing social workers—item writers—write all the questions on the ASWB social work licensing exams. ASWB needs social workers from all categories of licensure with a variety of backgrounds in education and experience. Please apply here.

NASW will host the next Facebook Live event in its Racial Justice Town Hall series on Friday, October 2, from 2:00 pm–3:30 pm ET. The discussion topic is economic equity; included are speakers from the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis and the Coalition on Human Needs. See the September 23 congressional briefing that NASW co-hosted on reimagining school safety through a racial equity lens here.
Voting Is Social Work! CSWE and the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign will offer a free Web event at 1:00 pm ET on Tuesday, September 29, 2020, for social workers, students, and programs to learn ways to increase voter registration and participation. The program will feature leaders from CSWE, the Voting Is Social Work campaign, programs, and voting rights activists. Register today!

We “Have a Way To Go” To Achieve Racial Equity in Social Work

“We’ve come a long way from the days when there was state enforced segregation. But we still have a way to go.” –Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2015)
We remember and celebrate the accomplishments of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last Friday at 87. During her 27 years on the Supreme Court and before that appointment, Ginsburg was, in Chief Justice John Roberts words, “a tireless and resolute champion for justice.” We remember Ginsburg for her efforts to end discrimination based on gender, to ensure all women’s access to reproductive choice, and to point out the need for continued support of racial equality in voting among other social justice initiatives.

Ginsburg’s 2013 dissent of the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reflects her staunch support of protections for rights of African Americans and other disenfranchised people. As the nation approaches elections this November, social workers have an ethical obligation to ensure that all voices have representation.

Just as Ginsburg fought for racial equity in society, the social work profession must look inward to fight institutionalized systemic racism at the heart of its constructs. Jane Addams was awarded the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize as a pioneer in social work, but she is not the only mother of the social work profession. Social work has roots in all cultures, and pioneers of color such as Ida B. Wells and George E. Haynes deserve to be honored in social work history. Addams made statements regarding African Americans that revealed her White supremacist and privileged position. She was also open to feedback and responded to Wells’ challenges to become a better ally. This is an antiracist approach and one that we all need to adopt.
It is simplistic to say that being more inclusive within the profession will solve the problem of racial inequality; today, we aim for racial equity, which is an appropriate goal for the profession. Greater inclusiveness is a place we can start. Through a commitment to equity, we can ensure that more Black, Brown, and Indigenous practitioners and faculty members assume leadership roles during discussions about the future of social work. This is critical to illuminating and undoing ingrained biases in all areas of the profession.
CSWE’s upcoming Annual Program Meeting is focused on Leading Critical Conversations: Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion. Hundreds of social work educators will present research and thoughts on biases, racism, sexism, and similar topics November 16–20. The theme could not be more appropriate for our world today, and the program will feature live lectures from leading scholars and authors on anti-Black racism, colonialism, and the future of social work.
CSWE commissioned a task force earlier this year to honestly examine how social work curricula can go beyond teaching an appreciation for physical or cultural diversity and truly empower the next generation of social workers to dismantle institutional racism. The recommendations from this task force along with updates to the Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards, due in 2022, will serve as a starting point to ensure that the 47,000 social workers who enter the workforce each year are ready to champion social justice causes.

In the regulatory area of social work, diversity has increased among administrators supporting social work regulatory boards, but more work remains to be done. What do states need to do to increase the diversity of representation on the regulatory boards themselves? How do regulators ensure their ability to view disciplinary cases through a multicultural lens, which is critical to fair hearings? When will exemptions be removed so that all social workers are regulated and all of the public is protected? Should social work embrace and professionalize social service workers, who work alongside social workers?

For social work practitioners, strategies and tactics to achieve racial equity include revisiting and updating program and service protocols, hiring and retention standards, program funding sources, and public policy goals, as well addressing personal bias. NASW chapters are contributing to numerous local efforts examining institutional racism and discrimination in social and human service systems. Many are also working with nonprofits, elected officials, universities, and allied professionals to reimagine public safety, education, mental health, and health care in communities.
NASW’s national advocacy will continue to advance racial equity in all areas of its robust social justice portfolio, including health care, criminal justice, immigration, and many others. By partnering with scholars and policymakers on congressional briefings, town halls, and issue briefs we can help educate social workers, the media, and national leaders about the profession’s vision for full social equality.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg included Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and Pauli Murray, an African American activist and lawyer who argued for gender and racial equality rights, among those who inspired her. In her first Supreme Court brief, Ginsburg acknowledged Murray’s influence by listing her as a co-author. Ginsburg won, with the Court ruling in Reed v. Reed that gender discrimination is unconstitutional. Of Murray and Dorothy Kenyon, another activist she named as co-author of the brief, Ginsburg said, “We’re standing on their shoulders. We’re saying the same things they said, but now at last society is ready to listen.” It is time—past time—for the social work profession to listen to those whose voices have not been heard in the profession. The organizations representing the three pillars of the profession are committed to bringing people together, listening, and taking actions that advance racial equity in the profession and society.

“The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”  —Ida B. Wells

Reading List

Ginsburg, R. B. (2015, February 16). Interview by Carmon, I. The Rachel Maddow Show. [Television broadcast]. New York: MSNBC Network. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/ruth-bader-ginsburg-abortion-race-and-the-broken-congress
Ginsburg, R. B., Hartnett, M., & Williams, W. (2016). My own words. Simon & Schuster.
McDermott, S. P. (2018, August 22). Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, and racial injustice in America. [blog post]. Jane Addams Papers Projecthttps://janeaddams.ramapo.edu/2018/08/jane-addams-ida-b-wells-and-racial-injustice-in-america/

Redbird, B. (2017, May 3). The new closed shop? The economic and structural effects of occupational licensure. American Sociological Review, 8, 600–624. https://members.aswb.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/The-New-CLosed-Shop-article.pdf

Rosenberg, R. (2017). Jane Crow: The life of Pauli Murray. Oxford University Press.