On #Ferguson and Social Work

by Pat Shelly

 

“You are a black body first, before you are a kid walking down the street or a Harvard professor who has misplaced his keys.” Teju Cole

 

 

 

BLOG fergusonHandsUp                                            Lalo Alcaraz 08-21-14

 

It is now 18 days after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African American man, was shot and killed by Darren Wilson, a European American police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Protesters and social media adopted “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” as a meme. #Ferguson is filled with photos of people who march with determination to make radical changes so that another generation of young men – and women – will not be decimated just because they have black bodies. The juggernaut of racism is a constant issue in social work, but how is that particular form of deeply institutionalized oppression addressed by our profession?

 

Since August 9, the day that Mike Brown was killed, my informal survey of blogs, editorials, and other media showed these social workers who were quoted or writing about Ferguson:

 

Charles Lewis, writing for the Congressional Research on Social Work and Policy (CRISP) (Aug. 18, 2014):
“Ferguson Begs for a Grand Response from Social Work”

 

NASW (National Association of Social Workers) (Aug. 19, 2014):
“Police Shootings Underscore Need for Social Workers to Press for Reforms”

 

Norman A. White is an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice in the School of Social Work at Saint Louis University. His approach is an good example of how schools of social work (and other institutes of higher education) can incorporate anti-racist and trauma-informed processes in the classroom.

He is quoted in this Chronicle of Higher Education article (Aug. 26, 2014):
“How Professors In St. Louis are Teaching the Lessons of Ferguson’s Unrest”

“Three years ago, we decided we needed to change the way we looked at offenders and the justice system, and we coined a phrase, human justice, to emphasize the goal of providing dignity to everyone… You can’t be an effective…professional without understanding the lives of the people you may come in contact with.

“We’re looking at how issues like poverty, unemployment, and single-parent households increase the possibility of young people engaging in problem behavior. What’s happening in Ferguson is putting this work more front and center, and it’s opened the door to conversations about economic inequality and the constitution of the police force that needed to happen.”

 

And Deona Hooper, in her Social Work Helper blog post, “Social Work Appears to be Absent from Ferguson Global Conversation,” offered her sobering opinion of some Facebook comments she received about Ferguson:
“…it makes me extremely fearful that some of these people are actually social workers, and I pray they are not working with minority communities. Maybe its [sic] a good thing the national media and reporters are not patrolling social worker forums and social media platforms to see what social workers think about national and global events. If they did, many would not be able to withstand the scrutiny placed on their statements.”

 

While not specifically about Ferguson, other social work sources addressed institutional racism or provided personal accounts:

 

Social Work Policy Institute [SWPI] (2014): Achieving Racial Equity: Calling the Social Work Profession to Action (especially helpful are the definitions of race as a social construct and what racial equity means)

 

Reynaldo Thompkins, in his “Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian” (N.A.H.) blog often focuses on race and his experiences as an African American man, as a student, and as a social worker. He also provides links to articles from other sources, such as this Atlantic magazine article about a #FergusonSyllabus on race, civil rights and policing.

In this 2013 post, he reflects upon the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, and it still resonates today: “How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?” (the title is a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk). In a post from 2012, “What Do You Mean, Check My Privilege?,” Thompkins says, “while focusing on the eliminating the systemic injustices perpetrated by ‘others’ in society, it is also equally important (possibly even more important) to continue to change oppressive thoughts and behaviors that may be present in ourselves.”

 

Blog fergusonPrivilegeSo, what is the social work profession to do? How can social workers create change and undermine institutionalized racism? As practitioners, as social work educators and field instructors, as leaders and policy makers or as individuals doing our best to walk the talk as human justice advocates, as Professor White would say, how can we realize an agenda of racial justice and equity?

 

At the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, we solicited items on Ferguson from and for our professors to use in classes (see Casselman, Duca, Pew Research, and Woods referenced below). Every MSW program covers diversity and oppression. The newest draft of revisions for the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS) defines nine competencies for social workers, two of which are the areas of a. diversity and difference, and b. social justice and human rights. The CSWE 2015 EPAS Draft 2 (2014) defines diversity as “the intersectionality of multiple factors including but not limited to age, class, color, culture, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, immigration status, political ideology, race, religion/spirituality, sex, sexual orientation, and tribal sovereign status” (p.4).

 

It is this intersectionality that complicates any human rights-based social work practice. We know that society too often imposes not just one but multiple oppressions. The definition of diversity in the above paragraph is a checklist for us to use when we are considering inclusion, respect for differences, cultural competency, and communications. In the realm of social media, it is especially important to be conscious of how even our casual remarks can offend.

 

According to SWPI (2014), social work education must:

 

“-Ensure availability and access to core anti-racism/anti-racist curriculum content in social work education programs.

Operationalize, more fully, how the curriculum can provide tools to address institutional racism, not to just discuss race and poverty in terms of history and advocacy and in understanding the social environment.

-Train social workers to identify and interrupt color-blind ideology.

Ensure students know that helping is not enough – students need to understand that they have power that can hurt” (p. 17).

 

The report concludes: “The work of undoing racism and achieving racial equity cannot be relegated to actions by people of color; whites are essential in this effort. At times this will mean sharing power and leadership in deeper ways, and taking proactive steps to undo oppression and racism. The use of community organizing principles and skills are essential” (p.19) to this effort.

 

 Blog fergusonICON


























               https://twitter.com/janeepwoods - symbol in support of white allies, antiracism

 

 

What resources can you suggest for teaching about Ferguson or institutionalized racism?

Please share in the comments section below!

References

 

Adewunmi, B. (2014, April 2).  Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use”. The New Statesman. Retrieved from http://www.newstatesman.com/lifestyle/2014/04/kimberl-crenshaw-intersectionality-i-wanted-come-everyday-metaphor-anyone-could

Alcaraz, L. (2014, August 21). GoComics.com – United Features Syndicate http://www.gocomics.com/laloalcaraz#.U_3Ub6OhoxN

Casselman. B. (2014, August 26). The Poorest Corner of Town. FiveThirtyEightEconomics. Retrieved from http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/ferguson-missouri/

Chatelain, M. (2014, August 25). How to teach kids about what’s happening in Ferguson: A crowdsourced syllabus about race, African American history, civil rights and policing. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/08/how-to-teach-kids-about-whats-happening-in-ferguson/379049/?single_page=true

Cole, T. (2014, August 19). Black body: Rereading James Baldwin’s “Stranger in the Village”. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/black-body-re-reading-james-baldwins-stranger-village?utm_source=tny&utm_campaign=generalsocial&utm_medium=twitter&mbid=social_twitter

Council on Social Work Education. (2014, March). COEP and COA approved draft 2 of the 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards (EPAS). Retrieved from http://www.cswe.org/Accreditation/EPASRevision.aspx

Du Bois, W.E.B. (1903/1999). The Souls of Black Folk. Available at http://www.bartleby.com/114/index.html ) http://www.relandothompkins.com/2013/07/14/how-does-it-feel-to-be-a-problem/

Duca, L. (2014, August 20). 7 documentaries you can stream right now to better understand what’s going on in Ferguson. Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/08/20/ferguson-documentaries_n_5694439.html

Hooper, D. (2014, August 21). Social work appears to be absent from Ferguson global conversation. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkhelper.com/2014/08/21/social-work-appears-absent-ferguson-global-conversation/

Lewis, C. (2014, August 18). Ferguson begs for a grand response from social work. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://crispinc.org/2014/08/18/ferguson-county-begs-for-a-grand-response-from-social-work/

Mangan, K. (2014, August 26). How professors in St. Louis are teaching the lessons of Ferguson’s unrest. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/How-Professors-in-St-Louis/148479/

National Association of Social Workers. (2014, August 19). Police shootings underscore need for social workers to press for reforms. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkblog.org/advocacy/2014/08/police-shootings-underscore-need-for-social-workers-to-press-for-law-enforcement-reforms/?utm_source=tf&utm_medium=twitter

Pew Research Center for People and the Press. (2014, August 18). Stark racial divisions in reactions to Ferguson police shooting. Retrieved from http://www.people-press.org/2014/08/18/stark-racial-divisions-in-reactions-to-ferguson-police-shooting/

Social Work Policy Institute (2014). Achieving racial equity: Calling the social work profession to action. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpolicy.org/news-events/report-on-achieving-racial-equity.html

Thompkins, R. (2013, July 14).  How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.relandothompkins.com/2013/07/14/how-does-it-feel-to-be-a-problem/

Thompkins, R. (2012, February 10). What Do You Mean, Check My Privilege? [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.relandothompkins.com/2012/02/10/what-do-you-mean-check-my-privilege/

Woods, J. (2104, August 14). Becoming a white ally to black people in the aftermath of the Michael Brown murder. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://janeewoods.com/2014/08/14/becoming-a-white-ally-to-black-people-in-the-aftermath-of-the-michael-brown-murder/

 

16 comments

  • I think the last paragraph effectively relays the problem and solution. Schools of Social Work, Social Work Leadership, and social work organizations has a lack of diversity problem. Licensure is creating a class and racial divide between social workers that no one wants to talk about, and those in power don’t see a problem because it was not their personal experience.

    • Thanks, Deona. Social Work leadership, schools and non-profits do have a lack of diversity in many areas – seen most readily in categories of race and gender.

      I am unsure on how a licensure process (I think of the medical, legal, long-haul transport and cosmetology professions, all of which have stringent education, training, safety and specialized knowledge requirements, as does social work) works to create this divide you mention. I hope you will share the research you have found on how licensure processes serve to perpetrate hierarchies of class and race.

      The following article looks at racist attitudes in social work from another angle, following the revelations of child sex-trafficking in England’s north-central city of Rotherham: “police and council officers were widely felt to be playing down strong evidence of sexual abuse, mostly against girls, for fear of upsetting [Pakistani] community relations.” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/27/race-rotherham-abuse-scandal-pakistani-community
      Pat

      • Social Work Helper – when you mention the class and racial divide that licensure is causing, are you referring (at least in part) to the financial costs associated with licensure exam fees (and licensure prep materials), pre-requisite education (bachelors and MSW), and continuing education credits?

      • Hello, Steve,

        What a cogent “checklist” of what one could do as a European-American social worker to make a difference regarding institutionalized racism. I especially appreciate your third point:
        As a member of the dominant culture/race/gender, can we be proactive in making room for those who are in a minority or marginalized? Giving up our privilege to allow “these other voices” to emerge is a concrete and hopefully productive act.

        I found this excerpt from an article, “Ancient Stoicism And Rational Psychology:Humanistic Ways To Mental Health
        by Fred Edwords (1995), pertinent:

        “As anxiety over the future robs us of the present, so does guilt over the past. All human beings commit wrongs, some intentional and some accidental. But guilt and remorse are non- productive and often counter-productive. If we have done wrong, we should seek what action we can take to remedy the problem or make amends. If nothing can be done, we should try to learn what we can from the experience so as to avoid repetition in the future. But at no time is it productive to wallow in our own self-pity, condemn ourselves, punish ourselves, or pursue the rest of our lives as though we are undeserving.”

        Retrieved from http://americanhumanist.org/humanism/Ancient_Stoicism_and_Rational_Psychology

        Your comment addresses the action, remedy and learning that is truly productive.
        Thank you!
        Pat

  • You raise some important questions, Pat.

    Institutional racism is a very difficult problem to resolve and as you suggest, white people need to get involved and organize to undo racism.

    One resource that I’d recommend on the topic of institutional racism is the NASW guide called: “Institutional Racism and the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action.” You can download it at http://www.naswdc.org/diversity/InstitutionalRacism.pdf

    It not only explains what institutional/structural racism is but how it is manifested in our social systems and provides some ideas for how we can start working on addressing it.

  • Thanks for this additional guide, Dorlee. The 2014 Social Work Policy Institute report, in addition to an overview of structural racism, includes these racial equity tools from the Center for Assessment and Policy Development: http://www,racialequitytools.org/glossary#racial-equity
    Pat

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  • This post hits on one of those topics that I can’t think about for long before I start to feel overwhelmed in an “I’m helpless” kind of way.

    When I start to feel like that, I like to remind myself of one of the core ideas of Stoicism, a philosophy from classical Rome. The Stoics taught that everything in the world could be divided into one of two categories: those things over which you have control, and those things over which you have no control.

    Since you have no control over things that are beyond your control, there is no point in worrying about them. Instead, we should focus our attention on those things over which we do have control.

    The Stoics taught that pretty much the only thing we have control over is our own thoughts. This is where I part ways with them. I think that there are things outside of ourselves over which we do have some control, or at least some range of influence. But it is easy to forget that our circle of influence is limited. When we see and care about big issues, we naturally want to help – that’s a big part of why many of us choose social work! But we quickly get drawn out of our circles of influence and swiftly descend into burnout.

    This is what happens when I think of institutional racism, the many connections it has to countless other issues and problems, and all of the ways that it intersects with other forms of oppression, I can’t help but conclude: this is beyond my control. So, for me, the question of what social work can do about institutional racism isn’t a helpful question.

    Instead, I focus on something else, and ask, what can I influence? This shift in perspective doesn’t itself solve any of the problems, but, for me at least, it is necessary some days if I am going to get out of bed, which allows me to do some of the thing do do make a difference in some way:

    – I can educate myself on racism and color-blindness, the ways they manifest and the effects they have on people’s lives.
    – I can work to become aware of my own privileges as a white male, especially the privilege of not having to know about problems that I have not personally had to face.
    – I can step aside and support others in becoming leaders within the profession in order to allow a more diverse set of voices at the table. And I can stop talking so I can hear what these other voices are saying.
    – I can participate in the processes of social work’s professional governing bodies and work to increase access to and diversity within the profession.
    – I can share what I learn with others through both formal and informal means (such as participating in education and professional development with others, bystander intervention).

    These are only a few of the things that are within my control, and thinking about them does not leave me feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Each of them is in itself a small thing, but the small things – the daily events, the words we use, the opportunities we encounter – add up, especially as more and more people get involved.

  • It is unfortunate that it takes the loss of a life to bring people together to fight racial and economic inequality. It is no wonder young Ferguson was angry when so many people in power of his minority community are white.

    Education is the answer to most, as with this issue. The minorities need social workers and others who can help them organize to use this anger for the good to work towards equality and improved conditions. I also promote teaching tolerance in schools from a very young age on up. Much of what we learn comes from our parents. Although the racial barriers are slowly breaking down in this country, there is a long way to go. Schools can help this process.

    Southern Poverty Law Center offers free tolerance curriculum to teachers. One of the suggestions is something people of any age and situation can do. We are creatures of habit and tend to keep ourselves in familiar comfortable settings, which means we talk to the same people all the time. Mix It Up at Lunch Day, the anchor event for Teaching Tolerance’s Mix It Up program, encourages students to do something simple yet powerful—sit next to someone new in the cafeteria. More than 6,000 schools participated in our annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day program in 2013, and more than 95 percent of Mix It Up organizers say the event prompts students to interact outside their normal social circles. Nearly 80 percent report those interactions result in new friendships across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and other divisions (http://www.splcenter.org/?ref=logo).

    As far as the disgruntled social worker who posted the negative comment, we must question where this is coming from. Perhaps this person has a partner, child or parent who is a police officer, and deals daily with fear hearing the stories of violence and people killed in the line of duty. Imagine being a child and growing up in fear that mommy or daddy might not come home from work someday. We have to deal with trauma in our clients and coworkers.

  • Karen, the education does play an important part of becoming more tolerant as a society and as individuals. The Southern Poverty Law Center started out as monitors of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. SPLC has many successful and landmark lawsuits since its inception in 1971. And the free resources on Teaching Tolerance are great for working with K-12 grades. Thanks for adding SPLC to a list of those actively working for social justice and human rights.

  • I appreciate that this post highlights some of the criticisms that social workers and other human-service based professions face regarding institutionalized racism and white privilege. As an MSW student, I have frequently observed that the majority of my classmates and faculty are white. Similarly, in my experience with many human-service based practitioners and administrators, it’s apparent that many positions of power are held by those who identify racially as white. As a member of the dominant white culture, I have been socialized to recognize the unique set of experiences and points of view that each person holds (and to, more or less, see beyond the color of their skin). However, as I’m rapidly learning throughout my coursework, this sort of color blindness towards race has made it all too easy for members of the dominant white culture to disregard the benefits of being white, as well as the oppression experienced by minorities (i.e. through symbolic, aversive, and internal racism) in a white supremacist society.

    In addition to the NASW’s initiative “A Call to Action” and the Racial Equity Tools website (both of which are very helpful organizational resources), I found this blog, “White Privilege: 10 ways to be an Ally,” to be rather informative in addressing racism at an individual level.

    Institutional Racism remains a societal problem for people of all ethnicities and colors, although the impact that it has on each of us varies. Perhaps the most important part of promoting anti-racist curriculum among future social workers is to urge us all to own our role in maintaining white supremacist values in the past and acting towards a more fair and just future.

    Resources:

    National Association of Social Workers. (2007). Institutional Racism & the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action. Retrieved from: http://www.naswdc.org/diversity/InstitutionalRacism.pdf

    CAPD, MP Associates, & World Trust (2014). Racial Equity Tools. Retrieved from: http://www.racialequitytools.org/home

    C Bowers. (2010, February 3). White privilege: 10 ways to be an ally (Web log post). Retrieved from: http://whitepriv.blogspot.com/2010/02/10-ways-to-be-and-ally.html

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  • Danielle Pinkerton

    To answer the author’s final question regarding what resources can help to teach about Ferguson and Institutional Racism, I’d like to look to the field of community organizing. Educating students on what oppressed populations experience, cannot break through their preconceived notions with a power point slide or scholarly article. Immersing the students in community organizing efforts can best educate them on the true day to day experiences of people in our community who are victims of institutional racism. I will follow the author’s lead in keeping my focus on institutional racism that affects the African American community. Out reach work in area communities can help a student recognize the barriers to improving one’s quality of life, and break down their assumptions about people working the system, and other social stigmas that go along with being an impoverished minority. One can ‘Google’ the phrase “institutional racism” and learn definitions, examples, and statistics, but not the true impact on the lives of the people we as social workers are intended to serve. By learning about the suffering of others through an academic standpoint, there in itself lies a barrier between those who are oppressed and by those who are not. Cultural competency cannot be learned in a classroom of twenty white female students, three African American students, and one white male student. The curriculum discusses the need for agencies to reflect the diversity of the community in which it serves. However, this mantra seems hypocritical when one steps back to recognize that our programs don’t reflect the diversity of our community. To borrow from the author, we need to “walk the talk”.

  • I appreciate that this post highlights some of the criticisms that social workers and other human-service based professions face regarding institutionalized racism and white privilege. As an MSW student, I have frequently observed that the majority of my classmates and faculty are white. Similarly, in my experience with many human-service based practitioners and administrators, it’s apparent that many positions of power are held by those who identify racially as white. As a member of the dominant white culture, I have been socialized to recognize the unique set of experiences and points of view that each person holds (and to, more or less, see beyond the color of their skin). However, as I’m rapidly learning throughout my coursework, this sort of color blindness towards race has made it all too easy for members of the dominant white culture to disregard the benefits of being white, as well as the oppression experienced by minorities (i.e. through symbolic, aversive, and internal racism) in a white supremacist society.

    In addition to the NASW’s initiative “A Call to Action” and the Racial Equity Tools website (both of which are very helpful organizational resources), I found this blog, “White Privilege: 10 ways to be an Ally,” to be rather informative in addressing racism at an individual level.

    Institutional Racism remains a societal problem for people of all ethnicities and colors, although the impact that it has on each of us varies. Perhaps the most important part of promoting anti-racist curriculum among future social workers is to urge us all to own our role in maintaining white supremacist values in the past and acting towards a more fair and just future.

    Resources:
    National Association of Social Workers. (2007). Institutional Racism & the Social Work Profession: A Call to Action.
    CAPD, MP Associates, & World Trust (2014). Racial Equity Tools.

  • What a great post and so important! Race is a factor in justice and police shootings. NPR has done some great pieces on this topic and highlight the fact that police tend to shoot more quickly with minority individuals. Several examples exist throughout the last months with Ferguson being one example. John Crawford was shot as he had a toy rifle in his hand in Walmart. According to the FBI “justifiable homicide” occurs on average two times per week by a white officer on a black or African American person. One in five of those were under the age of 21 years (http://www.bustle.com/articles/36096-do-police-shoot-black-men-more-often-statistics-say-yes-absolutely). Would the outcome have been the same if it was someone of a different race/culture holding the toy rifle? Can we respond to situations in more non violent ways rather than shooting first and asking questions later? It is important to consider all of these issues in our field and in our personal lives as the impact is massive. I have linked several NPR stories here as they are great: http://www.npr.org/tags/174294904/police-shooting . Great response and information from all.

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