Yet Another Social Work Point of View on Ensuring Black Lives Matter

By Michael A. Dover

In recent weeks, three distinct trains of thought have arisen within the social work profession, which over the last 100 years has proclaimed social justice as a key element of its mission. All three contribute to the important debates and consistent advocacy needed to ensure that Black Lives Matter and three stories representing two of these were posted to Medium.

(1) In a Friday, July 17 Facebook Live discussion now available on YouTube, Jonathan Singer of Loyola University introduced the session by describing the first as the Either/Or approach. This approach calls for supporting the Black Lives Matter policy platform and is exemplified by Affirming the Call for Social Work to Fully Support Defunding the Police, published in Medium July 8, and by the earlier Open Letter to NASW and Allied Social Work Organizations, also initiated by Alan J. Dettlaff of University of Houston and Laura S. Abrams of UCLA, and published on Medium June 18, 2020.

(2) Dr. Singer described the second approach as the Both/And approach. This is represented by To Our Fellow Social Workers: It’s Neither Cooperate nor Condemn — It’s “Both And” — Let’s Proceed with Courage, Conviction and Action, issued by Darlyne Bailey, Bryn Mawr College, Steve Burghardt, Hunter College, Charles E. Lewis, Jr., C.R.I.S.P., and Terry Mizrahi, former NASW President and Hunter College, published in Medium June 30.

(3) The third is represented by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). On June 5, Angelo McClain, NASW CEO, released an excellent statement. NASW chapters were already quickly mobilizing social workers to support the Black Lives Matter movement. A June 14 NASW letter to the Wall Street Journal defended social workers against an anti-social work op-ed and proposed heightened social work/police collaboration. But following criticism, by Friday June 18, NASW had issued a statement criticizing President Donald Trump’s Executive Order on Safe Policing for Safe Communities. The statement called for three things: a list of immediate but sweeping reforms, additional major reforms proposed in the Justice in Policing Act supported by the Congressional Black Caucus, and a more fundamental longer-range process of “reimagining public safety.” This was a solid, progressive statement. Also, on Friday June 18, NASW a held Town Hall on racial injustice. NASW’s website on Racial Equity continues to highlight its efforts.

In addition to NASW, the accrediting body, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which is also an individual membership organization of social work educators to which I belong along with NASW, has also proactively addressed the recent developments via its councils. Also, the focus of the 2020 CSWE conference is on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. Many colleagues already planning material for that conference could contribute to content for the Summit I propose here.

Personally, I support many of the points made in the Either/Or train of thought, Affirming the Call for Social Work to Fully Support Defunding the Police, published in Medium July 8. I also agree with the openminded outlook and the cultural humility advocated by To Our Fellow Social Workers: It’s Neither Cooperate nor Condemn-It’s “Both And”-Let’s Proceed with Courage, Conviction and Action. And I support the multiple strategy approach of NASW, which recognizes the policy reality of the actual legislative arena.

Most of all, however, I am looking to well-organized and principled local coalitions to guide me in how to exercise my ethical responsibility to engage in social and political action. A great example of how to bridge the various strategies is this work of the Pittsburgh Coalition for Police Accountability. Like NASW, it calls for “for a full reimagining of public safety.” Like the Either/Or approach it calls for supporting the Black Lives Matter demand to defund the police. Like the Both/And approach is supports specific reforms such as banning the militarization of policing.

In general, out of the many discussions taking place within social work and within the social movements, there is increasing consensus we must “aim high” and support demands for a zero-based re-design of public safety policy nationally, locally and within our schools and universities. There is also consensus that this is not possible without also seriously re-thinking related areas of social policy from the ground up. But what should the zero base of that redesign be?

First and foremost, we must subject every policy proposal to this question: Does it contribute to identifying, interrupting and abolishing the myriad ways in which structural racism is institutionalized within our public, nonprofit and market sector organizations, including our social welfare institutions and social service organizations?

Second, Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones (2000) has argued in her Levels of Racism: A Theoretic Framework and a Gardener’s Tale, “Indeed institutionalized racism is often evident as inaction in the face of need.” Does the proposed policy replace inaction with action against systemic inequality in the opportunities often denied people of color to access satisfiers of universal human needs?

Third, does it exemplify a human rights/human needs-first approach, rather than the present service needs-first approach? My needs-based theorization of human injustice argued that the bottom line of social policy must be upholding human rights and addressing human needs, as our NASW Code of Ethics and CSWE standards call for.

For our part, within every policy arena in which social workers work, we must re-conceptualize social work practice so that social workers consistently assess the specific barriers which oppression, dehumanization and exploitation produce. We can then stand with our clients to advocate for removal of these specific manifestations of inaction in the face of need, and we can engage in primary and secondary prevention of the resulting wrongfully unmet needs, before they produce serious harm.

In my view, we should condemn systemic racism, structural racism and institutional racism, but also focus on the specifics of how racism influences our organizations and our practice. Those of us in academic positions can start by doing action research and activism aimed at ending institutional racism within higher education, as I argued in the American Association of University Professors Academe blog.

As the struggle continues to ensure Black Lives Matter, there will be not three but thirty trains of thought about how to go ahead. As Terry Mizrahi, one of the authors of the Both/And statement pointed out in the important YouTube discussion with Laura S. Abrams, Alan J. Dettlaff, and Charles Lewis, Jr., our social work community is not monolithic. We should be openminded to a variety of perspectives and remember our ethical responsibility not to discriminate based on political views. Also, as we evolve and heighten our anti-racist activism, none of us will prove entirely consistent in our thinking.

Haven’t most of us gone through many stages of re-thinking since the present re-invigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement? The principles of cultural humility discussed in the 2019 and 2020 special issues of the journal Reflections: Narratives of Professional Helping would suggest that we recognize we all make mistakes in our interconnected personal, professional and political lives. When mistakes are made, as a start, we should engage in criticism and self-criticism directly between those involved.

In the coming weeks and months, I am confident that social work as a profession, compelled by the example of its rank-and-file members who are right now active in the anti-racist movements, will make an important contribution. During this process, let there be many debates and disagreements, but we should strive to come out of this struggle as a more unified profession.

Social workers demanded and won unity at the height of the McCarthy period’s red and pink scares, and we must do so again. If there was ever a time for social work educators to unite with social work practitioners — and to offer our support to the demands of the activists and leaders and clergypersons of the communities of color we serve and who are strongly represented among our ranks — it is now.

To reinforce these points, I would like to share three quotations that have inspired me:

“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be antiracist.”

— Angela Davis

“Who more than we, sociologists and students of social and political realities are fit to alert our fellow humans to the gap between the necessary and the real.” — Zygmunt Bauman, Amalfi Prize Lecture, May 1990

“We must ask ourselves who are in a better position and more called upon to act collectively, politically and responsibly for the goals of welfare than those who have made welfare their profession, that is, the dominant occupation of their lives.” — Eugen Pusic

Michael A. Dover, PhD, M.S.S.W., LISW

College Associate Lecturer, School of Social Work, Cleveland State University Office: (216)687–3564

Pronouns: he/him/his

Faculty profile

8/10 Addendum: Join with this August 14 2:00pm Town Hall

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