In Pursuit of Racial Equity: The Social Worker’s Role

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According to a May 2020 Monmouth University poll, 76% of Americans believe racial discrimination is a major problem in the United States. Rising racial tensions have galvanized many organizations and social workers to support legislation addressing racial inequity. Social workers across the country work with individuals experiencing racism in their local communities and continue to raise awareness and promote racial equity.

To learn more, check out the infographic below, created by Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program.

Social work strategies that work toward eliminating racism.

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A Look at Racism Today

Researchers have defined racism as “the prejudicial attitudes directed against groups that society identifies as ‘lesser’ –– less capable, less productive, and less normal.”

Americans’ Views on Racism

According to a 2020 Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) poll of 1,296 adults, 71% of Black Americans have experienced some form of racial discrimination or mistreatment in their lifetimes and 48% report they’ve felt their lives were in danger because of their race, Forty-one percent of Black Americans have been stopped or detained by police based on their race, 30% have experienced unfair treatment by police during traffic stops and other encounters in the past year, and 21% have been a victim of police violence.

According to a 2020 survey conducted by the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape Project, 84% of Black respondents said Black people face significant discrimination, while 69% of Latinx respondents, 64% of Asian American and Pacific Islander respondents, and 56% of white respondents agreed.

Racism and Police Violence Against the Black Community

Sadly, there have been several recent high-profile instances of racism and police violence against the Black community. For example, a white woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher in Central Park claiming that he was threatening her after he asked her to leash her dog. In another incident, a bank in Michigan refused to cash a settlement check awarded to a Black man in a racial discrimination lawsuit.

In Minnesota, a police officer kneeled on George Floyd’s neck for seven minutes and 46 seconds, suffocating him to death. In Kentucky, officers shot and killed Breonna Taylor upon entering her home with a no-knock warrant in search of a male suspect. Another incident involved a white police officer shooting and killing Atatiana Jefferson through her home’s back window while she was babysitting her nephew.

The Social Worker’s Calling

Racism is a complex social, political, and economic issue built on centuries of intentional racial oppression. Social workers need to take a multifaceted approach to eliminating ingrained systemic racism.

How Social Workers Can Help to Eradicate Racism

One of the primary tactics social workers can use to help eradicate racism is to practice cultural humility. They also can publish policy statements and support legislative action. Additionally, they can develop anti-racism practice tools and promote positive images and historical narratives of prominent individuals of color. Finally, social workers can strive toward eradicating racism by promoting social diversity.

How Social Workers Can Support Police Officers

Social workers can lend support to police officers by offering insight and assistance in situations where mental illness is affecting a suspect’s behavior. They can also help to limit police interaction with suspects and implement de-escalation tactics to prevent injury or harm during police interactions with the public.

There are several examples that demonstrate the positive effects of social workers working with police officers. CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program in Eugene, Oregon, responded to over 24,000 911 calls in 2019, and only 150 of those calls required police backup. 911 calls are routed to CAHOOTS if there isn’t a strong behavioral component involved, law enforcement isn’t required, there’s no legal issue involved, or if there’s no extreme threat of violence or risk to the caller or others.  In these cases, a team composed of a medic and a crisis worker is dispatched to respond to the call, assess the situation, provide assistance, and direct the individual to a higher level of care or service. The program estimates that it saves over $15 million a year in costs.

Another example is Right Care, a Dallas-based program that offers mental health treatment during 911 emergencies. The program involves a partnership among specially trained paramedics from Dallas Fire-Rescue, Dallas Police Department officers, and Parkland behavioral health social workers. The goals of the program include diverting mental health patients from area emergency rooms and jails, stabilizing individuals on the scene, and guiding individuals to preventive and intervention services that will meet their health care needs. In 2018, the program diverted 31% of the 911 calls that it responded to from jails and ERs.

Making Progress with Policies and Legislation

Organizations such as Black Lives Matter, the Anti-Racist Alliance, and the Coalition of Communities of Color have been vigilant in supporting racial equity legislation and developing strategies that could be implemented in communities across the U.S.

Addressing Racism with Legislation

One of the legislation pieces put forth to specifically address racism is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. The goals behind the legislation is to lower the criminal intent standard to convict law enforcement officers of misconduct, create a national registry to compile data on instances of police misconduct, authorize the Department of Justice to issue subpoenas to investigate patterns of discrimination in police departments, and establish a structure for prohibiting racial profiling at federal, state, and local levels.

A second piece of legislation is Breonna’s Law in Louisville, Kentucky. The goals behind the legislation is to ban no-knock search warrants and require Louisville Metro Police Department officers to wear operating body cameras while executing a search.

Another legislative piece introduced is New Mexico House Bill 15. The bill’s goal is to require state agencies to report their policies and action plans to eliminate discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay.

Finally, Colorado’s put forth a piece of legislation known as Colorado Senate Bill 217. The bill’s goals include collecting demographic and racial profiling data, requiring police officers to wear body cameras and to release footage, prohibiting the transfer of problematic police officers to different departments, and requiring police officers to intervene if they see one of their co-workers using “unreasonable force” when interacting with a suspect.

Organizations Fighting for Racial Equity

An important organization fighting for racial equity is the NAACP, a legal organization that engages in litigation, advocacy, and public education in pursuit of racial justice. Another group is Color of Change, an organization that develops campaigns and initiatives to fight racism and injustice. The organization Black Lives Matter leads initiatives to empower the Black community across the United States, Canada, and the UK.

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, utilizes their Undoing Racism® program and Community Organizing Workshops, which provide technical assistance and consultations for overcoming racism. They also support individuals, communities, and organizations in undoing the causes of racism. The Coalition of Communities of Color aims to “address the socioeconomic disparities, institutional racism, and inequity of services experienced by our families, children, and communities; and to organize our communities for collective action resulting in social change to obtain self-determination, wellness, justice, and prosperity.”

Finally, the Anti-Racist Alliance is a movement for racial equity supported by human service practitioners and educators with a vision to “bring a clear and deliberate anti-racist structural power analysis to social service education and practice.”

Building a Better World

Social workers educate communities about cultural humility, advocate for racial equity, and serve vulnerable groups, but they are only one piece of the puzzle. Government officials, business leaders, and citizens committed to promoting racial equity should collaborate with social workers to stamp out racism and provide support for individuals of all races and ethnicities.


Anti-Racist Alliance, Home Page

BBC News, “George Floyd: What Happened in the Final Moments of His Life”

Black Lives Matter, Global Actions

CNN, “Louisville Council Passes ‘Breonna’s Law’ Banning No-Knock Warrants”

Coalition of Communities of Color, Home Page

Color of Change, About Color of Change, H.R.7120 – George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020

The Denver Channel, “Some Police Departments Incorporating Social Workers Into Response Teams”

Encyclopedia of Social Work, Racism

Fortune, “14 State and Local Bills Currently Being Considered that Address Police Reform and Systemic Racism”

The Guardian, “Video of White Woman Calling Police on Black Man in Central Park Draws Outrage”

Governing, “Legislative Watch: States Start Dismantling Systemic Racism”

Kaiser Family Foundation, “Poll: 7 in 10 Black Americans Say They Have Experienced Incidents of Discrimination or Police Mistreatment in Their Lifetime, Including Nearly Half Who Felt Their Lives Were in Danger”

Monmouth University, “National: Protestors’ Anger Justified Even if Actions May Not Be”

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Our Mission

NBC News, “Fort Worth Police Officer Who Fatally Shot Atatiana Jefferson Indicted on Murder Charge”

NBC News, “Poll: 64 Percent of Americans Say Racism Remains a Major Problem”

The New Social Worker, “Achieving Racial Equity Through Social Work: Undoing Racism”

New York Post, “Bank Calls Cops on Black Man Trying to Cash Check from Discrimination Lawsuit”

NPR: “‘CAHOOTS’: How Social Workers and Police Share Responsibilities in Eugene, Oregon”

NPR, “Poll: Majority Of Americans Say Racial Discrimination Is a ‘Big Problem’”

Parkland, RIGHT Care Team Responds to Mental Health Crisis Calls

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, About Us

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Our Principles

Social Work Policy Institute, “Achieving Racial Equity: Calling the Social Work Profession to Action”

USA Today, “Percentage Grows Among Americans Who Say Black People Experience a “Great Deal” of Discrimination, Survey Shows”

USA Today, “Starbucks Arrests: Restaurant Racism is as Old as the U.S.”

Vox, “The Police Shooting Death of Breonna Taylor, Explained”