Role of a Social Worker in Pursuing Racial Equality

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Eighty percent of Americans say there is at least some discrimination against Black people, according to a March 2021 Pew Research poll. A full 76% say the same about Hispanic people, and 70% say the same about Asian people. Rising racial tensions have galvanized many organizations and social workers to support legislation addressing racial inequity. As part of their work, social workers across the country help individuals experiencing racism in their local communities and continue to raise awareness and promote racial equity.

Because of the job’s crucial nature, it’s important to understand the role of a social worker in the context of this issue. 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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Racism in the United States

Merriam-Webster defines racism as “a belief that race is a fundamental determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Americans’ View on Racism

Racism in the United States has marked its history and continues to do so today. Consider these findings from a 2021 joint poll of 1,842 adults by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Among poll respondents, 60% of Black Americans reported experiencing some form of racial discrimination or mistreatment when dealing with the police, 59% reported they’ve been discriminated against in stores or shopping malls, 58% said they have been discriminated against when applying for a job, and 53% said they have been discriminated against when applying for housing or a loan.

A 2021 Gallup poll reports that 84% of Black adults said Black people face significant discrimination. The poll also stated that 72% of Hispanic adults agreed with this assessment. On the other hand, just 59% 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 members of the Black community. For example, a white woman called the police on a Black birdwatcher in New York City’s Central Park, claiming 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 the back window of her home while she was babysitting her nephew.

Even with the added attention given to police violence in the aftermath of these incidents, the issue is still one that’s immensely problematic. Black people represent 27% of those killed by police in 2021, according to the website Mapping Police Violence, even though they make up just 13% of the U.S. population.

Racism Against the Asian Community

Racism An April 2021 poll by the Pew Research Center reports that 81% of Asian Americans say violence against them is increasing. Additionally, 45% of Asian adults say they experienced a negative incident directly tied to their race or ethnicity since the pandemic began. These incidents range from experiencing racial slurs to feeling threatened and being physically attacked.

How Social Workers Promote Racial Equity

Racism is a complex social, political, and economic issue built on centuries of intentional and implicit racial oppression. The role of a social worker in this context means taking a multifaceted approach to eliminate ingrained systemic racism.

How Social Workers Can Help Eradicate Racism

One of the primary tools 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 to promote social diversity in everything they do.

How Social Workers Can Support Police

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

Several examples demonstrate the positive effects of cooperation between social workers and police officers. CAHOOTS, a crisis intervention program in Eugene, Oregon, responded to over 24,000 calls on its 911 lines in 2019. Only 150 of those calls required police backup.

Calls to 911 are routed to CAHOOTS under the following conditions: if a strong behavioral component isn’t 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 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, and Parkland behavioral health social workers. The goals of the program include redirecting mental health patients from jails and emergency rooms, stabilizing individuals at the scene of incidents, and guiding individuals to intervention services that will meet their health care needs. The program has diverted roughly 30% of 911 calls from emergency rooms or jails.

How Social Workers Impact Legislation

The role of a social worker can also mean impacting government legislation and initiatives to combat racism. Organizations such as Black Lives Matter, the AntiRacist 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 Through Legislation

One of the pieces of legislation put forth to address racism is the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. Its goals are 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.

Another piece of legislation is Breonna’s Law in Louisville, Kentucky. Its goals are to ban no-knock search warrants and require Louisville Metro Police Department officers to wear body cameras while executing any search.

House Bill 15, introduced in New Mexico, is yet another piece of legislation that deals with racism. Its goal is to require state agencies to report their policies and action plans to eliminate discrimination in hiring, promotion, and pay.

Colorado has 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.

In October 2021, the New York City Board of Health passed a resolution declaring racism to be a public health crisis. This landmark legislation seeks to increase anti-racism efforts that ensure short- and long-term racial equity as the city recovers from the coronavirus pandemic.

Organizations Fighting for Racial Equity

An important organization fighting for racial equity is The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a legal organization that engages in litigation, advocacy, and public education in pursuit of racial justice. Another prominent 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 U.K.

The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond uses its Undoing Racism® program and Community Organizing Workshops to 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 works 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.”

Additionally, the AntiRacist 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

The role of a social worker is integral to fighting racism wherever and whenever it exists. Social workers educate communities about cultural humility and awareness, advocate for racial equity, and serve vulnerable groups. Social workers, however, 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.

Recommended Readings

Cultural Humility in Social Work

Social Workers Reducing the Impact of Poverty

What Is Public Assistance? Analyzing Government Help in Times of Need


Anti-Racist Alliance

AP-NORC, “George Floyd’s Death: One Year Later”

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

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

D Magazine, “For Mental Health 911 Calls, Dallas Found Success In Social Workers”

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

Encyclopedia of Social Work, “Racism”

Gallup, “Larger Majority Says Racism Against Black People is Widespread”

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

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

Mapping Police Violence

Merriam-Webster, Racism Definition

NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, About Us

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

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

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

National Public Radio, “Poll: Majority of Americans Say Racial Discrimination Is a ‘Big Problem’”

New York City Board of Health, “Board of Health Passes Resolution Declaring Racism a Public Health Crisis”

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

Pew Research Center, “Majorities of Americans See at Least Some Discrimination Against Black, Hispanic and Asian People in the U.S.”

Pew Research Center, “One-Third of Asian American Fear Threats, Physical Attacks, and Most Say Violence Against Them is Rising”

USA Today, “Percentage Grows Among Americans 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”