Faux Diversity-Mindedness and Social Work Racism in Practice


In a separate post, I discuss a conversation in which a white female social work PhD student appeared to have absorbed racist assumptions about black males, and seemed to be basing her speech and actions on those assumptions. This post develops a related line of thought.

Some may find it ironic that I would be criticizing someone else for racism, when my own writings (in that post, among others) are not always politically correct. Yet political incorrectness does not necessitate racism; in fact, the situation may be just the opposite. As discussed elsewhere, an insistence upon arbitrarily favored terminology can facilitate suppression of discordant views. That is, if people are only allowed to speak when they say the “right” thing in the “right” way, speech can become more a game of “I said it better than you” and less an honest pursuit of views and learning from other presentations.

One would certainly expect that experts in a mental health profession would be adept at fostering dialogue among persons who disagree. Moreover, if the massacres of Bosnia and Rwanda have taught us anything, hopefully they have taught us that there are serious dangers in glossing over deep-seated ethnic and racial resentments. Somehow, we have to find ways to say what we are really thinking, to feel safe in exploring various viewpoints and beliefs, and to learn from others who do likewise. Attempts to prevent those processes may be inherently racist, to the extent that they either claim the right to silence others or assume that the other guy lacks our own ability to be intelligent and reasonable.

Regrettably, in contrast to genuine social work, social work education in the U.S. often functions as an impediment to serious dialogue in such matters. Social work training typically provides little to no engagement with heterodox perspectives. To the contrary, students are schooled in ridiculing and shunning people who do not share their viewpoints. I encountered products of this training among my predominantly suburban white professors at Indiana University’s School of Social Work, a number of whom engaged in blatant discrimination against me. They seemed to have little personal life experience in inner-city or rural settings, and scant appreciation for the lifestyles and values of people outside the middle class. I did not expect such behavior at the time; but in retrospect, it was consistent with the profession’s historical propensity to reject novel persons and ideas and to cling to traditional perspectives — toward blacks, toward gays, toward people with disabilities, even toward women — until it becomes safe to adopt a reformer’s pose.

Thus we observe some outcomes from the debate about socialist vs. neoliberal concepts of the purpose of the social work profession: does it exist to serve the public altruistically, or is it rather a predominantly selfish and individualistic attempt to serve others in ways that one finds personally gratifying? Unfortunately, the historical dominance of the neoliberal tendency tends to position social workers against the people whom they originally imagined they would be helping: it casts them as the establishment’s face to the downtrodden, rather than as the latter’s advocates vis-à-vis the former. The occasional faculty reference to socialist ideals amounts to window dressing: it makes the profession look concerned, but does not significantly affect its predominantly self-centered underlying philosophy.

It frankly appears that the profession is set up to co-opt rather than empower reformers. If you are a fat cat who deliberately seeks to channel and institutionalize the potentially radical energies of frustrated young people, so as to render them ineffectual, you really can’t go wrong with an investment in today’s schools of social work, where social reform is devolved and privatized into substandard individual mental health training (see e.g., Thyer, 2007, p. 28) resulting in a substantial risk of practitioner unemployment and/or burnout. This is not necessarily the intent of social work professors; it is just the outcome of a narrowly neoliberal perspective.

At the outset, I noted that it was possible for a person to be claiming an open mind and an accepting attitude toward racial diversity, and yet in fact to be advancing a viewpoint with racist implications. The foregoing remarks suggest that this should not be surprising. To the extent that social workers are personally committed to neoliberal rather than socialist ideals, one must expect them to do the selfish thing in most cases, especially when selfish behavior has significant personal advantages. They may say all the right things, and yet in practice may evince a selfish (e.g., racist) orientation.

Distribution of Minority Social Workers

A test of these thoughts arises from a companion post. That post explored the question of how many social workers there are. The answer is, there are a bunch — but that’s not the point of interest here. In the process of exploring the number of social workers, I encountered some interesting information about minorities in social work.

That other post presented U.S. Census Bureau data for a number of years. Those data were based on self-reported occupation. That is, if someone characterized him/herself as a social worker, or provided an ambiguous job description that the census workers construed as being closer to social work than anything else, then apparently that person was recorded as a social worker, regardless of whether s/he had a social work degree or license.

As described in that other post, there has been a general trend toward increasingly restrictive title protection laws. These laws reduce the numbers of people who can claim professional status. Sometimes such laws serve the public interest. For example, if you claim to be a physician but do not have a physician’s license, you are apt to go to jail. As noted by critics (e.g., Humphris, 2010; Summers, 2007), however, these laws also have costs. For example, there may be a paralegal who can do the job as well as a lawyer, perhaps even with better customer service and probably at a much lower price; but without a license, the paralegal risks imprisonment if s/he engages in the practice of law. Licensing tends to reduce competition and keep costs high, thus potentially doing more harm than good.

If social work were trying to make sure that lower-income people were getting mental and social services at affordable prices, then social work faculty and practitioners would be striving to reduce ineffective and counterproductive licensing barriers. In addition, rather than burden MSW students with redundancy and busywork, professors would be looking for ways to impart superior learning more quickly and affordably, so as to maximize the number of skilled practitioners available. Instead of the same familiar finding that “[t]here is, as yet, little evidence of changes in behaviour as a result of social work education” (Carpenter, 2011, p. 137), we would see efforts to substitute a mix of experience and coursework for the MSW, and proposals to offer apprenticeship as a practical alternative means of social work training. Such initiatives in academia would be accompanied by reform movements in state licensing, perhaps involving collection and scrutiny of data to verify the quality of services rendered by licensed practitioners as well as experimental alternative licensing routes to encourage initiatives that might produce superior social workers at reduced expense.

Those things are not happening. Much to the contrary, social work continues to emulate law and other self-promoting professions. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has been particularly active in promoting social work licensure. For example, in California, North Carolina, and elsewhere, NASW has supported legislation requiring anyone using the title “social worker” to possess a social work degree, without evidence that that degree is necessary or even relevant to the work being done. Similar concerns arise from analysis of ASWB licensure requirements. (As a matter of mutual backscratching, NASW’s licensure promotion pays off in salaries and profits at ASWB, which will rake in even more money as more states require more social work licensing exams; and NASW benefits, in turn, as the profession becomes more predominantly composed of licensed practitioners, who appear disproportionately likely to become NASW members.)

Hooper (2014), a practitioner in Boston, argues that licensure requirements can impose burdens unrelated to actual competence; she suggests that what really improves quality of service is accreditation of agencies. It seems absurd to claim special status for a social work degree when it remains impossible even to define the specific work being done by the social work profession. This is not similar to a title claim in nursing or engineering, where the profession’s focus is fairly specific. It is more like a claim that nobody should be able to call him/herself a businessperson without a degree in business.

Racism in Social Work Profession Priorities

The NASW push for social work title protection has had interesting effects. Let us begin with the year 2004. In that year, according to the Census Bureau data reported in the other post, there were 687,000 self-reported social workers, of whom 20% were black and 11% were Hispanic. (Other minorities had only a negligible presence in the profession.) Those numbers imply that, in 2004, there were about 213,000 (black and Hispanic) minority, and about 474,000 white non-Hispanic, persons in the U.S. who considered themselves to be social workers. These percentages had been flat for some time: in the Census data, those minorities constituted between 29% and 35% of social workers throughout (and probably beyond) the 1999-2010 period. (Year-to-year fluctuations appeared to depend more upon adjustments in Census Bureau methodology than upon actual changes in the makeup of the social work profession.)

So in 2004, approximately 31% of the people in America who called themselves social workers were members of a racial and/or ethnic minority. But now look at the racial and ethnic makeup of licensed social workers in 2004. According to NASW (2004, p. 3), there were 310,000 licensed social workers; and of these, 86% were white. Taken together, these sources suggest that, in 2004,

There were 687,000 social workers, of whom
. 310,000 were licensed social workers, of whom
. . 267,000 (86%) were white and
. . 43,000 (14%) were nonwhite; and
. 377,000 were unlicensed self-described social workers, of whom
. . 207,000 (55%) (i.e., 474K – 267K) were white and
. . 170,000 (45%) were nonwhite.

In other words, if you divide the profession into licensed and unlicensed groups, you see that the licensure push favors the overwhelmingly white licensed social workers who constitute the bulk of NASW’s membership. The push for social work licensure disproportionately impacts minority practitioners.

It is not surprising that minorities were concentrated in the less-educated strata. So those findings in 2004 raised an obvious question: what was the profession going to do, to insure that its title protection efforts did not promote a form of cultural imperialism in which white, college-educated social workers would increasingly be the people providing services to colored, non-college-educated clients? Because, aside from the probability of reduced rapport, that kind of cultural mismatch is very likely to lead to Margolin’s (1997, p. 95) concern:

The underlying assumption is that all clients, whether they acknowledge it or not, want to live in harmony with the dominant culture. [It is assumed that] [c]lients’ and social workers’ interests are fundamentally the same. Accordingly, there [seems to be] no contradiction between safeguarding the client’s autonomy and the imperative that “the social worker must unequivocally represent the demands of the dominant culture and strive to help the family live up to them” . . . . To withdraw from resisting clients — to take their rejections literally — [is thus construed as] denying them a fair opportunity to realize their potential. . . . To resist is to announce one’s need for a visit.

Here’s what the profession did, in response to that glaring racial/ethnic mismatch. In the words of NASW (2011, p. 1),

The discrepancy between the composition of the social work labor force and the demographic profile of many client groups, led the profession to identify and emphasize the need for social workers to develop competence in culturally and ethnic competence practice [sic]. In addition to promoting cultural competency practice, the federal government is supporting the health and mental health workforce to increase diversity where there is a short supply. For instance, African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are significantly underrepresented in the health and mental health workforce [citations omitted].

In other words, the federal government sought to increase racial and ethnic diversity across the health and mental health workforce. Fine, but what about the leaders of the social work profession in particular: what did they do to increase diversity in their own ranks? Well, the quote is clear enough: they emphasized the need for their overwhelmingly white practitioners to become more skilled in working with nonwhite people.

That sounds like a poverty pimp’s embrace of the cultural imperialism that Margolin described. Note, again, that there has been no apparent decision, since 2004, that something was going to have to change in social work education and/or licensure, so as to increase participation by competent minority practitioners. There has been no significant development of alternate routes to licensure, no creation of a mechanism to recognize ability and value in underserved neighborhoods, no dedication to effective large-scale educational outreach. According to NASW’s Center for Workforce Studies and Social Work Practice (2011, p. 2), the profession (as NASW construes it) remained 86% white in 2009. From a minority perspective, social work credentialing remained, and looked likely to continue to remain, a matter of joining the white people and becoming more like them.

That is what happens when leaders of today’s social work profession have some skin in the game. It has nothing to do with their politically correct speech, their expressions of concern, their employment in a putatively helping profession, or the photos that show them standing next to black people. When it comes down to the future shape of the universities and other organizations that employ them, they behave just like leaders in the legal profession and other well-heeled elites: they protect their way, their privileges, and their own kind. Regardless of the feelings or fantasies they may entertain, their actual commitment seems to be neoliberal and self-serving in its philosophy and racially discriminatory in its effects.


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