Removing the knees from their necks: mobilizing community practice and social action for racial justice

September 23, 2020 - Liz Schondelmayer, Karessa Weir

While the pandemic is wreaking havoc on American public health, there is another often-overlooked public health crisis that is demanding attention and immediate action: systemic racism, according to social work researchers Drs. Anna Maria Santiago and Jan Ivery. And while many social workers attempt to negate the harmful impacts of these conditions, Santiago and Ivery argue that instead they often perpetuate racism in their work. 

Dr. Anna Maria Santiago is a professor with the Michigan State University School of Social Work and Associate Dean for Research and Graduate Studies within the College of Social Science, and Dr. Jan Ivery is a professor with the Georgia State University School of Social Work.  Together, they published a recent article in the Journal of Community Practice illustrating how systemic racism is present in the United States and the role social workers and community practitioners can play in anti-racism social action. 

Examples of how systemic racism actively harms people of color in the United States

Defined as a deep-rooted, normalized racism that infiltrates every social institution in the United States, systemic racism impacts people of color in areas such as education, healthcare, criminal justice, employment, housing, and social services. 

A common example of systemic racism highlighted in Santiago and Ivery's work is police violence, which impacts people of color at a disproportionately higher rate than White people. For example, Black men are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police, and a third of unarmed victims of police violence are Black. The death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man murdered by police after being accused of using a counterfeit $20 bill to buy cigarettes, illustrates the police violence that threatens people of color

Vigilante violence targeted towards people of color is another example of systemic racism.This type of terrorism involves white people harrassing and/or attacking people of color as they carry out everyday activities. A tragically poignant example of this kind of violence was the recent murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was stalked and murdered by two white men as he was jogging

How social work and community practice can move towards anti-racism

Drs. Santiago and Ivery point out that systemic racism affects the social work profession as well, and many social workers discriminate against the people of color they serve in their communities. Much of this stems from a lack of appropriate anti-racist training in social work education - a problem the profession repeatedly recognized in response to the death of George Floyd and others.

Moving forward, Santiago and Ivery point to several ways social work and community practice can become actively anti-racist. Pointing to ineffective examples of cultural competency training, they argue that anti-racist training must directly address the history of racism and social inequality in the United States. 

Social workers and community practitioners must be critical of their organizations and the service delivery systems that perpetuate racism, and work to address them from the inside out. Santiago and Ivery note that until anti-racism is achieved within the profession, social work services will continue to reinforce the systemic racism that negatively affects the people and families of color in need of them. 

"As we navigate these unchartered waters of social change, may we remind one another that Black lives will not truly matter until we act in tangible ways to ensure that they do," wrote Drs. Santiago and Ivery in their article. 

Read the full article here