15th Sept 2020
Dr Gurnam Singh, Associate Professor of Equity, Coventry University, Visiting Professor of Social Work, University of Chester and Hon Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick.
The recent public execution of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police in the US, coupled with the global COVID-19 pandemic and the disproportionate impact it is having on black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities and indigenous people across the world, has given new impetus to ongoing demands for eradicating institutional racism and a rebirthing of anti-racist movements in the UK and across the world.
For example, in Bristol, a city with deep connections with slavery and colonialism, the trashing of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston and supplanting of a statue of Jen Reid, a local Black Lives Matters activist, has reenergised the debate around decolonisation. Symbolic moments like these are important as they motivate people to act, but we need to begin to dismantle the racist dehumanising myths we harbour in our minds and everyday practices.
Though the demand for anti-racist action is not new, the present moment, where social media is so prominent in our lives, in both good and bad ways, feels very different. Time will tell if this is yet another false dawn, but for the first time, across the spectrum of public, private and third sector organisations, we appear to be seeing a dramatic shift in the attitudes of senior white (and mostly male) managers and a much greater willingness to face up to some uncomfortable truths about structural racism.
Within the wider public, conversations on how centuries old wester colonialism continue to impact communities racialised as ‘non-white’, have seen a significant amplification; and in this regard, the many debates that are taking place within social work and society at large, about entrenched institutional racism and white privilege and supremacy, are to be welcomed.
In the past, problems BAME communities have tended to be explained away through racialised tropes associated with biological, moral, cultural and social pathology. The dominant narratives have in turn painted a picture of non-white people, (black people, brown people, global majority people, or people of colour), as being inherently and genetically predisposed to morbidity, mortality, educational failure, criminality and so on.
However, and this is the good news, there is also now considerable momentum to confront such explanatory frameworks and associated mindsets by focusing on the production and reproduction of white supremacist ideologies and practices, structural racism and its entrenchment within our organizational policies and practices.
Historically, from its inception, but particularly within the context of the period of world history in the post war period, social work has become an important site of struggle and contestation between the interests of the state and the challenges faced by those groups made vulnerable by all manner of inequalities. Along with the on-going development of industrial capitalism in the West, this period was characterised by the emergence of post-colonial states, ravaged from centuries of material dispossession and poisoned by corrupt systems of patronage that were established by the white European colonialists.
This resulted in dramatic movements of migrant labour and refugee populations from former European colonies to the former so called ‘motherland’; something that continues apace today. Not only had this resulted in the reshaping of the so-called developed west, most notably in the emergence of what Vertovec (2019) terms ‘super diversity’, but it also posed new challenges, principally around human and social development, conflict and governance, for the former colonised nations.
Equally important in this period was the establishment of welfare states and principles of universal human rights that represented not only a challenge for all states but also an important thread to (re)define social work as an international profession with a common set of values focused on such things as ‘liberation of people’, ‘social justice’ and ‘human rights’ (IFSW, 2014).
Although social work within the different nations has its own unique features, nonetheless, one can see common challenges and themes emerging within the profession such as, issues of how best to protect and safeguard children and vulnerable adults, of assessing and meeting the needs of a diverse population, of making sense of human needs and functioning and the question of responding appropriately to culturally diverse practices, beliefs and norms (Singh and Cowden, 2013).
New approaches that developed in response to the needs of providing services for diverse populations ranged from politicised radical (anti-racist) and black nationalist approaches, through to active critiques of social work education and training and consensual models associated with ideas such as ‘multi-culturalism', 'ethnic sensitivity' and ‘cultural competence’ (Singh, 2014).
Alongside approaches that focused specifically on the needs of minorities, we saw also the development of more general models of practice, such as 'anti-oppressive', 'anti-discriminatory', 'post-modern', 'radical' and 'transformative social work'. These approaches in their own sought to address questions of multiple oppressions and inter-sectionality of 'race', gender, class, sexuality, disability, age and religion.
Though these approaches were supposedly designed to counteract the tendency towards promoting the idea of a ‘hierarchy’ of oppressions, one consequence was that, in many instances, racism and the particular experiences, histories and struggles of oppressed and colonised black and minority ethnic group people became lost in the desire to develop practice models beneficial to all equal opportunity target groups – including those who enjoyed considerable class, racial and / or gender advantage. Additionally, the role of BAME social workers and the sacrifices they made and the battles they fought, and won, began to disappear from the collective memory of social work, where the present generation of social work students seem quite oblivious to this important legacy; that is until very recent times and the emergence of the Black Lives Movement and the awareness gained, both through social media in particular.
In the current period which, particularly due to the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic on BAME communities and the rise of the Black Lives Movement, social work is experiencing a renewed interest in anti-racism (Singh and Masocha, 2020; Reid, 2020). The forms that a (post) COVID-19 era anti-racism may take is yet to be determined.
One real fear is that, as history has revealed, during periods of economic downturn, already vulnerable communities, namely. those defined as the ‘other’ or ‘outsiders’ tend to both the targets for displaced anger by the those from the majority looking for easy targets to blame.
We are already seeing some very worrying trends of racial scapegoating in parts of Europe and America, with the rise of authoritarian nationalist politicians. A report by the World Economic Forum (5th. June 2020) identify how alongside COVID-19 a pandemic of racism is spreading across the world, both online and on the streets.
Anti-racist perspectives have also resulted in the emergence of black and indigenous black perspectives within social work which have sought to do two critical things. They have both sought to offer a better unmediated understanding of the experiences and impact of racism on black people (Keating, 2000). Second, in critiquing white western models of social work, they have sought to offer alternative models and perspectives.
The recently published ‘Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Social Work’ (Kleibl et al. 2019) is an extremely prescient example of the ways in which the important work of anti-racism and decolonisation, which are essentially oppositionary projects, need to combined with more positive assertions of alternative models of decolonized practice. And this can only be achieved through engaging with grassroots struggles and communities in co-crating solutions. Interestingly, some of the recent work done by Featherston et al (2018) building on the work on social determinants in health and social care developed by Professor Paul Bywater’s, points in a similar direction.
Though the struggle against racism in social work are not new and there is a well-established literature now on the emergence of anti-racist and anti-oppressive social work. However, neoliberal appropriation of social work since the 1980’s has led to a beleaguered profession that appears to be strong on rhetoric but weak on addressing structural racism.
Whilst social work has made progress, this does not mean that everything is fine and in some senses one can see history repeating itself and another generation of black social workers and students being compelled to engage in struggle for their voices to be heard. On a more positive note, we now have a solid body of literature on racism and anti-racist social work and a greater black presence in the profession, so perhaps the struggle for racial justice in social work will be easier to realise.
Increasing awareness of ongoing legacies of colonialism, primarily as a consequence of social movements, and the power of social media, has drawn attention to the ongoing brutality and oppression of Black, Brown and indigenous people the world over. Racism amounts to the reduction of complexity where complex human beings are reduced to singular entities in order to the create illicit explanatory shortcuts that pave the way for domination and exploitation of differences. In the final analysis, perhaps the question is not how can social work professionals be anti-racist, but what are the consequences for those professionals and professions that are incapable of being so?
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