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Racism is pervasive in American society and remains a silent code that systematically closes the doors of opportunity to young and old alike. Visibly identifiable members of racial and ethnic oppressed groups continue to struggle for equal access and opportunity, particularly during times of stringent economics, strident calls for tax revolt, dwindling natural resources, inflation, widespread unemployment and underemployment, and conservative judicial opinions that are precursors to greater deprivation. Unless curbed, these conditions invariably lead to greater ethnic and racial rivalry and to greater political, social, and economic oppression.

According to the NASW Code of Ethics (1996), "Social workers. . . should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice. . . . Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class" (p. 27). It is therefore appropriate that NASW assume greater leadership in developing both internal and external policies and programs to end racism in society and in the social work profession.


The educational system in the United States systematically denies equal access and opportunity to children and adults of color, especially those who are poor. Adequate attention is not paid to the negative impact of societal forces such as racism, segregation, poverty, and urbanization on educational achievement. Nor is adequate attention paid to the impact of educational systems that discriminate against students of color and their families. The necessity for comprehensive multilingual and multicultural curricula is not sufficiently recognized in national policy or local practice. In higher education, people of color are not proportionately represented at staff, student, faculty, or administrative levels. Insufficient financial resources exacerbate these and other problems.


Racism is rampant in all areas of employment. For many members of oppressed racial and ethnic groups, there is always an economic depression. Often people of color are the last hired and the first fired. As a result, budget cuts, downsizing, and privatization may disproportionately hurt people of color. Furthermore, there is a growing shortage of manufacturing and other jobs that people of color have historically held. In February 1995 the unemployment rate for African Americans was 10.1 percent as compared to 4.7 percent for white Americans (Berry, 1995). The unemployment rate for adolescents of color is approximately four times that of white adolescents. Women and men of color continue to be underrepresented in decision-making and administrative positions. Affirmative action programs are not sufficiently enforced and supported and in some cases have produced conflict and polarity among employees. Tokenism, rather than genuine compliance with affirmative action and equal employment requirements, is too often the rule.


Many people of color have little choice as to where they live and pay higher rents for less adequate housing. Mortgage and lending institutions continue the illegal practice of redlining. As recently as 1994, an $11 million settlement regarding redlining mortgages in minority neighborhoods was agreed to in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. Studies conducted by the Federal Reserve, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Urban Institute have found persistent discrimination against African Americans and Hispanics by financial institutions, landlords, and real estate agencies (Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, 1995). Illegal discriminatory practices, such as steering, discourage visibly identifiable racial and ethnic group members from renting or buying in specific neighborhoods.

The maintenance of public housing continues to be a serious problem. In the 1980s housing programs were dramatically reduced. In the 1990s homeless shelters too often became the solution for housing millions of men, women, and children. The fact that African Americans and other oppressed groups are so disproportionately affected by homelessness further aggravates this inequality.

Health Care and Mental Health Services

The current dual health care systems of fees-for-service and public care are not meeting the needs of people of color. Most health care costs continue to increase, while for many the quality and accessibility of services decline. Furthermore, too many health care facilities, mental health services, and health care providers tend to be located in areas that are inaccessible to low-income urban neighborhoods and rural districts, where many people of color reside. Many cannot obtain private health or mental health care because they have neither the money nor the access to medical insurance coverage.

With the decline of free public hospitals and of public or low-cost mental health care, people of color often go without care. Public services, such as sanitation, are more likely to be neglected in low-income areas, thus creating additional health hazards. Inadequate housing and poor nutrition make chronic illness and early death common problems. For example, in the United States life expectancy for people of color is significantly less than it is for white people (Dunkel & Norgard, 1995).

Public Welfare

Public welfare is a fragmented, chaotic, and irrational system. It is an expression of the unwillingness and inability of the major beneficiaries of our "free market" economic system to accept responsibility for providing jobs to all who can work and for providing a level of income that is adequate to maintain a decent standard of life. The welfare system has been used to keep wages low and to maintain a pool of people available to work at menial, unskilled jobs. Furthermore, many unskilled jobs available in the past have disappeared. Public welfare services usually do not include coplanning for services, job training, educational, child care, family planning, or unemployment insurance services that would empower the individual to benefit from the economic system. Disregard for personal rights and human dignity, inconsistent policies, and violation of regulations have often characterized the administration and delivery of public assistance and keep visibly identifiable people of color who apply for assistance at a disadvantage.

Social Services

Social services tend to direct people of diverse racial and cultural backgrounds into a system that is designed for European Americans and serviced by workers from European American groups. Often the result is nonuse or underutilization of available services by people who confront racial, cultural, and linguistic barriers. Although desperately needed, social services often mask symptoms of larger problems, such as racism, unemployment, illiteracy, and poverty. Social workers further empower the established system when their clients are not fully informed or encouraged to use entitlements.

The need for social services often is created by economic policies and practices. Too often society "blames the victim" and focuses on adjusting the individual to existing societal conditions, disregarding the need for environmental and institutional change and responsiveness.

Political Activity

People of color are grossly underrepresented in federal and local elective and appointive positions. Thus, legislation affecting all people is produced by nonrepresentative legislative bodies. A 1991 study by Mary Sawyer found an apparent pattern of harassment against African American elected officials in the United States using tactics of Internal Revenue Service audits, surveillance, phone taps, recall movements, and so forth (Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, 1995).


Racism is the ideology or practice through demonstrated power of perceiving the superiority of one group over others by reason of race, color, ethnicity, or cultural heritage. In the United States and elsewhere, racism is manifested at the individual, group, and institutional levels. It has been institutionalized and maintained through educational, economic, political, religious, social, and cultural policies and activities. It is observable in the prejudiced attitudes, values, myths, beliefs, and practices expressed by many people, including those in positions of power. Racism is functional—that is, it serves a purpose. In U.S. society, racism functions to maintain structural inequities that are to the disadvantage of people of color.

Organized discrimination against members of visibly identifiable racial and ethnic groups has permeated every aspect of their lives, including education, employment, contacts with the legal system, economics, housing, politics, religion, and social relationships. It has become institutionalized through folklore, legal restrictions, values, myths, and social mores that are openly supported by a substantial number of people, including those who maintain control of the major institutions of American society.

The history of racism in this country began with the genocide of American Indians and includes the atrocities of slavery, colonialism, and the internment of Japanese Americans. Historically, racism has been used to justify the conquering of people of color—American Indians, African Americans, Native Alaskans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, and Native Hawaiians—to obtain land, forced or cheap labor, and strategic military outposts. These conquered population groups became involuntary U.S. citizens. As other people of color immigrated to the United States as legal or undocumented immigrants, especially those entering the United States after the immigration laws of the mid-1960s, they too often faced many of the same stereotypes, myths, and prejudices that the conquered populations had faced. Among the other immigrants encountering racism are Pacific Islanders and other Asians, Dominicans, Cubans and other Latinos, and West Indians and other people of African heritage. The effects of racism are seen in poor health and health services, inadequate mental health services, low wages, high unemployment and underemployment, overrepresentation in prior populations, substandard housing, high school dropout rates, decreased access to higher education opportunities, and other institutional maladies.

Racism negatively impacts both the oppressed and the oppressor. Institutional racism has historical roots in injustices perpetrated by our ancestors on indigenous and other populations in conquering and populating this country. Recognition of historical injustices is the beginning step in combating racism. One has to acknowledge the fact that the sons and daughters are not responsible for the sins of their parents, but the sons and daughters must analyze the present reality to ascertain if as a result of the historical injustices perpetrated by our parents results in one group in society being in a more advantageous and favorable position over and at the expense of others. It is incumbent in solidarity with those groups who are subordinate to join forces together with the profession of social work to bring about a more just and equitable society in which power, status, wealth, services, and opportunities are enjoyed by all. Even those who are not consciously racist tend to accept white privilege and the benefits of discrimination against others. Racism limits and minimizes the contributions many citizens can make to U.S. society.

Social workers often hold jobs where they confront the damaging effects of racism: greater poverty, higher mortality rates, inadequate housing, higher unemployment and underemployment, more prevalent illiteracy and limited educational opportunities, greater inaccessibility to health care services, higher incidence of mental illness, disproportionate involvement in the criminal justice system, and disproportionate involvement in unpopular public welfare programs. As professional administrators, educators, organizers, planners, case managers, supervisors, consultants, caseworkers, and other practitioners, social workers have firsthand knowledge of the difficulties that many racial and ethnic group members encounter in their efforts to combat white privilege, gain access to resources, and obtain a professional education. Most social workers also witness the scarcity of racially and ethnically diverse professionals available to act as role models and to provide services to diverse client populations. Furthermore, employment opportunities in the upper echelons of the social work delivery systems have historically been elusive for African American, Latino, American Indian, Pacific Islander, and Asian social workers.


NASW supports an inclusive society in which racial, ethnic, social, sexual orientation, and gender differences are valued and respected. Racism at any level should not be tolerated. Emphasis must be placed on self-examination, learning, and change to unlearn racist beliefs and practices in order to be fully competent to join others in the full appreciation of all differences.

The association seeks the enactment of public social policies that will protect the rights of and ensure equity and social justice for all members of diverse racial and ethnic groups. It is the ethical responsibility of NASW members to assess their own practices and the agencies in which they work for specific ways to end racism where it exists. The basic goal should be to involve social workers in specific, time-limited educational and action programs designed to bring about measurable changes within provider agencies and within NASW national units, chapters, and local units. This is based on the premise that to engage in constructive intraprofessional relationships and to effectively serve clients, social workers must engage in self-examination of their own biases and stereotypes and work to develop an unbiased attitude. Racism is embedded in our society and unless we identify specific instances and work to remove them we are part of the problem rather than a mechanism for the solution.


NASW advocates the following:

  • adoption of a national policy calling for the development and implementation of comprehensive multilingual and multicultural curricula—such curricula must call attention to white privilege, the pain of oppression, the legacy of racism, and the contributions of racially oppressed groups
  • implementation of programs and policies designed to produce high-quality education through a range of effective approaches
  • the addressing and seeking of censure against educators and educational systems that practice discrimination against students, faculty, and staff of color and their families
  • creation of educational systems in which faculties, staff, students, administrators, and boards of education reflect the diversity of neighborhoods and the larger society
  • the upholding of the highest standard to assure that fair and adequate funding and treatment is the goal of all educational systems.

NASW advocates the following:

  • implementation of a national policy of full employment
  • development of comprehensive job training programs
  • maintenance and strengthening of affirmative action plans so that they have the necessary authority and resources to be implemented successfully as demonstrated by measurable outcomes
  • an adequate minimum wage that reflects the realities of the economy
  • effective, affordable, comprehensive, multicultural, multilingual, and accessible child care
  • establishment of workforce policies that minimize the negative impact on employees and communities of color.
Housing and Community

NASW advocates the following:

  • enactment and practice of an open housing policy designed to eliminate externally imposed segregation in housing as the result of concentrated public housing, redlining, renovation, and conversion of apartment houses to condominiums
  • establishment of government and support programs that promote revitalization in communities of people of color.
Health Care and Mental Health Services

NASW advocates the following:

  • health and mental health practitioners learn and use culturally relevant healing practices when appropriate
  • self-study of health and mental health providers to identify oppressive policies, practices, and strategies and target dates for change
  • availability and accessibility of health care facilities, mental health services, and private practitioners in all neighborhoods
  • recruitment and training of people of color as health and mental health providers, particularly social workers.
Public Welfare Services

NASW advocates the following:

  • positive regard and respect for each individualÕs personal rights and human dignity
  • elimination of violations of regulations and inconsistent policies in public welfare that place people of color at a disadvantage
  • the use of racial and cultural sensitivity in the development and delivery of public welfare services
  • elimination of broader problems such as unemployment, illiteracy, and poverty that create the need for social services.
Social Services

NASW advocates the following:

  • development of social services that target needs articulated by the community to be served
  • development of model social programs that emphasize empowerment of the community and stress economic independence
  • continuously addressing the underrepre-sentation of people of color in the social services professions and policy-making boards of social services agencies.
Criminal Justice System

NASW advocates the following:

  • fair and equitable treatment of racial and ethnic minorities involved in the criminal justice system
  • the monitoring and promoting of criminal justice policies, statutes, and laws that do not discriminate against individuals based on race, ethnicity, class, political affiliation, or place of residence
  • strive to end racism and discrimination in recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion in employment of racial and ethnic minorities in all levels of the criminal justice system; increase the availability and accessibility of professionally trained interpreters in instances where language differences may inhibit communication.
Political Activity

NASW advocates the following:

  • passage of legislation that serves to acknowledge, maintain, or enhance the sovereign rights of indigenous populations
  • election and appointment of legislators from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds
  • growth of public interest groups that are racially and ethnically diverse
  • passage of legislation that will have a favorable impact on people of color
  • massive voter registration and education
  • unseating legislators who sponsor or support bills that are racist in intent or implementation
  • provision of diversity training for public officials.

NASW advocates the following:

  • full representation of groups oppressed because of race, color, or ethnicity at all levels of leadership and employment—policy formulation, administration, supervision, and direct services—in social work and in NASW
  • implementation of the concepts of affirmative action in all facets of the profession at both the voluntary and paid levels of service, especially in practice, education, and professional development
  • development of guidelines for multicultural social work curricula that emphasize social work as a profession that strives to empower those with less power because of racial or ethnic identification.

Berry, M. F. (1995, May). Affirmative action: Political opportunists exploit racial fears. Emerge, 4, 29-39.

Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. (1995). The mean season for African Americans. Washington, DC: Author.

Dunkel, R. E., & Norgard, T. (1995). Aging overview. In R. L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief), Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 142-153). Washington, DC: NASW Press.

National Association of Social Workers. (1996). NASW code of ethics. Washington, DC: Author.


Banton, M. (1988). Racial consciousness. London: Longman.

Gray, W. (1996, May). Speech for the 100th anniversary of Plessy vs Ferguson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, W.E.B. Du Bois Institute. (C-Span, August 13, 1996)

Hacker, A. (1992). Two nations, black and white, separate, hostile, and unequal. New York: Ballantine Books.

Kivel, P. (1996). Uprooting racism: How white people can work for racial justice. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers.

Swoboda, F. (1995, March 16). Glass ceiling firmly in place: Panel finds minorities, women are rare in management. Washington Post, pp. A1, A18.

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