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Racial and Social Justice Social Work

Written by Jack Levinson

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Since its foundation, the social work profession has been intended to support and uplift our country’s most marginalized communities. However, as recent years have brought new discourse surrounding race, gender, sexual orientation, and other identities to the fore, professionals in all industries have been awakened to the inequalities that still exist in the United States and the hard work that must be done to rectify these injustices.

Social workers today are uniquely motivated to address issues of discrimination and inequity within the inner workings of their own profession.

After all, social workers typically join the field out of a desire to contribute to positive societal change. By reflecting on and reforming lingering biases within their own profession, they are ensuring that their organizations provide the deepest, richest support possible and avoid the potential harm that prejudiced care methods can cause.

In fact, many social workers today enter the field specifically with the goal of fighting racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other discriminatory phenomena. Practically every type of social work can benefit from a thorough assessment and reform to create more equitable services and models of care.

The Origins of American Social Work

Since its foundation, social work’s impact on marginalized communities has been deeply intertwined with its commitment to social justice and advocacy. This is partly because many of the inequalities seen in the United States overlap with racial and gendered identities, even where issues like race, gender, and sexual orientation may not be foregrounded. Indeed, social workers may have been among the first professionals to see firsthand the systemized oppression of certain demographics, leading them to identify patterns of bias that have upheld economic and political inequality in America throughout its existence.

This is to say that the social work profession has always been invested in fighting identity-based hatred and bias. However, as time has gone on, methods and values have changed, raising awareness about how these factors continue to impact disadvantaged communities. This has led to renewed efforts to reassess, rethink, and revitalize social services to eradicate these societal ills once and for all.

Approaches to Diversity and Social Justice in Social Work Today

There are different ways social workers today are investing in issues of identity-based inequality. Some organizations are overtly, explicitly focused on these causes. These can include advocacy programs, counseling services, empowerment initiatives, and more. For example, there are many LGBT social work programs that focus specifically on the needs of queer individuals who have often gone neglected by existing services. Indeed, many of these focused social work organizations were born out of a need for targeted efforts to aid marginalized communities on their own terms.

Other social workers address issues of diversity and cultural competence while working in fields that are not in and of themselves designed around reducing bias. What has shifted is that these social workers increasingly recognize that their fields may nevertheless be impacted by these dynamics, and that it is incumbent upon them to investigate their own practices to be sure they are upholding standards of equity and eliminating practices that may show inherent bias.

Social workers today recognize that their own work is implicated in patterns of inequality, and that they must take it upon themselves to address and rectify these issues.

There are, of course, many instances in which social work organizations that aim to help broad populations come to realize that their work will involve identity-based advocacy. Take, for example, the field of healthcare. Certain racial communities have experienced a tragic and damning neglect by the medical establishment over the course of American history, leading in turn to the rise of chronic health conditions. Some healthcare social workers may focus on a particular condition in abstract, unaware that there is an identity-based component of their cause of choice. However, such social workers may quickly come to realize that a single demographic is particularly affected by this condition, meaning their work – whether they had realized it or not – centrally involves confronting and rectifying these racialized patterns of injustice. 

This illustrates how many social justice issues in social work become clearer when observed as phenomena rather than on a case-by-case basis. It also goes to show that no professional in any social work field should feel that their cause is disconnected from dynamics of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of identity-based prejudice.

How Master of Social Work Programs are Addressing Social Justice in Social Work

Over the past decade, issues of prejudice have taken center stage in national discussion, exposing long-standing injustices that affect every industry. Within the social work field, educators have taken it upon themselves to redress these imbalances by focusing significant portions of their curriculum on these issues and conveying to students how bias can undermine their efforts to do good. This is reason to have hope, as it amounts to a significant step toward more equitable care for those who need it most.

While in your master’s program, you are likely to learn about many important examples of social justice in social work. This can include approaches to racially sensitive issues in social work, the history of the role of social work in the LGBT community, discussions of improving access to social services for people with disabilities, and more. It can also include a more general discussion of key questions, such as why is social justice important in social work? and what is economic justice in social work?

Receiving this education will create a new generation of social workers who are in a better position to revise our existing social services to better account for diversity and root out deep-seated patterns of discrimination. This is a good reason for all of us to feel optimistic about creating a better, fairer United States for us all.

What is Intersectionality?

If you have been following discussions of social justice reform, it’s likely that you’ve heard the word “intersectionality” mentioned as a benchmark of proper care. But what does this word mean?

Intersectionality is a term first coined by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a legal scholar and civil rights advocate who co-founded the African American Policy Forum (AAPF). In her work, she laid out the basis for intersectional theory, a framework to understand how overlapping social identities (such as race and gender) inform an individual’s experience of oppression. Thinking “intersectionally” can, for example, help one understand why white women and Black women may share certain political interests and lived experiences as women but also why their racial backgrounds might determine their experiences in incredibly different ways.

Taking an intersectional approach to social work has become the goal of all professionals in the field. After all, as a social worker, you will be dealing with clients who arrive with complex personal histories and cultural frames that define their experiences. By understanding as much as you can about these experiences, you will be better able to meet each person you work with with nuance, sensitivity, and a more grounded understanding of their needs. You may not have previously known the term “intersectionality,” but now that you do, let it be the standard that guides your efforts in the social work field.

Examples of Social Justice in Social Work

There are many different social justice causes that social workers can take up in their practices, as well as many organizations that specifically spotlight particular social justice issues in social work.

Racially-Focused Social Work

Whether you are working in a community that belongs primarily to one racial demographic or working in a diversely multiracial community, your work will benefit from a serious consideration of race. Indeed, you are likely to learn about the many racial issues in the social work profession while in your MSW program.

If you are motivated to focus on this cause, there are all sorts of social work organizations that foreground a discussion of race. Some of these organizations isolate the experiences of particular racial demographics to offer focused attention and support. Others are focused on the broader goal of racial unity. Both approaches can be engines of major change and meaningful forces of good for those in impacted communities.

LGBT Social Work

LGBT issues are another important example of how seemingly “neutral” causes, such as homelessness, can actually overlap with dynamics of prejudice and exclusion. Homelessness social workers have long identified LGBT individuals as being at greater risk for displacement, oftentimes because they have fled persecution in their own homes. (This has led to a subfield of social work for LGBT youth.) Because of this, the role of social work in the LGBT community has become a critical lifeline, creating a space of acceptance and empowerment for those who need it.

Social workers working with the LGBT community are trained in queer-affirming methodologies and practices that are sensitive to the needs of LGBT individuals even when dealing with issues that are not overtly related to sexual orientation. This is born out of the understanding that previous methodologies have left LGBT individuals feeling unseen or even unsafe in advocating for their needs honestly. Incorporating LGBT perspectives into a larger social work framework can therefore have a particularly far-reaching impact.

Gender Advocacy

Similarly to issues of race and sexual orientation, the cause of gender equality has become increasingly foregrounded for social workers, who are contending with ways that the social work profession has failed to adequately meet the needs of women as well as trans and nonbinary people. Consequently, there are increasingly innovative methodologies aimed at reworking social work procedures to better meet these demographics’ needs, as well as advocacy organizations that are chiefly focused on this cause.

Some social work organizations are devoted to causes specifically related to women’s needs, such as reproductive health and education. Many other causes frequently involve dynamics related to gender, such as domestic violence. Understanding how gender informs these issues is an important part of providing truly impactful care.

Disability Social Work

Issues of accessibility affect every industry, and social work is no different. More than ever, social workers today are reviewing existing programs to understand how they meet the needs of individuals with disabilities – and, just as importantly, how the present systems fail to meet those needs.

This is a critically important new arena of social work aimed at doing better for some of our society’s very most vulnerable individuals. Having a disability, after all, can impact everything in a person’s life, from their ability to find work and housing to their social-emotional needs and of course, their health care. Social workers who focus on disability can therefore make a tremendous difference in improving the experience of people whose needs are frequently not met by our current systems.

Juvenile Justice Social Worker

Another demographic that is less frequently thought about in conjunction with issues of inequality is young people. However, social workers involved in criminal justice reform have long been advocates for minors in the criminal justice system, monitoring their experiences in detention centers and examining the factors that led to their criminal activity – as well as the circumstances they will face when they are released.

Justice and corrections social work for juveniles can be one of the only sources of light for youths who have engaged in criminal activity. Faced with punitive measures, these children and teens are frequently maligned and neglected, seen as “lost causes” by society at large. Social workers understand that many of these young people have experienced incredible hardship as well, and that compassion and grace is needed to truly help them reform and build better lives for themselves. Those who believe that everyone deserves a shot at redemption may find their calling in this honorable profession.

teamwork of multiracial coworkers

Creating A Better Future for the Social Work Profession

The social work profession’s increasing emphasis on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion are creating profound changes in the lives of marginalized individuals, families, and communities as a whole.

Social workers just entering the field now are in a wonderful position to advance the causes of antiracism, LGBT inclusion, gender equity, and more, as these dynamics will be baked into their understanding of the profession as a whole.

This is great news for individuals in need as well as the country as a whole. After all, inequality is all of our problem. Creating more inclusive methods of support in the social work arena will have a ripple effect, empowering disadvantaged demographics and rectifying the injustice on which the United States was built.


Will I study social justice issues in social work while in my MSW program?

Almost certainly yes. The social work profession has always been engaged with issues of discrimination and bias, but the past decade has seen a significant spike in discussion of these topics, with many graduate programs adjusting their coursework to better address these causes and how they are related to different branches of social work.

Can a particular demographic become my specialization as a social worker?

Possibly. Social work specializations tend to relate to the specific role you will play and environment you will work in as a social worker. These include subfields such as elder care, domestic violence, homelessness, and more. Within these fields, however, you can aim to work for organizations that specifically assist a particular community, focusing your efforts in that way. There are also certain arenas of social work, such as LGBT social work, in which specific issues overlap with the needs of a clearly defined community. In this case, your specialization and the demographic helped may be one and the same.

Why is social justice important in social work?

In short, social justice is important in social work because it ensures that all people in need receive equal assistance and support. In this moment in history, we recognize that meeting this goal cannot be achieved without serious effort, and therefore requires the commitment of all practicing social workers to learning about these issues in depth so that they are able to provide truly conscientious care.